Friday, June 22, 2018

Haftarat Chukat: #Families Belong Together!

Can you imagine anyone claiming to be a modern-day prophet??? I mean, the absolute audacity, the hubris, the presumptuousness to claim the right to chastise everyone else, point out problems in society, and declare something objectively
"immoral." Well, you're looking at someone just that audacious and presumptuous. Ok, maybe you're not LOOKING at me, but you're reading his words. Now I haven't heard God's voice speaking to me, not even in a dream. And I don't see any visions of future glory or destruction. However, I do believe - quite strongly - that the ancient prophets were social critics. They held up a mirror to the community and challenged people to change their behavior; sometimes (and perhaps especially) when those people did NOT want to change. And it's THAT voice I need to inhabit right now, as foolhardy and chutzpah-dik as that might be.

Taking children away from their parents is wrong. Putting them in detention facilities is wrong. I know there is nuance to this issue, and that many feel we must consider where the children come from, who is accompanying them,
and what are the potential risks of a less-draconian policy. But sometimes we need to take a step back and see that basic humanity is at stake. Fighting over the details of rules and procedure MUST have its limits; there needs to be a point where compassion and kindness wins out. Too many dystopian novels and movies have been made about PRECISELY this issue; where law is never checked by compassion. It is our human decency that is always at greatest risk, and needs our protection more than any legal matter. Big surprise; even the Bible knows what I'm talking about.

Our Haftarah this week takes place in a lawless and chaotic time. Moses and Joshua are gone, and the era of kings has not yet begun in Israel. Occasionally, judges and leaders arise and briefly help the Israelites fight off enemies and withstand the temptations of idolatry. But after each one is gone, anarchy returns.
In this bizarre world (maybe not QUITE as hard to imagine as it once was...), we see two stark examples of law usurping empathy. We are told the story of Yiftach, a great warrior who leads the Israelites against the Ammonites. But before he becomes a hero, Yiftach is shunned by his family. His half-brothers hide behind a law that discriminates against children out of wedlock, and they banish Yiftach for being the son of a prostitute/concubine. In the Etz Hayim Chumash commentary on our text, it says: "His brothers successfully conceal their greed behind the mask of law" (pg. 909). Hey, you can't say what they're doing is wrong, can you??? They're just following the law; there's nothing they can do to change it. Oh well...

And then, even Yiftach himself falls victim to this same mindset. In a totally befuddling act of Greek-tragedy proportions, Yiftach utters a vow that couldn't POSSIBLY be ominous of something terrible yet to come. He declares that if he comes home safe and victorious from battle, he will offer as sacrifice the first "thing" that comes out to greet him. Sure enough,
his daughter runs out to congratulate her dad on a wonderful and successful campaign... Now, any normal person in a normal society would declare the vow null and void, or find some other - ANY other - way of getting out of this monstrous pact. But law is more important, right? Oaths, vows, and official declarations are unbreakable, and if our sense of decency and morality has to bend to fit into our "lawful" system, well, I guess that's just what has to happen, huh? I hope you know that I'm being sarcastic. Sarcastic and prophetic. We cannot behave this way. We have to eschew the notion that this is a partisan issue. It is not. Children should NOT suffer in this way, and our government must stop this practice, change course, and reunite these traumatized families. And we shouldn't just demand this for their sake, but for ours as well. Our society depends on it; so sayeth I!

NOTE: If you would like to stand with me against this injustice, please come on
Saturday, June 30th, at 2:00 p.m. to the Swarthmore amphitheater (next to the Borough Council building). You can read more about our vigil (hosted by the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County) online at:

Images in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of pxhere
2. CC image courtesy of pxhere
3. CC image courtesy of Jonund on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Peter Griffin on

Friday, June 15, 2018

Haftarat Korach: Why You Should Never Pick the Person Who Desperately Wants the Job...

Many characteristics and attributes are exceedingly important in a leader. Some things depend on the situation and the context - like combat prowess, academic degrees, or physical and mental stamina.
I mean, heading a scientific research task force does not require exactly the same skills as a military task force! There are, however, some skills that make great leaders in ANY context. I would argue that humility and self-reflection are right up there at the top. Managers who can put aside their own egos, and both listen to the opinions of others AND thoughtfully observe how they themselves come across, will likely succeed. Independently, our Torah portion and Haftarah this week are each examining the traits of a leader. Read together, they make it abundantly clear what we should - and should not - be prioritizing at the head of the pack.

On its surface, you MIGHT be tempted to read our parashah as suggesting Korach, Moses' cousin, is arguing for democracy, while Moses himself is actually the one
advocating for nepotism. Korach (along with some allies) attempts to stage a coup, chiding Moses: "The whole community is holy, every one of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly??" (Numbers 16:3) But I would argue that the focus isn't really the substance of Korach's accusation, but the choice to publicly shame Moses and try to undermine his authority. And Moses DOES respond with some humility and self-reflection, and then invites God to determine who should lead the people. As with so many things in life, it isn't really about WHAT you say, but HOW you say it.

I find it fascinating, then, that the rabbis chose a text from the First Book of Samuel to further emphasize this point. At this point - hundreds of years later - there is a vacuum of leadership, with one chaotic figure after another trying to govern the people, but ultimately with no long-term, good solutions.
Finally, the people turn to the prophet Samuel to plead for him to anoint a king. Samuel acquiesces, but with great reluctance. Our Haftarah, in large part, focuses on Samuel rebuking the people for demanding a regent: "... know and see what a great evil you have committed in the sight of Adonai by asking for a king.” (I Samuel, 12:17) Samuel is not interested in power for himself, but he IS a good emissary for God, who is humble and self-reflective, and who is often compared - even in the Biblical text itself (Jeremiah, 15:1 and Psalm 99:6) - to Moses. Instead, the people get King Saul. When he is first introduced to the reader, in I Samuel, 9:2, the text tells us: "[Saul was] as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else." On the one hand, what a looker! On the other, is that what makes a good leader???

In fact, I think the author is trying to send up a red flag. REAL leadership is found elsewhere. Between the Torah and the books of the prophets, we discern that we SHOULD be looking for substance, wisdom, and most definitely humbleness and self-awareness. The prophets often remind us that genuine leaders are awed and
daunted by the task of governing, and being in control of the fate of others. Anyone who runs TOWARDS power, and who praises themselves constantly, is to be treated with wariness and caution. Additionally, our two texts this week bear another sobering resemblance. In each, the prophet publicly and proactively emphasizes his own honest conduct. Essentially, they both say "tell me whom I have wronged, or how I have robbed or deceived any of you" (paraphrased from Num. 16:15 and I Samuel 12:3). Transparency is key. "I have nothing to hide!" Their actions speak for themselves, and they need only point to their records and their behaviors to prove their merits. The lesson for us all is two-fold. We need to KNOW what real leadership is supposed to be, and how it should look. And we need to be vigilant and tireless about demanding that, and no less. Like the ancient Israelites, we ourselves are responsible for the leaders we choose. Bad behavior is their fault too, for sure. But we are not absolved of guilt. Keep reminding yourself what good leadership looks like, and never, EVER compromise on demanding that of those who govern us.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Wvk on Wikimedia
3. CC image courtesy of Paul Mercuri on Wikimedia
4. CC image courtesy of 3dman_eu on Pixabay

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Haftarat Shelach Lecha: Flipping the (Spy) Script (Guest blog)

I am away this week, so my colleague and good friend, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, has once again agreed to step in and guest blog for me. Enjoy!

Greetings and Shabbat Shalom!  It is my honor, once again, to serve as guest-blogger this week. Many thanks to Rabbi Gerber for offering me this platform for some reflections on the Haftarah.

This is an interesting week to write the weekly blog, since there is an unusually strong connection between the Torah Portion and the Haftarah. In the Torah reading, Moses 
sends representatives from each tribe to spy out the Land and to bring back word about the quality of its harvest, as well as any news about fortifications built by the inhabitants. The spies bring back a terrifying report, citing major cities and fortresses, as well as a race of giants that live in the Land. The people fall into despair, and are doomed to 40 years of waiting and wandering. The only two spies who bring back an encouraging report are Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh. Joshua and Caleb are rewarded for their faith and hope by being the only two people of their generation allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

And so we find, in our Haftarah (40 years later…), that Joshua is preparing to lead the people into the Promised Land, having inherited the mantle of leadership from Moses. Interestingly, Joshua chooses to send a new group of scouts into the Land, just as Moses did.  But the story resolves quite differently.  Instead of the Israelites being struck with terror, the scouts enter the city of Jericho and discover that the local residents have become terrified of the People of Israel!  The “Script” has been flipped, and now the Israelites are empowered to claim their promised destiny.

Because these stories are so similar, they are ripe for comparison.  The parallels give us an opportunity to focus on the differences, and on the ways in which the second  
story acts as a foil to the first. One difference that might easily be overlooked is the difference in how each band of spies interacts with the inhabitants of the Land. The first group of spies goes into the Land, sees the people and cities there, and dashes back to the encampment with the bad news. The second group, on the other hand, spends the night inside one of the Canaanite cities. They stay with one woman in particular, by the name of Rahab. She is a marginalized figure in several ways - she is a woman in a patriarchal society, she is a sex worker, and her home is literally constructed as part of the wall surrounding the city. She lives on the boundary.

Rahab emerges as an unlikely hero of the story.  She both informs the spies that the Canaanites are living in fear, and acknowledges that God is the source of the Israelites’ power.  Most strikingly, she helps the spies escape the city in exchange for a promise that she and her family will be spared in the coming battle.  While there are (of course) many ways in which to interpret the encounter between Rahab and the spies, I want to offer the possibility that she appears in our text to remind us that pausing, listening, and being open to perspectives from unlikely (and marginal) places can sometimes give us the wisdom we need to move forward.  This is especially true when we are likely to be afraid or emotionally “set off.” If we are ready to take the risk of “staying the night” in a strange place, occupying an unfamiliar perspective, we may gain insights into ourselves, how we are perceived, and how we might walk our paths differently.  We may even begin to rewrite the script.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Haftarat Be-ha'alotecha: Light It Up!

Our Torah portion and our Haftarah focus on very different subjects. The weekly reading talks about the final items constructed in the Tabernacle, then offers stories
of the Israelites marching through the desert, and sprinkles in some sibling rivalry between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. The Haftarah was composed under Persian rule, when the prophet Zechariah tried to convince the people to rebuild the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. He offered a vision of a glorious future, with the Israelite people resettled in their homeland. So what links these two texts together? Well, they both talk about a particular ritual object. The Torah describes its practical, ceremonial use, while the Haftarah employs it as a symbol of future, messianic salvation. Any guesses on which item they both discuss?? I'll give you a hint: It has seven arms and supports the oil industry...

We are indeed talking about the Menorah; the famous candelabra that has been a symbol of Judaism for A LOT longer than the Star of David. And though it's a well-known and oft-depicted part of the Temple rite, it's actually not so clear what it was FOR in the ancient sacrificial cult. I mean, if you think about it,
you need objects to hold or employ sacrifices, incense, pure water, and even blood... but what does the Menorah do? If the flame on the altar provided illumination, and most of the rituals took place outdoors, why did they need a fancy-shmancy candelabra??? When paired with our Haftarah, more information comes to light (pun intended...). An angel approaches Zechariah and shows him a seven-armed lampstand, which symbolizes God's Presence and God's future promises of redemption. Our Haftarah ends at chapter 4, verse 7, but just three verses later, the angel tells Zechariah: "these seven are the eyes of the LORD, that run to and fro through the whole earth." The Menorah represented God's vigilance; able to see all, uncover and illuminate that which was hidden, and shine a light on injustice to allow truth and righteousness to prevail. In the Temple, the Menorah was a symbol of God!

I've been thinking a lot about this concept recently. Not so much the Menorah itself, but the importance of emulating God, and bringing to light that which needs to be seen, confronted, and exposed. Most of us agree with this concept in theory...
but when things get real, uncomfortable, raw, and vulnerable, the darkness of ignorance starts to seem pretty appealing... Just in the last few weeks, and even days, we've seen examples of racism unearthed, and vile, despicable sentiments aired in public. We even have openly anti-Semitic candidates running for public office, brazenly touting their affiliations with white supremacist groups. One reaction we might be inclined to feel - and which I've heard expressed - is, "They used to at least be ashamed of these views; how horrible that they're now flaunting their racism so openly!" But here's where I want to push back, and where I want to elevate our Menorah-mindset. We need to bring all of this to light. We need to hear it vented, so we can face these incendiary opinions head-on.

Ask yourself this: Were we really better off when these views were silent? When it was murmured in backrooms, seethingly felt with indescribable vitriol... but hey, at least they smiled at us in public, right? No way. If the xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism is out there, we are better off understanding it, confronting it, and exposing it for the hatefulness that it is.
It must be highLIGHTed, because it WILL thrive in the darkness. Looking back, for a moment, at our two texts this week, perhaps the Menorah functions as both - the tool AND the symbol. We must wield openness, transparency, and honesty as implements in a battle against hate and ignorance. It can be our proactive vehicle, where we confront and call out racism whenever we see it. At the same time, our Menorah is a symbol. It reminds us to shed light and insight, and challenges us to be better, to DO better. The lampstand reminds us of God's Presence, and also the importance of our own presence. Like our ancestors, we sometimes fall short and commit offenses. We mess up. But when we can push ourselves to truly SEE wrongdoing, in us and in others, and bring all of it to light, then REAL, lasting change is genuinely possible.

Images in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Personal Creations on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Ariely on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of DSC-RX100M4 on pxhere
4. CC image courtesy of Marco Sanchez on Flickr

L'Chaim (Monthly Newsletter Article) - June 2018: We Don’t Need Another Swim Club.

For the first time, Rabbi Kelilah Miller and I decided to co-write an article for the synagogue's monthly newsletter. Here's what we came up with; let me know what you think. Thanks!

Yes, you read that correctly, this is a joint message from BOTH of your rabbis. Full disclosure: Neither of us has co-authored an article before. So why do it now? We talk to one another a lot during the year (in case you didn’t know that), and often find ourselves back at the topic of building – but really deepening – community. And what better way to write about community, than to put forth a statement written, you know, communally!

As we wind down this fiscal programming year, we’re thinking back on some important, relational moments that we’ve shared. On Yom Kippur afternoon, our Q&A session with congregants included meaningful “real talk,” and got the year started off on a note of connected honesty. Later in the fall, we opened a space for challenging questions and experiences, through our first Death Café discussion. 

Our second annual FUSE 4Ever Grateful concert at Thanksgiving drew nearly 300 attendees; significantly expanding our fences and stretching our understanding of who is really in our shared sphere of responsibility. The Ohev Players’ production of “The Wizard of Oz” brought together congregants from different demographics and life experiences in a way that rarely happens. In a first, for a least the last 30 years, we joined together with members of Beth Israel for a wonderful Shabbat retreat (a Shabbaton) in April. And to mention just one more powerful experience, Rabbi Gerber recently led a Men’s Club discussion on the evolving role of masculinity, and our own understandings of what it means to “be a man.” 

Clearly, there’s a lot to be proud of. But that’s NOT why we’re mentioning these things. We want to point out what sets Ohev apart, not from other religious institutions necessarily, but from membership at, say, a swim club, a Healthplex, or a country club. There’s no shortage of activities in which to participate, or groups to which you can join; but where do you go to bring your whole self? Where can you be vulnerable, or seen, or simply allow your own internal contradictions to exist in peace??

By virtue of our rabbinic roles, we have a window into the more complicated facets of the lives of our Ohevites. We see how this congregation strives to embrace each person, no matter what s/he is dealing with, feels about her/himself and the world, or how much struggle and challenge has been endured in the past. We see the hard times, but also many beautiful moments of people going above and beyond to comfort, support, and celebrate with each other. This is not something you see in most affinity groups.

When you’re part of a community, you also learn another valuable lesson: You get out of it what you put in. And sometimes, being able to give of yourself - your time, effort, resources, and even simple presence - creates the most meaningful experiences. We especially see this in the religious school, where kids (and really, families) bring unique personalities, abilities, and knowledge, and together form a web of relationships that is much more than the sum of its parts.

So here it is: As we head off into the summer, we offer you a challenge to consider: Are you ready for a trust fall? Can you take the emotional risk of bringing your whole self along with you when you walk through the door? And if not, what do you need to get there? With the full presence of each, individual one of us, Ohev can become not just one more thing we do, but a part of who we are.

Have a great summer! 

Rabbis Gerber & Miller

Friday, May 25, 2018

Haftarat Naso: Who's Really Invisible?

I want to talk to you about privilege. It takes many forms - white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege - and far be it from me to discriminate, and accidentally exclude any one entitlement from this important conversation. So the funny thing about all these benefits, these advantages, is that they are often invisible. In fact, it's the very notion
that you CANNOT see it that sometimes highlights that you definitely, definitely have it. When you're in the minority, or experience discrimination, you are often highly aware of someone else's status. If you've never noticed or given much thought to how you present in the world, what you look like to other people, chances are you are the beneficiary of privilege. A good friend of mine recently said, "Well, I don't walk around thinking of myself as a white male!" And I responded, "But others see you that way! You have the luxury of just not thinking about it every day, but I bet others around you don't forget." I wonder how many women feel, with rare exceptions, that they are acutely aware of being women on a daily basis? How many LGBTQ individuals are constantly self-conscious about how they embody this label, when I, as a cisgender, straight man, rarely give much thought to my sexuality. I also wonder how surprised you'd be to learn that there's "manspreading" and "mansplaining" in the Bible too? Probably not very...

Our Haftarah this week is especially entertaining, and a good example of men being ignorant of their privilege. It is meant to be the story of Samson, because Samson took a Nazirite vow and thus never cut his hair, and the laws of the Nazirite are first explained in our Torah portion, Naso. Hence the link between the two texts.
However, the story presented to us, from the Book of Judges, chapter 13, isn't really about Samson at all. It's about his parents, Manoah and... Mrs. Manoah? She isn't given a name. Well, as so many good Biblical stories begin, Mrs. Manoah is unable to have children. An angel visits her and says she WILL soon have a child, and he will be a Nazirite. She runs and tells her husband, sharing all the details of what the mysterious angel said, and his response is: "Oh, my Lord! Please let the "Man of God" [the angel] that You sent come to us again, so that he may instruct us on how to act with the child that is to be born." (v. 8) The ridiculous part is, his wife JUST told him what the angel said! Complete with all relevant instructions!! Oh, but he heard it from a woman (i.e. not someone trustworthy...), so he asks to hear it directly from this MAN of God, in order to "really" believe it. Sigh...

Later, the angel DOES return, and repeats the same, stupid instructions. Manoah doesn't even seem to fully believe this is an angel, even though his wife has gotten it THE WHOLE TIME!! Mid-conversation, the angel
magically jumps into the fire on their sacrificial altar and ascends into heaven; a pretty neat angel trick. Manoah panics, and declares: "We shall surely die; for we have seen a Divine Being!!!" (v. 22) His wife then basically responds (and I'm paraphrasing): "Why would God show us all these things and send us this specific message, if the only purpose was to kill us???" A further irony of this story is that the angel is ephemeral, seemingly appearing and disappearing at will. This MAN of God should be the invisible one, but the unnamed, ignored, condescended woman is really the one who seems invisible to her husband... and - to a certain extent - to us as well.

It's no coincidence that the one who thinks they know best, who has all the answers and doesn't bother to listen to anyone else, is a man. That moment of "mansplaining" (appropriately combining "man" and "explaining," and I might add "unnecessarily and patronizingly"...) - when Manoah turns to his wife and says, "Did you know that was an ANGEL we were talking to??" - that scene truly epitomizes privilege in our society, even today. And let me be clear; I do this too! I'm not
claiming to be an exception to this rule (as I write my 454th blog post...). But if we mean to change this in ANY significant way, it has to begin by acknowledging privilege. It isn't my fault, and I didn't ask for it, but I AM the beneficiary of being white, male, and straight, EVEN when you throw "Jewish" into the mix. Right now, all over the world, we see examples of people WITHOUT privilege being abused, ignored, and discriminated against. We can't solve all of it. But we CAN begin by seeing ourselves as others do, rather than just how we imagine ourselves. Once we see it, we can actually turn our privilege into a tool of justice, helping open doors for others and break down barriers. We just can't get there until we acknowledge reality. Often times, I AM Manoah. But even just writing this blog post helps me see that, and helps me try to change my behavior. It might not seem like much, but it's a start.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image of "manspreading" courtesy of Richard Yeh / WNYC on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of ענת צילקר on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of PersianDutchNetwork on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "mansplaining" courtesy of Robert G. Hofmann on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 18, 2018

Haftarat B'Midbar: How Do We Remove The "Lo"?

Oh boy. What a week it has been. Who needs horror movies or action films, when turning on the evening news gets your heart pumping and blood boiling within seconds?? There are so many challenging, upsetting, difficult, uncomfortable, outrageous, problematic things happening around the world and within our country; I feel frozen by a combination of not knowing what to say or where to begin,
and also concern that anything I say, on any side of nearly ANY issue, will upset someone. Recently, I feel I have also been receiving conflicting messages about my rabbinate and my work in the community. On the one hand, this week I received the Media Fellowship House's Marie Whitaker Humanitarian Award, in large part because of our synagogue's work with FUSE, and I believe (I hope) that many congregants feel proud of what we've accomplished and what we're doing. On the other hand, I have started hearing whispers of my doing too much OUTSIDE the community, and not enough within Ohev Shalom and/or for Jewish causes. It's the push-and-pull of this work, which sometimes feels like the burden imposed on the ancient prophets. Take this week's Haftarah, for example.

Our Haftarah comes from the writings of the prophet Hosea, who wrote in the 8th Century BCE. God instructed Hosea to marry a prostitute (!) as a symbol of Israel's betrayal of God, and their abandonment of the covenant, which Hosea described as a marriage contract. Hosea's wife, Gomer,
gave birth to several children, and God instructed to give them some pretty eyebrow-raising names, like "Lo-Ruchamah" (meaning "Not Loved") and "Lo-Ammi" (meaning "Not My People). Imagine the teacher's reaction on the first day of school for THOSE kids!! Lucky for me, God and I don't talk as much, and God hasn't demanded any such dramatic actions. But being a rabbi CAN feel like being a prophet. Hosea is instructed to tell the people that God will rebuke them for their idolatry: "I will end all her rejoicing; her festivals, new moons, and sabbaths - all her festive seasons... I will punish her for the day of the Baalim [idols]" (2:13, 15). The people of Israel thought what they were doing was great... but God was displeased nonetheless.

The texts of our ancient prophets - like Hosea - speak alarmingly of the hubris of Israel, it's going astray and losing all sense of compassion. They would obsess over things like Temple sacrifices, fixated on buildings in the Holy City, as if they were embassies to God. And they would mistreat the less fortunate, giving themselves excuses like, "they aren't as holy as we are," or "they don't have a
'legitimate' claim to this land, so we are absolved of guilt." The prophets warn us again and again: God won't tolerate this forever. Corruption, abuse, violence, blockades - we can't keep moving in this direction, with excuses of "what-aboutism" or "well, they started it!", and think that no comeuppance is waiting on the other end. Do we really need to name our children "Lo-Ruchamah" and "Lo-Ammi" to wake up and see what we're doing? I love Israel, and I feel tremendous pain in admonishing her, just as I can hear pain and sadness in Hosea's prophecies. He describes the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage BECAUSE there is genuine, deep love there... but a spouse can also hurt you deeper than someone you don't know. When someone you love acts deplorably, the pain is excruciating.

Our Haftarah offers a message of hope; the unloved, rejected children are renamed "My People" and "Lovingly Accepted" (2:3). In both instances, the change requires only the removal of one word, two little letters: "Lo" (No or Not). Sometimes, a "no" can be helpful and important, like in several of the Ten Commandments, which we read this weekend for the holiday of Shavuot. "Don't steal" and "Don't murder," the Torah reminds us; those are the kinds of violations that God takes VERY seriously.
But "no" can also leave us callous and unkind, like when our fences, walls, and borders declare "NO!" to anyone trying to enter. And when we say "NO!" to introspection, self-examination, and admitting fault. God doesn't demand that we care for those less fortunate, discriminated against, and forgotten, because it's easy! Or because it's profitable or will give us more power. We care for those around us - on the other side of a highway or across a border wall - because we ourselves CANNOT be "Ruchamah" or "Ammi" without compassion. If we keep saying "LO!!!" then how could we have the audacity to think we don't deserve that label? When we chant that word repeatedly, with our words and our actions, then we are sealing our own fate, and we have no right to ask God to change our name. We need to remove the label of negativity, exclusion, xenophobia, and racism, and we need to do it ourselves. No more whataboutism, fear-mongering, or excuses. The road to a better future, to becoming "Lovingly Accepted," begins with an open arm and a "yes." And it needs to begin NOW.

Images in this blog post:
1. Image from the Media Fellowship House Annual Meeting, May 16, 2018, courtesy of David Pollack
2. CC image courtesy of U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Eviatar Bach on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Wikipedia

Jewish Exponent Article: Anne Frank is Universal; So Don't Knock Universal Casting

I wanted to share with you (if you haven't already seen it on Facebook...) an article of mine that was just published in the Jewish Exponent (May 16, 2018). I already wrote here, on the blog, about my experience seeing Anne Frank at The People's Light Theater in Malvern, but the more I thought about the performance, the more I felt I needed to write something more publicly, as a rabbi, in defense of the show. Your comments/thoughts/reactions/feedback are all welcome. Thank you!

You can also find the article online here.

A friend of mine invited me to attend the People’s Light staging of The Diary of Anne Frank in Malvern. Having seen The Diary performed many times over the years, I wasn’t sure — to paraphrase the Passover haggadah — why this production would be different from all other productions. Nevertheless, I went, and I am glad that I did.

My friend informed me that the cast would be multi-racial, but I didn’t fully internalize that fact until the lights went up. I must admit, when the van Daan family came out on stage, with two African-American parents and one Caucasian son, all wearing the infamous yellow Jewish star on their coats, I was taken aback. It was different; like walking out into a sunny day after being indoors for a long time, my eyes had to adjust.

Yet I also maintain that, within a couple of minutes, it was entirely a non-issue. This was a fabulous performance by terrific actors, depicting an important and powerful — albeit painful — story. Brittany Anikka Liu, who played Anne, was exceptionally talented, and I was overall impressed with the whole production.

I was also surprised to learn how controversial this staging had become, and how some people took offense at using a multiracial cast to portray these Dutch, mid-century Jews. In particular, Wendy Rosenfield’s March article, “The All Lives Matter-ing of Anne Frank,” on expressed concern, to say the least, about staging Anne Frank this way.

Rosenfield wrote in her opening paragraph: “I know this much: Anne’s story isn’t multicultural; it’s Jewish.”

While I understand where she’s coming from, and I appreciate her references to the original production of Anne Frank in 1955, where “universal appeal” did mean “the antonym of Jewish,” I must disagree with her critique.

First of all, the People’s Light production is incredibly Jewish and still universal. As a rabbi, I can tell you that I greatly appreciated even tiny attentions to detail, like having the two families light the shamash candle for Chanukah with a match, then extinguish the match and use the shamash to light the candle for the first night of the holiday (rather than just lighting both candles with the match), a distinction that would certainly be lost on many, if not most, attendees). This performance was respectful, knowledgeable and reverent, while also making many attempts to include all audience members and draw them in to Anne’s story.

I disagree completely with the critics here because I feel strongly that we want this story to have universal appeal; we need it to. For decades, if not centuries, we have declared that our persecution should be everyone’s concern. The plight of Jews under Soviet oppression was not just a Jewish issue; we wanted our neighbors and friends (and politicians) to care as well.

Anti-Semitism is simply another form of racism. We must band together with other targets of racist attacks because we are always stronger together. If we want them to care, we need to care as well.

When the Gestapo burst onto that stage in Malvern and everyone was marched out with their hands in the air, race didn’t matter. I found that particular moment incredibly powerful and a stark reminder that hate and violence harm us all. I can’t understand why critics like Rosenfield would want to keep people away from this story, why we wouldn’t want them to own it, to feel its pain and to cry along with us.

And while it may be uncomfortable to ask this question, I wonder if these same critics are aware that Anne Frank has been performed across the globe, countless times, and often by casts that were entirely made up of non-Jews. If those productions didn’t bother us, why would this one? And how can we understand this critique as anything but based on the difference in skin color?

At this specific moment in our nation’s history, the messages of the Holocaust, the scourge of anti-Semitism and the tragic fate of the Frank and van Daan families is more relevant than ever. As Jews, we sometimes straddle the line between (white) majority and (religious) minority. We also have the luxury of seeing ourselves represented in TV, movies, literature, arts and sciences, and many other places, far beyond our meager numbers in this country.

It is hard for us to argue, as Jews, that we can appreciate how it feels to not see yourself represented in pop culture. We don’t know what that feels like. We need productions like this one to declare — loud and clear — that our stories are universal, and that violence against one group is violence perpetrated against all of us.

I was disappointed in the headline on Rosenfield’s piece, comparing a multiracial cast of The Diary of Anne Frank with the corrupting intent of the All Lives Matter movement in opposition to Black Lives Matter. This production was powerful, intentional and respectful. It took a story that is relevant and poignant in any era, and made it even more crucial to our moment in time, and to the fight against oppression of all people in all places.

Sharing our history and our lessons with others makes me proud to be Jewish. Seeing a multiracial, multicultural audience engaging with the story of Anne Frank — in part because of this unique cast — was almost as powerful as the performance on stage. Sitting together in the dark, we were all united. And that is as it should be.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Haftarat Behar-Bechukotai: Swear and Pray... But Also DO!

If you've ever been in a courtroom (or even seen one recreated on TV...), you may be familiar with a particular image. It is a powerful moment - occurring every time a witness is called up - yet it often passes by without much fanfare.
Before anyone can give testimony, they have to put their right hand on the Bible/Tanach/Koran, and "swear" to speak truthfully on the stand. I'm sure you're all aware of this ritual, but I want to note it for a particular reason. Essentially, what we are saying to the person is, "I can't FORCE you to be honest... but please do so anyway. Why? Because Someone (up above) knows what's in your heart." Sure, we have perjury laws, and some amount of social pressure to be a trustworthy, reputable person. But in the end, we cannot compel another human being, so that the words coming out of their mouth MUST be the truth, like some Jim Carrey movie. Even a polygraph test isn't fool-proof. So we do the Bible-thing. We remind people that even if we humans don't know the objective truth, a Higher Power does know... and is ALWAYS watching! Which, of course, means that no one lies on the stand, right? RIGHT???

Sadly, we know that isn't the case, and our ancestors had to face the same reality as well. They too did everything they could to cajole honesty, but it didn't always work. This week - in both the Torah reading AND the Haftarah - we read about
some of their methods. Their techniques, and ours as well, remind us that free will is a VERY powerful force. God pleads, we yell, the prophets rebuke; but in the end, people still get to decide for themselves. Amazingly, this seems to perplex the prophets of old... and even God! They know they will be punished, and yet they sin nonetheless. WHY??? God makes it abundantly clear, relayed by the prophet Jeremiah, that: "Most devious is the heart; it is perverse - who can fathom it? I, Adonai, probe the heart, search the mind, to repay individuals according to their ways, with the proper fruit of their deeds." (Jeremiah, 17:9) So what happens if that isn't your theology? If you don't believe God has that power, or perhaps don't even believe in a God at all???

This isn't just a modern, contemporary fear; even our ancient forebears worried about this blasphemous concept! Like speech, you can't MAKE someone believe. Certainly today, we see examples of people blatantly disregarding laws, morals, and even social norms. Celebrities, producers, politicians, Attorneys General; one after another they are revealed to be hypocrites,
thieves, abusers, and yes, liars (even under oath). I am especially dumbfounded by the sanctimonious duplicity of public figures who can support a cause or issue outwardly, while violating that very same subject behind closed doors. I could give an example or two, but it's hard to highlight the worst one(s). There are simply too many top (or bottom) candidates. I also want to emphasize the importance of these deceptions being exposed publicly. Because clearly it is not enough to keep reiterating the laws, and the hand-on-holy-book rule isn't galvanizing enough hearts. But there is still us. We, as a community and a society, can drag into the light these horrific behaviors, and demand justice for all these transgressions. Personally, I DO still believe that God will judge each person in the end as well... but right now we've got to mold our society to fit our values. The responsibility is ours here on earth!

A colleague and friend of mine, Zakiya Islam, recently articulated an interesting point about theology to my monthly Lunch n' Learn group. The question was raised, why does God "need" all this praise, worship, and loyalty? Her response was (and I'm paraphrasing), it isn't really God who needs all of this. But when we dedicate
ourselves to something, when we focus our energies and our prayers, when we live by a certain code and abide by it; all these things make US better people. I thought about this a lot, and I wholeheartedly agree. Look at another quote from Jeremiah, also from our Haftarah: "All who forsake You shall be put to shame. Those in the land who turn from You shall be doomed, for they have forsaken Adonai" (17:13). It is certainly possible that Jeremiah means God will punish and shame these violators. But their offenses affect us - all of us - and not just God. We all need to take responsibility for our shared society, and hold those who behave immorally and with evil intent accountable. I hope that some day, in some place beyond, God will also bring a reckoning to those who deserve it. But in this moment, we must do our part. The prayers we direct heaven-ward should compel our own hearts and spur us to action; they aren't just for God. In that way, our prayers can be SO powerful; they can urge us to be more vigilant, just, and protective of those who need our help. They really can; hand on the Bible, I swear to God!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of a movie poster for the film "Liar, Liar," starring Jim Carrey
2. CC image courtesy of Shawn Rossi on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of James N. Mattis on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of O'Dea on Wikimedia Commons (uh oh...)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Haftarat Emor: The Prophecies of an Ancient Conservative Jew

Earlier this week, I was invited to Strath Haven High School, just down the road from Ohev Shalom, to sit on a panel and represent Conservative Judaism. The students were learning about world religions, and in the section on Judaism,
the teacher wanted to bring in people to speak about Orthodoxy, Reconstructing/Reform Judaism, and our denomination, Conservative Judaism. (A brief side note: this was my FIRST visit to the High School, despite having lived in the community for NINE years!!) It was a very interesting experience, and several kids asked intriguing questions. I also enjoyed hearing the perspectives of my co-panelists, and matching what they said with my own understanding of their denominations. Now, you may be asking yourself, what did I say about the Conservative Movement? Was I able to sum it up in just THREE words? (Answer: yes) And you may also be wondering what any of this has to do with this week's Torah portion or Haftarah. Well, let's just see if the prophet Ezekiel can shed some light on that for us, shall we?

I believe I've mentioned this before in the year, but I'm really enjoying our series on Haftarot; a departure from our usual focus on the weekly Torah portions. One intriguing theme that we've unearthed, that we rarely talk about, is the sneaky rabbinic tactic of presenting us with a Haftarah that
critiques, challenges, or even undermines its partner-portion. What a devious thing to do! As a Conservative Jew, I might argue that the rabbis are offering us a model that we can - and perhaps even SHOULD - follow. The text is not meant to be taken at face value (at least not face value alone...), but is instead open to pushback, debate, and even evolution. Our ancestors did it, and now it's our turn. If we shy away from that duty, Judaism will stagnate, atrophy, and wither away. The discussions and debates are what keep it alive! The prophet Ezekiel knew this very well, and by inviting us to read his words, specifically juxtaposed with Parashat Emor, the rabbis are agreeing with Ezekiel, and asking US to do the same.

Ok, I'll stop beating around the bush. Here's what I mean: Our Torah portion outlines the responsibilities of the High Priest in the Temple, and is very clear about a hierarchy of leadership among the priests. God tells Moses to relay to Aaron that he and his descendants run the show; plain and simple. Later in the Torah,
in Numbers 18:6-7, this is reemphasized with even STRONGER language still: "I [God] hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to Adonai, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting; while you and your sons shall be careful to perform your priestly duties in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain. I make your priesthood a service of dedication; any outsider who encroaches shall be PUT TO DEATH!" Hard to misread that, right? And yet, just a few hundred years later, Ezekiel CHANGES God's command. In 44:15, he writes, "Now, the Levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people Israel went astray from Me, they shall approach Me to minister to Me." Zadok lived at the time of King David, and may or may not have been a descendant of Aaron's. Even if he was, Ezekiel is severely limiting the group of central priests to JUST Zadok's line; all other descendants of Aaron's are out.

There are other discrepancies in Ezekiel's description of Temple worship, not just this political coup. So much so, in fact, that some later rabbinic authorities tried to ban Ezekiel's book from the Bible! Ultimately, however, it was kept. And I'm so glad it survived the scrutiny. Because it reflects the central creed of Conservative Judaism (in just three words): "Tradition and Change."
Our world looks different today; there's no sacrificial rite anymore. But even in Ezekiel's day - when there WAS a Temple - he advocated retaining the rituals and obligations pertaining to the altar, BUT he also saw the serious failings of some of the country's appointed leaders. He felt that change was imperative, and that only one particular group should be allowed to rule. When necessary, we have an obligation to reinterpret our texts, and to update them to the ethical, social, and inclusive values of our time. Change isn't immediate or wholesale, but we must constantly remain sensitive to, and respectful of, both the Halachah, rituals, and traditions of the past, AND the needs of our communities today. Tradition and Change; delicately held in balance at all times. Ezekiel got it, the rabbis got it, and now I pass it along to you. Get it?

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of... um... three fingers. :-)
3. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of the cover of Mordecai Waxman's book, "Tradition and Change," available on Amazon 

L'Chaim (Monthly Newsletter Article) - May 2018: Remembering to Remember EVERY year!

Later this month, we will be acknowledging Memorial Day. We do this every year, and most of you probably knew that, but I wanted to highlight it for a particular reason. Well, actually for a couple of reasons. First, I hope you'll make the time to attend. This ceremony used to be much better attended, but as fewer and fewer of us serve in the military or have relatives who have served, it seems to feel less relevant in our lives. Nevertheless, it is important to remember those who fought in previous conflicts and who are currently on active duty. And, perhaps a little bit unrelated, I also think it's a crucial part of synagogue life to interact with our cemetery. It is an important part of Ohev's history, and I wish more people felt a sense of connection to it as a sacred and beautiful space.

Now I want to shift my focus a little bit. Rather than just thinking about Memorial Day, I invite you to take a moment and think about remembrances in general. You may be familiar with the Jewish concept of a yahrzeit, or you may not. The term actually comes from Yiddish, and means essentially "annual time," but really it connotes an annual remembrance of loved ones. Some people have the tradition of lighting a candle during the yahrzeit for, say, a parent or spouse, but many people don't really think to ritualize this moment. I would like to make an appeal for you to make time for yahrzeits in your life.

Like Memorial Day, it is a way of sanctifying something important, and keeping our history with us, whether good or bad. In the Jewish tradition, many people come to services on (or around) a yahrzeit, where they can take an aliyah to the Torah in memory of the deceased. There is also a beautiful prayer that is recited at this occasion, called “Eil Malei Rachamim,” which Rabbi Miller or I would be honored to chant for or with you. Technically, it is understood to be a prayer on behalf of the soul of our loved one, but regardless of your theology, I think it's a wonderful opportunity to connect with a joyful memory. And again, when we ritualize something, we infuse it with meaning and purpose.

So much of our lives is spent living in the moment, just focusing on the next task or deadline. That's just kind of how it goes, and I get it. I do it too. But a powerful reason that we, as Jews, have survived for millennia is our ability to bring our history along on our journey wherever and whenever we go. Memorial Day is a good reminder of the debt we owe to those who have fought for our nation, and it can teach us gratitude, humility, and communal responsibility. A yahrzeit can serve a similar purpose. It will help you connect to your personal history, to your family ancestry, and, if you come to morning minyan, to your community as well.
History is not meant to be a dusty old concept, stuck on a shelf or relegated to the recesses of our minds. Bring it with you, and KEEP it with you, and I think you’ll find that it can enrich the here and now, and our tomorrows as well.


Rabbi Gerber

Friday, April 27, 2018

Haftarat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: You Got Something to Say??

My daughter, Caroline, is five-and-a-half. She talks a lot. Basically, all the time. As I'm sure many/most/all of you can imagine. But once in a while, when she's frustrated or annoyed at something, she'll just grunt or groan at us for something - usually food. She goes non-verbal. Sometimes, based on
history and just knowing my kid, I might know what it is she wants, but often I have no idea. And even if I DO know, I'm likely to say, "Use your words, please." You may be chuckling right now - either out of personal experience or just a general sense of how kids are - but the reality is that non-verbal behavior is NOT limited to children. Breakdowns in communication, or just flat-out NO communication, are common among adults as well. And sadly, their repercussions can often be MUCH more dire. A fundamental building block of any society is relationship; and often the way we know if a relationship is firm or unstable is through communication. Do you know what I'm saying?

Translating this relationship/communication conversation to a Jewish framework, I really like a description that I once heard, which stated that the prayers we recite from the Siddur are OUR way of speaking to God; while the chanting of the Torah
portion every week is God's way of speaking back to us. In essence, it's a dialogue. The problem, however, is that we are often not listening. Our Torah portion includes an important command, namely "Kedoshim Tihyu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem" - "You [the people] shall be holy, for I, Adonai, your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). And then the Torah goes on to list a long series of commandments and behaviors that will help keep the relationship strong. They will bind us to God, and allow us to hold on to God's favor. But then, the Haftarah which our ancestors chose to link to this Torah portion cries out a different message altogether.

It comes from the prophet Amos, who railed against the people for their sinful behavior. He proclaims: "All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, [those] who boast: 'Never shall the evil overtake us or come near us'" (9:10). Yikes! Clearly a serious breakdown in understanding. God is incredibly angry, and our ancestors continue to pretend they're invincible.
Perhaps most hurtfully, Amos exclaims, "To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians." In essence, he's saying "You think you're so special? I've got a relationship with ALL my children, you dope! Clean up your act!!!" I'm paraphrasing, of course... But the reason I am highlighting this for all of us, is that the rabbis are using a subtle technique to convey a message to US; not just to an ancient audience. Relationships - whether Divine or between humans - take CONSTANT work. We started out super-holy and super-connected. A rock-solid relationship with Adonai. And yet, it's actually more fragile than it appears. Every year, make sure to read Amos along with Leviticus, because you HAVE TO remember that all relationships and important connections between individuals require work, maintenance, and consistent communication.

This issue has especially been on my mind this week. I led a discussion with our Sisterhood about Interfaith relationships, Same-sex marriage, and Transgender inclusion. We mainly focused on the overarching principle of who is "in" and who is "out," and how can we widen our circle, open our arms, and most importantly,
CONVEY that we live our principles; we don't just talk about them. Two days later, I led a very different discussion with Men's Club, about the pervasive loneliness of men in society. In particular, our lack of communication, our inability to be vulnerable and to reach out to others for help, and our insistence on declaring over and over "I'm fine" (when we're not), is truly harming us males. I also attended a relationship-building retreat with members from Ohev and another nearby shul, Beth Israel. In short, I feel this is an extremely important topic. I'm going to stop talking now. But that means YOU have to pick up the baton. What's going on with you? When do you keep emotions shoved down deep inside, when they desperately cry out for release?? Don't wait. Remember Amos' prophecies, don't rest on your laurels and just HOPE it'll all be fine. Act now. I'm listening...

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of my children, Caroline and Max, playing outside our house, April 2018
2. Image from the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Fein, November 2010
3. CC image courtesy of QUOI Media on Flickr

Friday, April 20, 2018

Haftarat Yom Ha'atzmaut: Praying and Pushing for the Ideal

Two weeks ago, we concluded the holiday of Passover. In the waning hours of the festival, I was chatting with my father back in Sweden, who was VERY ready for 
Pesach to end. He noted that, for a holiday all about freedom, he sure felt bound to a lot of rituals and laws throughout these meddlesome eight days! During Pesach, he didn't feel very free AT ALL. I thought about it for a moment, and then replied: "Maybe that's the whole point." The freedom we're celebrating doesn't come DURING the holiday, but rather after it. We spend a week and a day obsessing over crumbs, leaven, and food labels, so that when Pesach is finally over, we will have a newfound appreciation and gratitude for the freedoms of everyday life. The holiday is a vehicle for thinking about, and feeling closer to, freedom; it is not the end result. Right now, as we observe a DIFFERENT holiday, I've been feeling like the State of Israel functions in much the same way.

This week, Israel is celebrating her 70th birthday. It's Yom Ha-Atzmaut, our annual celebration of Israel's Independence Day, but this year is a special milestone. In some ways, it is truly a miracle that Israel is still here, despite the best efforts of some extremely violent and antagonistic foes. Yet in other ways,
it is sad that seven decades later, Israel still faces daily existential threats. Its leaders struggle to figure out how to govern a diverse, stubborn, strong-willed, passionate population, and stability and peace feel VERY far away. So how does Israel remind me of Passover, and vice-versa? Each has a side that is flawless and ideal, and also a side that is harsher, harder, and more real. We envision perfect, peaceful, effortless versions of the holiday AND the state... but the lived experience sometimes (often) does not measure up. Let's be honest here; Israel has fallen - and is currently falling - short in many, many ways. Expelling African asylum seekers, using live bullets on protesters in Gaza, and widespread corruption in the government; these are all painful reminders that our Zionist dreams have not been fulfilled. Sure, many countries commit similar atrocities. Israel isn't the only culprit, and by far not the worst. And yet, today, on Yom Ha-Atzmaut, we also must remember that we had higher hopes for The Holy Land.

Over the last couple of decades, liturgy has been written to make Yom Ha-Atzmaut seem less like a modern-day quasi-holiday, and more like an official, legitimate-as-any-other festival on our Jewish calendar. We chant the Hallel prayers, we speak 
of the War of Independence as a "miracle," comparable to Chanukah or Purim, we have a special Torah reading for the day, and we even chant a Haftarah. Interestingly, the Haftarah that was chosen is the same one chanted on the eighth day of Passover, again inviting comparisons between the holiday and the country. The text includes Isaiah's famous vision: "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb... the cow and the bear shall graze together... in all of My holy mountain, nothing evil or vile shall be done" (11:6, 7, 9). This is an important prophecy to read on this day, because it reminds us that we are caught somewhere between the real and the ideal.

Isaiah is NOT describing Israel today. When we try to claim that, or wear blinders so we can talk about what a marvelous, fabulous, unassailable place it is, we are not only kidding ourselves, we are also constraining our ability to have thoughtful, productive, necessary discussions about the state of the State. 
But if we abandon the vision altogether, we may become overly harsh and condemning. We then cede the conversation to the BDS movement and other objectionable (in my opinion) groups. So I actually think it's imperative that we chant Haftarot like this one and recite prayers for Israel, AND voice both our support and our deep concerns. Passover teaches us to be free, and to appreciate freedom, by forcing us to spend a week quite constricted. Many of us feel similarly constricted and conflicted regarding Israel, but those feelings are actually teaching us and reminding us what freedom could - and MUST - look like. And so we do both; we pray and we push, we chant prophecies and challenge prime ministers. And all the while we strive diligently and unwaveringly for peace. That is our birthday wish, on Israel's milestone 70th.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rainerzufall1234 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Churchh on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of William Strutt's 1896 etching, "Peace," courtesy of Tomisti on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gnash on Wikimedia Commons