Friday, June 26, 2015

Chukat: A New Era Begins

My, how time flies! It was true in the ancient world, just as it still is today. In this week's parashah, the narrative skips 38 years in the time it takes to end chapter 19 and begin chapter 20 in the Book of 
Numbers. The blink of an eye. All at once, it feels instantaneous and eternal; a fleeting memory and an entire generation. In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes: "There is little further to be said about those who loved the security of slavery more than the uncertain freedom that was offered them." Why waste any more time on the generation that didn't know how to change, evolve, and make society better? The Torah thanks them for their contribution, and then swiftly moves into a new era. I can't think of a more perfect metaphor for the Supreme Court's ruling, earlier today, on gay marriage.

Twenty years from now (though perhaps only ten, or five, or even three; who knows at the swift rate things are moving!), everyone will say they supported gay marriage. It will become like civil rights a generation ago; no one today would admit that, back then, they were the neanderthal who wanted to keep segregated water fountains! 
Right now, this feels controversial, and it IS a major victory because many people still oppose same-sex unions. And yet, it also somehow feels ancient; like people who still (somehow) accidentally use racial slurs and don't get why it's a big deal. The times they are a-changin'; of that there is no doubt. In the very near future, I am certain this will seem like such a non-issue, because we won't be able to fathom who would ever DREAM of restricting same-sex marriage, or adoption, or inheritance rights? It will puzzle us, which is why it will surely (and thankfully) fade into our distant memory very soon. 

But the Torah doesn't really want you to forget. We WANT to read about the early generation of Israelites who feared changed, whined at the idea of taking responsibility for one another, and opposed 
progress. We need to hear about our origins, so we learn to recognize it in ourselves when we face new issues down the road. Today, we have finally seen the light, and have lifted marriage equality to an incredible new height. But let's not pretend that this is the last challenging issue that society will face. Let's harness this sense of progress and elation, and remind ourselves that this WAS a big deal, it WAS a hard-fought win, and other battles will surface in the future that will need our enthusiasm and determination.

Sometime we imagine that change comes when EVERYONE is already in agreement. We don't want to offend, so we won't make official policy changes until all minds have been changed and opposition has been silenced. But honestly, that's rarely 
how it goes. Instead, there's a groundswell of opinions that press for change, some are persuaded while others remain resolute, and ultimately, when change comes, many are not yet convinced and need time to come around. But change does ALWAYS come. That part is certain. So if you're still trying to decide, just remember the ancient Israelites. I don't think you want to be stuck languishing in the desert, never able to enter the Promised Land. Leave those 38 years in the past, and turn to face the future with excitement and anticipation. The land is good. 

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Shehecheyanu, v'Kiyemanu, v'Higianu La-Z'man Ha-Zeh. Amen.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ebraminio on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Little Rock, 1959 courtesy of John T. Bledsoe on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
4. The Marriage Equality logo, courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Korach: Fusing Together Peace Amidst the Brokenness

Earlier this week, a terrible shooting took place in South Carolina. It can be tempting to focus on the specifics of this case, asking how a young man could commit such a crime or dismissing the incident as the actions of an insane person.
But I think many people also acknowledge that this is yet another horrific reminder that there is brokenness in our country. Gun laws and race relations - these are two issues that are hard to talk about, and are sometimes uncomfortable. And yet, they are both plaguing our nation, and little is being done to affect change. How do we process this? What can we do to avoid feeling powerless and filled with despair? I want to offer a suggestion.

First of all, this IS incomprehensible. It is impossible to understand why someone would sit through a Bible class - much like the ones we hold weekly here at Ohev Shalom - and then turn around and kill the very people with whom you were studying. It is equally challenging to grapple with the ease with which this person obtained a weapon.
Furthermore, his heinous act has also, once again, ripped open the wound of racism which DOES still exist in this country, and which we ignore at our own peril. Clearly. Here at Ohev Shalom, we are in the early stages of a community partnership called FUSE. Together with religious communities in Swarthmore, Wallingford, Media, and - most importantly - in Chester and Marcus Hook, we are trying to tackle these big questions head on. Right now, we are mainly laying the groundwork with conversations, dialogue, communication, and networking. Why? Because we currently do NOT live as though we are one community. And we must.

I do not personally know what it's like to fear gun violence on a daily basis. And I do not experience constant racial prejudice or bias. Do you? And if we look beyond these
quagmire issues, and instead focus on just building bridges with other communities and learning to see the world from another point-of-view, there is much we can gain from FUSE and the potential partnerships it will foster. Is FUSE going to solve all our issues? No. It's not a cure-all, but it IS a step forward, and something that you and I, in our little corner of the world, can concretely do to bring peace and understanding into the world, rather than hate and destruction.

I don't know if this is the "correct" path to take. But I believe leadership is about taking a risk, and taking a leap of faith. In this week's parashah, Moses and Aaron face several rebellions from disgruntled Israelites. Are they right; are they wrong? Who's to say? We can get bogged down in the specifics, and we can obsess over criticizing and
assigning blame. At its core, Moses is sticking his neck out. He's being a leader, and he's doing the best he can. It's always easier to complain and undermine on the sidelines. The dissenters may have a point, they may even be right. But there are times when strong leadership is needed, and someone has got to grab the reigns, pick a path, and just start walking. There was a lot of chaos in that wilderness, and they might have still been stranded there if Moses hadn't taken charge. We're in a wilderness of our own right now, and sometimes it feels like there's no path forward out of the violence and hate. Let's forge that path; let's fuse it together with others in our community. And let us be leaders to those around us and strive to affect real change. I hope you will choose to walk this road with me.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Heeding God's Call's Memorial to the Lost (victims of gun violence in our county, each represented by a t-shirt) courtesy of Ohev Shalom.
2. CC image of "Stop violence!" sculpture in Petach Tikva, Israel courtesy of Dr. Avishai Teicher on Wikimedia Commons
Image from one of the first FUSE events in March, 2015
CC image courtesy of Richard Webb on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 12, 2015

Shelach Lecha: A Spy's Report About Jewish Life in Europe

I feel like I have a lot in common with the two protagonists in this week's Torah portion. I didn't expect to feel this way (and I actually hope I don't have TOO much in common with them, as you'll hear in a
minute...), but what can you do? In our parashah, Shelach Lecha, we read about the twelve spies that Moses sent into the land of Canaan to determine whether the Israelites could conquer it or not. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, came back with a favorable report, while the other ten said that all hope was lost. The enemies were too strong, the land too harsh, and the odds of success were zero. Naturally, the Israelites believed the majority of the cohort, and threatened to kill the other two for their dissent. Today, I come to you with a surprisingly optimistic account from a faraway land, and I hope you'll receive it a little bit better than did our ancient ancestors...

Last week, I traveled to Europe with a group of rabbis, community leaders, and congregants, as part of a mission through the Masorti (Conservative) movement. We visited Jewish communities in Budapest, Hungary; Paris, France; and London, England. As you know,
Anti-Semitism is rampant in Europe. Muslim extremism has destroyed the continent, the Jews are all making aliyah to Israel, and all hope is lost. Well, that's at least what I've come to believe that you THINK you know about European Jewry. On a nearly daily basis, I get e-mails from congregants with articles about the terrors facing European Jews across the continent, and especially in my home community of Stockholm, Sweden. And if you read nearly any Jewish newspaper in this country, that is indeed what you've likely come to believe. But like Joshua and Caleb, the spies sent by Moses, I implore you not to believe the stereotypes, sensationalist headlines, and common assumptions that plague our community. It simply isn't true.

Look, I'm not going to pretend it's all sunshine and roses. Even Caleb and Joshua had to admit there were challenges. In Paris, we saw armed guards outside synagogues, and in Budapest and Paris we were encouraged not to wear our kippot in public. Is there Anti-Semitism?
Yes. Are community leaders worried about right-wing governments and religious fundamentalists? Certainly; it can't be denied. But it's NOT the entire picture. In London, we met with representatives from NEW congregations, recently established across the continent. When was the last time you met someone in America who started a brand new synagogue or congregation? Did you read the most recent Pew Research study? Jews in America are DIS-affiliating, and congregations are closing their doors. And in Europe? The Masorti movement has new communities in Valencia, Spain; Alicante, Spain; Brussels, Belgium; Nice, France (yes, even in France); Almere (near Amsterdam), Holland (and a second one is opening soon); Lisbon, Portugal; and many more! Two new rabbis just graduated American rabbinical schools and are moving back to England to serve emerging communities, and a good friend of mine was just installed as the Chief Rabbi in Stockholm. Even more remarkable than all this: Our movement just opened a NEW rabbinical school in Berlin, Germany!!

I am sure that, in response to this post, you will be tempted to send me articles disagreeing with my assessment. You might even be drafting an
e-mail to me with ten or MORE articles showing how horrible life in Europe is for the Jews. And hey, they were written by locals, so they must be true, right? And they must encapsulate the ENTIRE experience for European Jews, no?? Ten out of twelve spies may return with only messages of doom and gloom. And I can't say any of them are lying or have ulterior motives. All I can tell you is what I saw with my own eyes, and share with you the words of the people I spoke to in person. Jewish communities in Europe are growing... A LOT! I know you don't believe me. I know it sounds impossible. Just don't pelt me with rocks if you disagree. Instead, maybe take a trip and see for yourself. I guarantee it, you'll be thoroughly amazed.

Photos in this blogpost from my Masorti Mission to Europe:
1. The Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest - the second largest synagogue in the world!
2. Candles and memorial tributes outside Hyper Cacher, the Kosher supermarket in Paris that was attacked in January.
3. Inside the Rashi Synagogue in Troyes, France.
4. Praying with other rabbis and good friends, in London at the end of our trip.