Why I Love Camp Ramah – Mattot/Mas’ei 5776

I love summer camp. And in particular, I love Camp Ramah, with which I have a relationship extending now back 36 years, to my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (In case you do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement; there are 13 North American camps plus affiliated programs in Israel, Ukraine, and Argentina.)

We arrived at Camp Ramah in Canada pretty late at night – it was 11:00 by the time we found our way to the guest cottage, which was far nicer than any such accommodations that I have seen at any of the other Ramah camps (I’ve now been to five of them, including the day camp in Jerusalem, where I worked in the summer of 2000 as a music specialist). The night air was cool – it was 63 degrees – and the stars were bright and vivid.

This camp really feels like the end of the world. Having never been so far north in Ontario before, I could not help feeling as we drove there that we kept taking turns onto smaller and smaller roads, finally ending up on a dirt pathway as we entered the camp property. The camp’s official address is on “Fish Hatchery Road,” which sounds far more organized than the rural environment reveals. (Curiously, my alma mater, Camp Ramah in New England, is also down the road from a fish hatchery. Coincidence?)

Nonetheless, the camp was alive and pulsing with energy when we pulled in – the staff was having a late-night barbecue, and we were promptly offered hot dogs, which we politely declined.

And, it wouldn’t be camp without some mayhem, so as we were getting into bed, all the smoke detectors in the guest cottages went off, dragging everybody out of bed and frightening my 7-year-old son greatly. But it was an opportunity to meet our neighbors and chat for a bit, so it wasn’t too bad. And that’s sometimes how camp works: you plan as thoroughly as you can, and then something sends your fabulous program gloriously off-course. But you adjust and go with the flow, and everything mostly works out fine in the end.

So we spent three and a half days there, playing soccer and frisbee, dunking in the agam (lake) and davening, dining in the hadar okhel (dining hall), lying around in the sun, welcoming and saying goodbye to Shabbat with all of the nearly 600 campers and staff together in raucous song.

What I love about camp are the following things:

  1. Being away from the craziness of everyday life, and replacing that with a totally different kind of more-rustic craziness.
  2. Kids enjoying themselves away from digital devices, which, if not the scourge of humanity, are at least a plague on those parenting teenagers.
  3. Timelessness. Camp does not change that much, and there is something beautiful in that.
  4. The sounds of camp: the breeze at night; the powerful sound of singing and pounding on the tables in the hadar okhel, the dining hall; the sound of Jewish kids playing basketball and dancing Israeli folk dances and preparing a musical in Hebrew and just hanging around on the migrash (field).
  5. The Jewish framework. OK, so camp teaches a few things about Judaism fairly well, and a few things not so well. But the most essential thing that camp teaches very well is the rhythm of the Jewish week, the implicit foundation on which all other camp structures are built: six days of work, and the seventh day of rest. Tefillah / prayer three times a day. Expressing gratitude before and particularly after eating. Jewish text here and there, as a part of the environment.

But the thing that I love about camp the most is that it is the most successful Jewish educational endeavor that we have ever crafted, mostly because it teaches Jewish kids about Judaism in an informal way, that does not let on that it’s education. The Hebrew language is integrated into all facets of camp, from announcements at meals to learning to play volleyball. Yes, there is formal Judaic learning in daily shi’urim (lessons), but Jewish life saturates every aspect of camp. Love of Israel is reinforced in many ways, from the presence of a delegation of Israeli staff to Israeli pop music played over the PA system in the hadar okhel. Torah and Jewish text are infused into many activities.

It is the informality that makes camp work. Jewish life simply happens in the context of summer activities. Camp is not like Hebrew school, wherein kids get 5 or 6 hours a week of Jewish instruction. It’s actually even more powerful than day school, because it’s a kind of immersion. There is no quick dip into Judaism before returning to regular, not explicitly Jewish activities. Camp is 24/7 Judaism. It never stops.

And the secret to continuity in Jewish life is that ongoing connection. Today’s world is very fragmented: all of our activities are siloed. Work is separated from family time which is separate from school which is separate from entertainment and on and on. It can be very isolating to live in that environment. Judaism, for the vast majority of Jews, is what you do on a Saturday morning, or on Yom Kippur, or when there’s a family bar mitzvah. But our ancestors did not live that way. The rabbis of the Talmud see Torah as a part of all facets of our lives, from business to romantic relationships to recreation to family. And camp endeavors to create that environment in a way that our lives at home may not.

Does it always succeed? No. But the impact of camp can be quite strong, nevertheless.

One of the items appearing in Parashat Mas’ei is the list of places which the Israelites passed through on the way from slavery to freedom. It is a catalog of place names with no detail given as to what each place was like or if anything happened there during their visit. However, a midrash (from Tanhuma) understood this passage as being an important historical record for our ancestors to recall what happened at each stage of the journey through the desert: here is where we slept; here we caught a cold; here you told me that your head hurt. (You know the Israelites… always complaining!)

And, as you know, we have continued to journey as a people. We continue to grow and change as human civilization moves forward. My Jewish world is quite different from that of my great-grandparents. Even so, camp is a model that continues to work, and only at the Ramah camps do our children learn about the open, egalitarian, and yet traditional form of Judaism to which we are committed.

Here is where a young woman donned a tallit for the first time. Here is where we made connections with young Israelis who represent the Jewish state while teaching Hebrew and volleyball. Here is where a boy learned how to chant the Torah from his madrikh (counselor). Here is where a girl played a lead role in a production of the famous Broadway musical, Kannar al haGag (Fiddler on the Roof).

We had seven kids there from Pittsburgh last weekend, including two of my own. But we can do better than that. If we want to help our children along that traditional, egalitarian journey, Ramah is where they should be.

Shabbat ended as it had come in: cacophonously, with music and prayer, and the entire camp gathered together for ritual. And I recalled the camp days of my youth, and the havdalah ceremonies that seemed so powerful, so evocative, so connective. You grow older, you leave camp – camp is for the young, and your journey continues and takes you elsewhere. You leave camp. But camp never leaves you.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2016.)

 

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Letter from the Tel Aviv Beach – Huqqat 5776

A funny thing happened on my way to Israel.

Apparently, an anonymous threat had indicated that there was an explosive device located in one of the plane’s kitchens. Nothing was found, even after searching the aircraft upon landing. For a brief time in Swiss airspace, we were accompanied by Swiss fighter jets, although I am not sure what they would have done if there had in fact been a bomb on the plane (God forbid!). Perhaps they would have evacuated us in mid-air, James Bond style?

I emerged from baggage claim into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, and there was a sea of journalists with TV cameras and microphones and all sorts of recording devices. Since I had not checked any bags, I was among the first to emerge, and was accosted by a posse of them, who were asking questions like, “Do you know anything about the alerts? Did you hear anything? What happened on the flight?” My answers were not very interesting, because they had not told us a single thing (or if they did, I was asleep at the time). From my perspective, the flight had been utterly, completely normal. In retrospect, they probably did not let us know that there had been a bomb threat, because it might have led to chaos on the plane.

The rest of my week in Israel was far less exciting. Nonetheless, no matter how many times I go back, Israel is always magical to me. I often wish, as I am traveling around the Jewish state, that I could collect all of the little moments of amazement that strike me – the sunset over the Mediterranean, the beauty of the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee as seen from the mountains all around, the ironies of the Byzantine rules of Israeli bureaucracy, the striking entrepreneurship of the Israeli people, the scene of Orthodox families rubbing shoulders with vacationing Arab families on the Tiberias boardwalk, and on and on.

I must say, however, that there is no place that makes me feel more proud to be Jewish than the Tel Aviv beach. Yes, the sand and the scene are awesome, and the water is warm and inviting, and the people are friendly and the mood is groovy. But even more than that, it reminds me of the central thing that I love about the modern State of Israel: that it is completely normal for there to be a beach, where completely normal beach things happen, in the Jewish state.

tel-aviv-beaches

What I see on the beach is not merely the sand and the waves and the volleyball and the surfers, but rather the ordinariness of it all, that people of all walks of life and backgrounds and religions and ethnicities can gather in this place to simply enjoy the few moments of freedom they have before returning to the rest of their normalcy. The beach is a great equalizer: everybody parks themselves on the same sand; everybody dips into the same water.

And yet, the lifeguards are calling through their megaphones in Hebrew. And the meat served in the beach restaurant is kosher (even if the restaurant itself is not hekhshered). And you are only a few steps away from the Trumpeldor cemetery, where some of the greatest figures in Zionism and Israel’s fine and performing arts are interred. And as you look both directions, north and south along the Mediterranean shore, you see more and more buildings as the city with the world’s largest Jewish population continues to grow and reshape itself. And the tourists and residents and guest workers and diplomats and journalists on the beach who are chatting in French, Italian, German, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, American English, Australian English, English English, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, and a bunch of others that I can’t even recognize all know that they are in a Jewish land.

My son and I spent many hours on the beach last Shabbat, most of the time body-surfing the voluptuous waves (is it OK for a rabbi to use the word “voluptuous”?). And while he was merely enjoying the beach like everybody else, I was in a state of Zionist reverie, reflecting on how special this ordinariness was.

The only thing that interrupted this dreamy afternoon was how filled the water was with non-biodegradable refuse: fragments of plastic bags, Q-tips, bottle caps, swathes of netting, lost undergarments, and a variety of less-mentionables. Indeed, at first I collected a few larger items and brought them to shore to dispose of properly. But there were just too many to deal with – a sign both of Israel’s tremendous success as a destination and the downside to overloading the system.

The other item of unpleasantness was a small altercation between a down-on-his-luck panhandler with a nasty skin disease and an American busker. The American had apparently set up his guitar-based operation too close to the panhandler, and so my son and I happened to be walking by when the panhandler threw a plastic bottle filled with water at the busker in the middle of a song as he stormed off in anger to find a better location.

I suppose that one thing we learn from the beach is complexity, that Israel is not simply some picture-perfect Disneyland where the streets are paved with Jerusalem stone and everybody frolics in Judaic glee. On the contrary – Israel is a complicated place where the politics reflect the diversity of all of its residents. And all the more so – the sea of languages heard at the beach is a small representation of all of the voices who are weighing in on the fate of this tiny country and its range of prickly-on-the-outside-but-sweet-on-the-inside people.

The early Zionist writer Asher Tzvi Ginsberg, known generally by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am, envisioned Israel as the merkaz ruhani – the Jewish “spiritual center,” guided not by halakhah / Jewish law necessarily, but by the values that Judaism teaches us. While there were several competing varieties of Zionism extant in the early 20th century, you could make the case that Ahad Ha’am’s was the one that probably came closest to being fulfilled. And it is certainly my merkaz ruhani: I go there to recharge.

One poem that often resurfaces when I am visiting Israel is Yehuda Amichai’s Tayyarim / Tourists:

תיירים / יהודה עמיחי

בקורי אבלים הם עורכים אצלנו

יושבים ביד ושם, מרצינים ליד הכותל המערבי

וצוחקים מאחורי וילונות כבדים בחדרי מלון,

מצטלמים עם מתים חשובים בקבר רחל

ובקבר הרצל ובגבעת התחמושת

בוכים על יפי גבורת נערינו

וחושקים בקשיחות נערותינו

ותולים את תחתוניהם

ליבוש מהיר

באמבטיה כחולה וצוננת

פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד, את שני הסלים

הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך

ושימשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם

הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית.

קצת ימינה מראשו”. “אבל הוא זז, הוא זז!” אמרתי בלבי

הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת

מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה

ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

 

 

Tourists – תיירים

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.

They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb

And on Ammunition Hill.

They weep over our sweet boys

And lust after our tough girls

And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists

was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see

that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

***

The day-to-day normalcy of human existence to which Amichai points, coupled with Ahad Ha’am’s vision of the spiritual center were demonstrated in abundance all over Israel as I collected my moments of amazement. Israel is neither a merely a museum of ancient ruins nor a bookshelf full of stories stretching back thousands of years. It is a society that exhibits all of the positives and negatives of human existence. It is upon us all to take that into consideration as we ponder and weigh in on Israel’s future, the future of not just the holy sites, not just the ancient connections, but of all the very real people who live there. And we should measure Israel not by Yad Vashem and the Kotel and the high places of Christianity and Islam, but by Israeli willingness to continue living those Jewish values, by being a light not only to the nations  but even unto Diaspora Jews.

Ahad Ha’am is buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Tel Aviv beach. And I am certain that he is grinning and stroking his beard as he contemplates what the Zionist dream has become. Imperfect, yes. But also beautiful.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2016.)

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Fear and Brexit – Shelah Lekha 5776

A Facebook friend pointed out that if you pronounce the word “Brexit” as if it were Portuguese, you get something sounds a lot like the first book of the Torah in Hebrew: Bereshit. Go figure. ‘Course, we’re still almost two books away from that, so it seems that the Brexit referendum was not some kind of devar Torah in code.

However, you could not get away from it in the news these past two weeks. (It was a welcome change from the American presidential campaign, which already feels like it’s been going on for at least four years.) The British vote to leave the EU has shocked the world, and Europe is in political turmoil. The British pound has dropped precipitously. Scotland is threatening to leave Great Britain to rejoin the EU. The aftermath of the vote has been so shocking that there are millions of Brits who have signed a petition for a second referendum.

From what I have gleaned from the news, there are a few reasons why 17.4 million Britons voted to leave. Among them is the resentment of having to kowtow to the EU leadership in Brussels. But there is no question that one of the major concerns of those who voted to leave the EU is the apparent anxiety over the numbers of immigrants, from within and without the EU, who have come into Britain in recent years. That concern is related to similar sentiments that many have on this side of the Atlantic regarding immigration, and particularly illegal immigration.

Map of Europe

Put another way, many who voted to leave the EU did so out of fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of governmental control in a distant land by people who are not like you.

Fear is actually a major theme in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Moshe sends twelve spies, leaders from each tribe, on a reconnaissance mission to scope out the land of Canaan. Upon returning to the Sinai desert, where the Israelites are encamped, they declare that the Promised land is indeed a land of milk and honey. But ten of them raise the fears of the people by claiming that the Canaanites are gigantic and dangerous, with fortified cities that they cannot conquer. And suddenly, Moshe and Aharon are under attack for leading the people to their perceived deaths.

As you know, the story does not end well for those who whipped up the people’s fears. But let’s face it: fear plays a significant role in the palette of human emotion.

What are some things we are afraid of?

****

Fear is a natural human response to change and uncertainty. In this world, how can you not be scared? There is so much to fear.

We the Jews are especially accustomed to fear, owing to the fact that we have been persecuted throughout our history. I suppose that it’s somewhat ironic for us as Jews to watch the internal struggles of the EU from across the ocean, when Europe was the scene of so much oppression and misery and murder of our people for so many centuries.

I am reminded of the time that I sat down with my grandparents to record memories of their lives. My grandmother, aleha hashalom, was born in what is today Ukraine, and came to the United States at age 8, settling in Boston. While my grandfather, alav hashalom, was willing to tell as many details of his school-of-hard-knocks tales as he could recall, my grandmother kept saying, “Why do you want to hear about these things? We were poor and miserable, and the Russians hated us.” She had no interest in or reason to recall the past. It was gone. She had left it on the other side of the ocean, and they were far more comfortable on the welcoming shores of Di Goldene Medine (the “Golden Land,” a Yiddish term for America) than they ever could have been in Europe. And, of course, that was a full two decades before the Nazis arrived.

Europeans continue to struggle with the strangers in their midst. The Jews began to achieve European citizenship beginning with the French Revolution in 1789. But as we all know, their European neighbors never quite thought of them as French or German or English or Russian. They were always Jews. Xenophobia is a long-standing tradition in Europe, and so it’s not too surprising that it is an ongoing challenge to this day.

So we should consider, for just a moment, how this fear continues to shape our world, our opinions, our political choices. And we should acknowledge that we as Jews are called to reach out to the stranger, not to fear him/her. Consider the language that we see over and over in the Torah (e.g. Exodus 22:20):

וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ, כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Our history of oppression, going all the way back to Egypt, mandates not only that we treat the foreigners in our midst fairly, but also that we recall actively what it means to be an outsider. The great 12th-century Spanish commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra tells us that this is about power. Just because you have more power than the stranger, he says, does not give you the right to abuse that power. Remember where you came from!

Indeed, remember where we came from, not quite as far back as Egypt. Remember the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe. Remember the shtetlakh, where the Jews were confined to live. Remember the pogroms. Remember the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Czar’s army. Remember the Nuremberg Laws, the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen. Remember the Shoah, the destruction of European Jewry in the name of fear and hatred fomented by the Nazi state.

We are not required as Jews to love others who are not like us. But we are indeed forbidden from oppressing them, from mistreating them, from taking advantage of them, from hating them. And on some level, it is our duty to bring that message to the greater world.

The 18th-century Hasidic rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (yes, THAT Chernobyl) wrote in his Torah commentary, Me’or Einayim, that we all have the potential to feel threatened by others around us, but that the real cause of our discomfort is not the evil in their hearts, but rather the tum’ah, the impurity in our own. Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, responds in his work, the Netivot Shalom, that,

“To succeed in overcoming the forces of tum’ah that are deliberately placed in our way, we need to be able to eschew our own inner voices, and align ourselves perfectly with the tzaddik in our midst.”

So these Hasidic masters saw our challenge as an internal one rather than an external one. We fear the other because we are responding to our own inadequacy, and our task is to overcome those fears and reach out.

A third Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, put it so smartly and succinctly that his saying on the subject has become a popular, sing-along tune:

כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.

We have to overcome fear of the other, because fear is a destructive force. Not that we should not be vigilant; not that we should be careless; but we should make our choices from a place of confidence and intelligence rather than fear.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - bridge-info.org

Had our British friends learned this lesson, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But it’s not too late for the rest of us.

Veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/2/2016.)

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Connection is the Goal; Openness is the Path – Naso / Pride Shabbat 5776

The bloodbath in Orlando has made this Shabbat particularly relevant.

I said something briefly about it on both days of Shavuot. After services on Monday morning, the second day, one person who had been in attendance, a man who has a long family association with this congregation, came forward to speak with me. He told me that as an American, a Jew, and a gay man, he was tremendously grateful for my having said a brief word during services, acknowledging the pain of loss, the grieving that we should all feel after such horrific news, about the pain it has caused to the LGBT community, and particularly the Latino component thereof.

In a different conversation that I had a few months back, a member of this congregation told me that her son, now a young adult, is gay, and that he never comes to Beth Shalom anymore when he is home. Why? Because, when he was a teenager, he heard other members of this congregation make disparaging remarks about gay people, and he no longer felt welcome here.

Ladies and gentlemen, hevreh (as they say in Israel), we are riding a wave of great change in our society not only with respect to gender issues, but also with many types of “otherness.” Millennials, that mystical category of young people, do not see lines that separate people the way that their parents and grandparents do. They think in universal terms.

Here is something that might be easy to say, but not quite as easy to make happen:

All are welcome here. Not only that, but all who want to be a part of our congregation must be not merely welcomed, but also included into the fabric of who we are, encouraged to connect with the Beth Shalom community. Not to do so, especially in the wake of last weekend’s shooting, is simply wrong.

PrideShabbat2016_logo

That’s not so easy. Traditionally speaking, Judaism, and particularly synagogues, are accustomed to drawing lines. Boundaries that divide us. Who’s in, who’s out, who is pious, who’s a sinner, who’s a big donor, who has a dues arrangement, who’s a member, who’s not, who is Jewish, who isn’t, etc. And it’s not just internal – one of the classic stories about synagogues is that even a Jew stranded alone on a desert island needs two: one he davens in, and the other one he wouldn’t go into if you paid him.

Synagogues like to think of themselves as places where halakhic distinctions are rigorously maintained. That is, the lines within our tradition, how we divide people, apply in ritual matters. Even in egalitarian congregations like this one, there are still lines.

And let’s be honest here: there are times when we need some lines. What allows Judaism to be effective in our lives is the boundaries it creates: boundaries between what is holy and what is not, between making the right interpersonal choice and the wrong one, between taking or not taking an opportunity for holiness. These are essential to allowing our ancient tradition to infuse our lives and provide guidance and personal benefit.

But we should work to eliminate lines between us as people. Anybody who wants to come pray with us, celebrate with us, grieve with us, learn with us, they are welcome! I don’t ask any questions about what you do when you leave the building, on Shabbat or any other day. All who come are included.

The key to the Jewish future is being open.

And not merely open; we have to almost drag people in off of the street. Nothing brings people in like personal invitation. And nothing shoos them away more quickly than being told that they are somehow deficient. And we all have the potential to be ambassadors for Judaism, and for Beth Shalom.

The Talmud (Yoma 35b) tells us a revealing story about Hillel the Elder. He would come to the beit midrash / house of study every day, spending half of his daily earnings on the entrance fee. One Friday in winter, he could not find work, and had no money in his pocket, so the guard at the entrance to beit midrash would not let him in. He still wanted to learn, so Hillel climbed up to the roof and sat on the skylight to listen to what was being taught.

As Shabbat fell, it began to snow. On Shabbat morning at dawn, those gathered in the beit midrash wondered what was blocking the light from above. They go up to the roof and find Hillel buried in the snow. They bring him inside, bathe him, anoint him, and warm him up by the fire (all things that would be traditionally forbidden on Shabbat). One teacher makes the observation, “This man deserves to have the Shabbat laws violated on his behalf.”

The message is not necessarily about money, but rather all the obstacles that might prevent somebody from accessing our tradition. We, those on the inside, have to work hard to make Judaism and the synagogue experience available to all who want to learn, pray, celebrate, and grieve. Sometimes, we have to move beyond our comfort zone, and even have to violate some of our core principles to do so.

Many of you know that I, as a Conservative rabbi, may not officiate at weddings if either the bride or groom is not Jewish. That is a policy that will not likely change soon.

But here’s the funny part: I will do everything in my (limited) range to welcome that couple into our congregation. I will be happy to meet with them before the wedding, and I will of course welcome them as members if they choose to join.

A couple of decades ago, when mixed marriages were becoming much more common, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly laid down the law, or so they thought. They forbid acknowledging such a wedding, of course. They forbid an aufruf or congratulating the Jewish family or accepting donations for a non-Jewish child born to such a family. They forbid allowing an intermarried Jewish person to be called to the Torah.

Did these measures lower the rate of intermarriage? No. Do you think that any Jewish person considered, before getting into a relationship with a non-Jew, that his/her rabbi would not officiate at or attend their wedding, if they were to get married? Probably not.

All they did was to annoy the parties involved, and send them to Reform congregations, where they of course were welcomed, or out of the Jewish world entirely.

(The CJLS has come a long way; it has been nearly a decade since they voted to ordain openly-gay rabbis and allow rabbis to perform same-sex weddings; and in April of this year, they passed a teshuvahnullifying any provisions in Jewish civil law that are discriminatory against non-Jews.” So that is something.)

But if we really believe in what we do, in a Judaism that is traditional and still progressive, shouldn’t we want all of those families to be welcome here?

PrideShabbatBanner_2016_live

You should be pleased to know that among those who are completing my conversion course this summer, three of them are already married to Jews, and already have children. We’re going to get 7 new Jews out of just those three families.

The greater point here is that if we are open and inclusive, we will gain new members, new families. We will even make more Jews! We will be stronger as a community. We will teach and learn more, engage and raise our holiness quotient to new heights. We will thrive in our interconnectedness.

In the wake of a senseless tragedy that took the lives of so many in the name of hatred and intolerance, Beth Shalom and other faith communities should be standing up for compassion, for love, for tearing down walls, for eliminating not just the mehitzah of the traditional synagogue that separates women from men, but all the lines. We have to include those who are peering in from the skylight. We have to acknowledge the divinity in each of us.

The early 20th-century English novelist E. M. Forster, in his novel Howard’s End, pointed to the power of connection in a well-worn passage:

“Only connect!” he said. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

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The goal is connection; the path is openness. We have to be committed to both.

May the families of those who lost loved ones be comforted; we grieve with those who suffer from loss. May our openness and interconnectedness prevent such tragedy from striking ever again. Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/18/2016.)

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The Value of Life and the Jewish Triangle – Bemidbar 5776

I was struck by a curious item in the news two weeks ago: the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. (In case you didn’t hear: a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla pen; the silverback, a 17-year-old, 420-pound western lowlands gorilla named Harambe, while not attacking the boy, did drag him around the pen, injuring the boy seriously.)

There were vigils, criticism by various groups, defense of the killing by the zoo spokespeople, and plenty of news articles and opinion pieces for and against. Social media exploded.

I am not in a position to judge whether killing the gorilla was justified or not. The zoo’s “dangerous animal response team” made a quick decision, and they opted for shooting to kill over using a tranquilizer dart, to ensure that the child would survive.

Harambe’s cousins in Africa are critically endangered, and zoos like the one in Cincinnati have attempted to remediate this situation by breeding gorillas in captivity. It is certainly unfortunate that Harambe had to die because of this boy. There is no question that this was a hard decision for the zoo, and that their choice would be scrutinized and criticized. We will never know what would have happened had they gone with the tranquilizer dart, or some other solution.

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Western lowland gorilla

But what actually struck me about this story was its context in the news. Around the same time there was a shooting with multiple fatalities in a neighborhood in Houston where I used to live. It has also emerged in recent weeks that the homicide rates in both Chicago and Toronto are up by over 50% this year over last. And of course there is the ongoing terror activity in Israel, which claimed four more lives in Tel Aviv this week.

And those stories are dwarfed by the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the last few years – that is, the Syrian civil war. Estimates vary, but perhaps 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last five years. And we all know about the refugee crisis here and abroad, driven largely by displaced Syrians.

What emerges when you juxtapose the flap surrounding the gorilla with those other stories is this curious situation where people – actual people – are being killed and driven from their homes, and yet the reaction to Harambe’s death somehow floated to the top of the news, at least on Internet portals.

It is fascinating to me that have become so inured to daily killing and human suffering in our own contexts, outside of the tightly-controlled environment of the metropolitan zoo, in the wild streets of Chicago or Baltimore or even suburban St. Louis, that we seem to have lost a sense for the value of human life.

Of course, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the killing of many; it’s much easier to be outraged by the murder of a single, rare primate in a single, tragic situation.

But it’s worth noting that our tradition teaches us about both.

All lives – the lives of all creatures – are endowed with a spark of the Divine.

We learn from the Torah in multiple places, and it is expanded upon in the Talmud, that we are forbidden from causing animals unnecessary suffering. This principle is known as, “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” (and I learned this week that the SPCA in Israel is called, Agudat tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the association of [fulfilling the mitzvah of preventing] cruelty to animals).

But qal vahomer / all the more so, human life too is sacred, and one of our duties here on Earth is to alleviate human suffering wherever we can. Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, says the Torah (Lev. 19:16). Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow person. We have fundamental obligations to the people around us. And if Syria is too far away, we might consider just the people in our immediate environs.

Where, ladies and gentlemen, is the outcry? Where are the vigils for the victims of authoritarian regimes around the world? Where are the politicians calling for change on America’s streets? Where are the nations who are jumping over each other to take in those who have fled the Syrian chaos? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the only head of state of the G-7 nations to attend the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May, something which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went out of his way to point out.

And where, indeed, are the Jews, marching to help ensure that everybody gets a fair break in life, a decent education, neighborhoods free of the scourges of crime and drugs and guns?

***

We celebrate today with two young women who have stepped forward into direct relationship with the Torah and its framework of holiness. And not only that, but we continue our celebration of that framework tonight as we usher in the festival of Shavuot.

We call benei mitzvah to the Torah in the synagogue, surrounded not only by family and friends because we are making a public statement: this child is now one of us; she has inherited the mantle of Torah, the set of holy opportunities to fulfill our mitzvot. It is, by definition, a public display of the stepping up of this child.

The most fundamental statement of bar/bat mitzvah is communal; it is that this child is now one essential vertex in the triangle of individual, community, and Torah.

A sizeable chunk of that triangle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that this is an imperfect world, one which routinely tramples idealism and continues to thwart dreams, but that we have an obligation, as individuals and communities in sacred relationship with Torah, to right wrongs, to uplift the oppressed and give a hand to the needy. Lo alekha hammelakha ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena. It is not up to you to finish the task, neither may you give up on it (Pirqei Avot 2:21). That holy work is never done.

One neat trick of the Jewish calendar is that Parashat Bemidbar is always read adjacent to Shavuot, a reminder that the Torah was given and received in the desert. It was not given in Jerusalem, or even in Israel! The message is that the Torah does not belong to a particular place or even (!) a particular people. The Torah, and the holy opportunities it gives us, are for everybody.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Torah tonight on Shavuot, we should remember that our opportunities for holiness extend far beyond our interconnected Jewish circle here in Squirrel Hill, and much further beyond the Jewish world. The triangle that unites us with Torah demands that we seek justice for all of God’s creatures, as we said on Shabbat morning in the Prayer for Our Country, “lemiqtanam ve’ad gedolam,” from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:33).

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2016.)

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The Memory Machine – Second Day Shavuot, 5776

Remembrance of those who have passed from this world is a universal human desire; we all feel the need to recall our family members and friends who are no longer with us.

Two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I recall reading a statement about memory that has stuck with me.  It appeared in the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek article about something that I can’t remember.  But the statement that struck me read as follows:

“[So-and-so] is still trying to cope with the realization that he is a function of every person he has ever met and every book he has ever read.”

I remember thinking, hey, that’s me too.  I am also a function of every person I’ve ever met and every book I’ve ever read.  And here, the word “function” is used in its mathematical sense.  Perhaps some of you recall from junior high school algebra:

f(x)

or the diagram of the function machine:

function can be visualized as a "machine" that takes an input x and ...

A function is a box that performs some kind of action on data that is entered, such that what comes out is modified in a particular way.  So if f(x) is x-squared, then if I put in 2, the function turns it into 4.  If I put in 3, it becomes 9.  And so forth.

To say that we are functions of our life experience is a vast oversimplification, of course.  Our own function machines would have to be very, very complicated.  But on some level, this is not far off.  We are shaped by our experiences, from the moment we emerge from the womb, through schooling and relationships and work and success and failure and loss and happiness and sadness.

Perhaps a better way of understanding ourselves, then, is that we are  memory machines — sacks full of memory — that not only process our experiences through those memories, but also allow us to dig into our past, to re-examine, to think of the beautiful moments as well as the awkward ones that we wish had never happened. What we carry with us is invaluable; it is in fact who we are.

And it is really hard to wrap our brains around that.  We often measure people by the superficial stuff: how they appear, what car they drive, where they go to synagogue, when they go to synagogue, and so forth.

But what really makes us who we are is our own, personal, individual sack of memory. And in particular on a day like today, when we reflect back on how our lives were touched by those whom we remember.

The proper name from Yizkor, by the way, is Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of souls. What we do on this day is to attempt to bring up those shards of memory of those who have left us: who they were, what they stood for, what they taught us.

Perhaps this endeavor serves as a reminder on an ongoing basis of our obligation to treat others well, to remember that every interaction that we have with other people is logged in somebody’s memory.  And not only that, but also that many little actions can add up to a tidal wave of memories, memories that cross over from individuals to peoples.  Memory shapes not only individuals, but also cultures, politics, and nations.

I’m going to share with you a few examples from my own memory machine, memories that have shaped me as a contemporary Jew, as an American, and as a rabbi.

When I was in cantorial school, and before I had a cantorial position that required me to be at the same synagogue every Shabbat and holiday, I used to do a lot of “shul-hopping.”  That is, I would walk to different synagogue in Manhattan to listen to different hazzanim, to hear them practice their art.  One year on Shemini Atzeret, I walked to Fifth Avenue Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the East Side, to hear Cantor Joseph Malovany.  Unfortunately, he was not there that day, and his substitute was unremarkable.  But I was treated to something else that day: the author Elie Wiesel was there, sitting quietly in the front row on the rabbi’s side.  I did something that day that I was not accustomed to doing at the time: I stayed in the sanctuary for Yizkor, mostly so I could watch Elie Wiesel as he stood up to recite his own personal Yizkor prayers, recalling, I imagined, all of the things that he had recounted in his books: the loss of his family, his Romanian village, the loss of his faith upon arrival in Auschwitz.  He stood with his eyes closed, gently rocking side to side, his head cast slightly upward.  Where is he?  I wondered.  Where is he right now?

A different story: The summer of my seventeenth year I visited Israel for the first time.  I spent eight weeks there on an academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where we learned Jewish history from ancient times until present day, and visited relevant sites all over Israel to put it in context.  It was amazing — much of what I learned that summer I have carried with me and used again and again.

Of course, when you have 40 seventeen-year-olds living together in a dorm for eight weeks, you learn a whole lot about the complexity of human relationships as well.  One thing that I remember from that summer was learning about how mean one Jew can be to another for the sake of one interpretation of Judaism.  One weekend, we had some free time in Jerusalem, and one of my female friends was caught inadvertently among a mob of Haredim (so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews, although I prefer not to use that misleading term) who were protesting the opening of certain cinemas on Shabbat.  She was wearing something that someone in that crowd deemed inappropriate, and so he spat upon her.  She was, as you can imagine, more than taken aback; the Jews among whom she had grown up and lived with and traveled around Israel with did not behave that way.

That was a memory that I am sure that she carries with her to this day, and so do I by proxy (even though I was not there when it happened).

Ladies and gentlemen, as a people we came through the Shoah together, laden with horrible memories, with martyrdom an essential feature of the modern Jewish psyche.  We established a Jewish state in our historical homeland.  We have empowered women to participate fully in Jewish life and mitzvot.  Many of us in this room remember all of these things personally, because you were there.  Our memories have shaped us as a people. And they will continue to help us move forward as a people into the bold, inchoate Jewish future.

Many of you have been to parlor meetings with me over the past year, and you know that part of the process is to tell a story about a Jewish memory, a meaningful Jewish experience. My goal in asking you to do so is not so that the others in the room might simply say, “Now that’s nice.” Rather, it is to (a) remind us of the power of memory, (b) create a sense of community through shared stories, and (c) try to connect who we are and how we live today as Jews with our past experiences. We fire up those memory machines to connect them with each other, and then with Congregation Beth Shalom.

On this second day of Shavuot, this day of remembering, it is upon us to look back not only on the people that have created deep personal memories for us, our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, but also those among our people who have created salient cultural memories for us as Jews, and the community that we have inherited.

Memory makes us collectively stronger as individuals and as a qehillah. Turn on those memory machines; now is the time to actively remember.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 6/13/2016.)

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Holy Adhesion (Mitzvah, Part 2 of 2) – Behar 5776

I went back to school last week. More accurately, I went to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I of course saw many old friends and colleagues, and we caught each other up on our lives and work, our successes and challenges and so forth.

And of course, what do rabbis do when they get together? Why, play poker and smoke cigars, of course!

They learn. Actually, in an ideal world, that’s what all Jews should do when they get together: Pirqei Avot tells us (3:3) that when two people meet and exchange divrei Torah (words of Jewish learning), the Shekhinah, God’s presence, hovers between them. (And I don’t know about you, but I could use a lot more Shekhinah in my life.)

You see, it’s not just 12-year-olds preparing to become bar / bat mitzvah that learn the words of Jewish tradition. On the contrary: the highest ideal in Judaism is lifelong learning. Why? Because study leads to action, and the lessons of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us from across the ages.

Some of you may know that there was a movement in the first half of the 20th century to eliminate bar mitzvah at age 13 from Jewish life, and replace it with confirmation at age 16. (I’m told that Rodef Shalom Congregation stood by that policy deep into the 20th century (one of the current members of Beth Shalom is, in fact, the first person to have celebrated a bar mitzvah at 13 at Rodef Shalom.) And there was a good reason for it: a 16-year-old is better equipped to approach learning with more sophistication and nuance, and more ready to be launched into the Jewish world as an adult. There is a certain wisdom in delaying the major life-cycle event marking the transition from childhood to adulthood to a time when the candidate has a better sense of his/her relation to our tradition and to the world. (Plug: we will be celebrating the conclusion of our confirmation class in two weeks on the first day of Shavuot, Sunday, June 12th. Be there!)

But the larger point is that Jewish adulthood is not merely about receiving the traditions and mitzvot of Jewish life, but also about striving to understanding why Jewish tradition is relevant to us and how it frames our lives in holiness. I continue to answer that question for myself every day. It’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope you will join with me in furthering.

An essential part of that picture, of course, is Torah study. Not “the Torah,” the Five Books of Moses found on the scroll we just returned to the aron haqodesh, the ark, but “Torah” – the collective writings and brain power that yielded two millennia of commentary, interpretation, re-interpretation, and so forth; the halakhic codes, the midrashim, the liturgy, the poetry, even the music that comprise the entire Jewish body of text-based learning and transmission of our heritage from generation to generation.

We are still part of that transmission. We are each links in the chain that connects us back to Mt. Sinai, and the celebration of a bat mitzvah is merely a reminder that we continue to fashion the links that follow us.

I spoke last week about re-envisioning the idea of mitzvah as “holy opportunity.” This is, of course, an essential concept on a day that we celebrate the stepping forward of a young member of our qehillah, our community, into a complete, sacred relationship with the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition. The fulfillment of each mitzvah, which has been traditionally understood to be a commandment from God, is a potential gift to yourself and others, an opportunity to elevate our individual selves and the collective community by performing a traditional action. Examples are wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles, sanctifying the holidays with family meals and abstaining from mundane activities, honoring your parents, and so forth.

So it happens that while I was at the convention, between cigars and counting my poker winnings, one of the learning sessions that I attended spoke exactly to that point. It was taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Fishbane’s research area is Jewish mysticism and Hasidic thought, and this particular session was (serendipitously) about the concept of mitzvah as described by a couple of medieval rabbis.

And one of these rabbis, a pre-Hasidic commentator from the turn of the 17th century known as (curiously) the Sh”lah (that’s an abbreviation for Shenei Luhot Haberit, suggests that every mitzvah has greater meaning than the action itself; mitzvot have a higher goal – the goal of devequt, cleaving to God.

Megan's Bio Blog: The Properties of Water

Devequt is one of those mystical words that is hard to translate. While it literally suggests “adhesion,” as in, what glue or tape does. (The modern Hebrew word for glue is deveq.) But the image is a mystical one rather than physical. By acting on those holy opportunities, by taking the metaphysical gifts presented before us at the appropriate time, we are cleaving to the Divine, and thereby bathed in God’s love and light. Devequt is a kind of emotional journey attached to the physical fulfillment of mitzvot, and an essential piece of the Hasidic, kabbalistic understanding of Judaism. It’s an elevated state that we all strive for.

So, for example, let’s consider the mitzvah of the shemittah year, the sabbatical year identified in Parashat Behar today. The idea is that every seventh year in the land of Israel, the ground is left uncultivated. You can eat what grows naturally, from last year’s seeds, but otherwise you cannot till and tend the land and the plants.

Seems like an obscure concept, right? Especially to sophisticated urbanites like ourselves, who do not cultivate any significant amount of land, and even if we own patches of lawn do not really grow food for our own sustenance.

And yet, there are deeper meanings here, found in the mitzvah of shemittah, of not working your fields every seventh year.

One is the sense of respect for the land, for Creation. Just as we humans get a break from everyday business every seventh day, so too does the Earth get a break every seventh year. This heightens our relationship with what has been trusted to us for only a short time. But of course, for our agricultural ancestors, that must have been a very anxious year indeed. Today, we are mostly insulated from the vagaries of subsistence farming.

File:Barley field-2007-02-22(large).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Slonimer Rebbe regards shemittah as a challenge of faith and trust. By letting the land go untended for a year, we train ourselves to have some faith that we will still be provided for, that the Divine forces of nature will make sure that we will not go hungry. Unlike in the other corners of our lives, when more work, more development, yields greater profit, with the sabbatical year the reverse is true. Refraining from that development yields a spiritual harvest that brings us back to God. That is devequt. Our human experience is heightened by our trusting relationship with Creation, and we are drawn closer to the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

Shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee, when all the land that has been sold is returned to its original owner) may seem irrelevant to us today. But they help us cleave to God. They increase our sensitivity to the land, to society, and to our individual spiritual needs. We all benefit. And so we are elevated personally and collectively.

And with a little bit of study and reinterpretation of the curious laws of the Torah, we can be drawn closer in holiness through the performance of any mitzvah, the big ones and the small ones.

We need to strive for that devequt. We need to reach higher, however we understand God, or God’s role in our lives. And the mitzvot are a framework of holy opportunities to do exactly that.

In a rather well-known episode, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was asked if he was putting on tefillin every morning, a particularly holy opportunity found in our tradition. “Not yet,” said Herr Rosenzweig. Not yet, because he was still on a journey, or because he was not ready, or because he had not found the motivation to act, or because he was afraid it would mess up his hair. We do not know why.

Franz Rosenzweig | Great Thoughts Treasury

But we all have that sense of “not yet” about us. We just have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, so that we may strive for devequt, cleaving to God. That will ultimately bring our relationship with Judaism and the mitzvot, those holy opportunities, into focus.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/28/16.)

 

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