Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teen Spirit

Today was inspiring. That’s because I visited with hundreds of Conservative young people gathered in Jerusalem as part of Ramah Seminar and USY Israel Pilgrimage. I’ve done this for the last few summers, but being with the teens today, imbibing their remarkable energy and high spirits, was truly infectious.

Our USY groups are among the roughly 40 trips for young people now in Israel.  As I said today on my conference call with kehilla leaders and USY parents, the safety of our students is our highest priority. We are in contact every day with Israeli security agencies, going over itineraries and re-arranging schedules to make sure our teens are safe. Our staff is well-trained and our kids have been briefed repeatedly on how to respond if there is a siren.

USY Israel Pilgrimage staff
And I can say unequivocally that our teens are safe and that they’re behaving in a way we can all be proud of. They’ve shown amazing maturity, and they are clearly having an incredible time. Our goals for these trips are to strengthen our students’ Jewish identity, enrich their knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history, and promote their social development. All of these goals continue to be met.  And though we would never have planned it this way, our kids are also gaining first-hand insight into the political reality of modern Israel.

I’ve been asked recently: when would you send them home? And the answer is, if the security situation deteriorated to a point where our teens were spending more time indoors watching movies than out having a meaningful experience, then yes, it would be time to come home. So far, we are not even close to that.

USCJ Family Israel Experience participants
at De Karina Chocolate Factory
And it’s not only our kids who are here. Across Israel, Conservative Jews – rabbis, families, congregations – are traveling, studying, and having fun. USCJ’s own family trip recently ended after a remarkable tour, and our Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem is filled with summer students of all ages, including a large new contingent of Jews from France.

Iron Dome is doing its job. Hard as it can be to envision from far away, life in Israel goes on; the abnormal sense of normalcy continues.

Because USCJ sits on the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized this mission, we have had tremendous access to military and government officials. We’ve heard them speak about the moral dilemma they face in fighting an enemy which hides its weapons and fighters in homes, schools, and mosques. They struggle with the imperative to defend themselves while trying to avoid civilian casualties. They know that when they warn civilians in Gaza about an imminent airstrike they are also giving Hamas commanders a chance to flee.  They know this, but they are willing to pay that price if they can prevent civilian deaths.

Now Israel must decide what comes next. The leaders we spoke with, including Ami Dror, the country’s former National Security Advisor, said there are only a few options; each of course comes with a price. Allow a cease-fire to end the attacks, but then Israel could face the prospect of a barrage of Hamas rockets every few years. Perhaps Iron Dome works well enough that this is acceptable. Or go into Gaza in a limited way, and take out more rockets and bases, along with the offensive tunnels built to let Hamas operatives get into Israel and cause trouble. Or finally, re-take Gaza, end the rocket attacks, but face a high cost militarily, economically, and diplomatically. (As I send this, I just heard the news that Israel has entered Gaza.)

Israeli leaders will make that decision themselves. What can we do? Donate to the Stop the Sirens campaign, which is helping support Israelis in the line of fire. Take a moment to thank your political leaders in the U.S. for funding Iron Dome. If you’re Canadian, thank Prime Minister Harper for speaking out about Israel’s right to defend itself. Israelis told us repeated how grateful they are to both the U.S. and Canada for their support.

They are grateful to us, as well, for coming here and standing with them, letting them know they’re not alone.

Oseh shalom bi-m’romav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael – v’al kol yoshvei tevel – v’imru amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Fast Day

Today is the 17th of Tammuz.  It's what is called a minor fast in our tradition.  Minor because like Ramadan it is a day fast and not a full 25 hour fast like Yom Kippur or Tisha B'av.  According to tradition, it was on the 17th of Tammuz that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army, leading to the destruction of the First Temple and first exile of the Jewish people.

This year, along with the 45 teens on our Eastern European Israel Pilgrimage, I saw the Ishtar Gate at the Pergomon Museum in Berlin. This is the gate the exiles were marched through so many years ago.  And now, I sit in Jerusalem, on the deck of my hotel, on a beautiful day, on a solidarity mission to Israel as it is under fire from its modern day enemy.

With regard to this fast I tend to follow the ruling of the Geonim, the middle age decisors of Halakhah, that when Israel is at peace, one may choose not to fast. For them "at peace" meant Israel reestablished and the coming of Mashiah. For me, it means Israel reestablished and not in a shooting war. So this year, as during the Second Lebanon War, I fast.

The day began with a little bit of hope. The Egyptians offered a cease fire. Israel accepted it. Hamas did not and continued to fire on Israel. The government waited six hours for quiet before returning fire around 3 pm. 

At 7pm I got my first experience of what a typical Israeli goes through in this war. On our bus to Tel Aviv the siren sounded. We found shelter under a bridge, bent over and covered the back of our heads with our hands and waited. The sound of the Iron Dome deploying (the same one we visited yesterday) was audible. Its interception of the rocket was a loud boom. Then we waited two full minutes to allow any debris to settle. And went on our way. It was a fast experience.

It was a surreal experience. My mind knew what it meant. My spirit is still trying to figure it out. Thank God for the Iron Dome. Had the missile been able to hit a target, many would have been killed or injured.  

Ten minutes after the sirens, at the beach
And then, as yesterday, Israelis went about their business. Back to the beach, back to work, back to the playground, back to the abnormal normalcy of Israel under fire.

Today our group met with a number of policy experts and politicians.

President-elect Ruby Rivlin thanked us for coming and shared with us a glimpse of his vision of the presidency as someone who enables the critical dialogue of Israeli and Jewish society to occur.

President Peres greeted us at the president's residence and was his typical optimistic self. I was moved by his reflections on why he remains an optimist.  He reminisced about the early days of the State when Israel had so little: no water, no weapons, no friends, no agriculture, less than 700,000 people. How Ben Gurion invited him to work with him in the Hagannah in 1947 and they had no desk for him. So he sat at the desk of the chief of staff and found a letter from someone who was invited to be the chief of staff but, understanding Israel's situation, declined. Why? Because at that time Israel had only six million cartridges of bullets. In war at that time one would use one million a day. This person didn't want to be the chief of staff of the Hagannah for only six days!  Of course, Peres was so modest and didn't mention that it was his job to procure weapons and weapon systems for the fledgling army and state.  (And he did that, founding Israel's military industries.)

Peres is an optimist because 66 years later Israel has eight million people, a strong economy, a strong military, friends like the U.S. and most importantly, a strong people. As he is fond of reminding us, it is the people who innovate and make the land, not the other way around.  It is always a privilege to be in his presence. More so today, as he is one week away from ending his term.

We also met with the chair of the Knesset's security committee, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Minister Naftali Bennet, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF Spokepersons Bureau and former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (left) and  me with Lt. Col. Peter Lerner

From Lt. Col. Lerner we learned the extent to which the IDF goes to protect and reduce civilian casualties. It's a three-pronged approach.  

First the IDF calls the residents and drops leaflets for those who live in the vicinity of a target, telling them that they should leave.

Then they "knock on the building" by deploying a lightweight device on the roof.

Then they choose the type of ordnance needed to destroy their target, and only their target, and deploy it.  

As a result, the IDF knows that the enemy will likely also get the message and leave the vicinity, as well. They are prepared to take that risk and destroy his operational capacity by destroying the facility. They do this, because they value every human life.

Lerner shared with us video of how the chosen ordnance destroys its target and we were able to see what happens when there is a secondary explosion, much larger than Israel's action. The secondary explosion is caused by Hamas munitions in the target area. It's this explosion which causes more damage and is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.  

By storing munitions in homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals, and because they continue to attack Israel, Hamas is clearly responsible for Palestinian losses.

The challenge the IDF has in all of this is that the reporters only see the aftermath and destruction. And with news cycles being what they are today, the story is skewed. Though thus far, Lerner feels the press has been fairly balanced in its reporting. That could change, and probably will as the operation continues and enemy losses mount.

But with more than 1,000 rockets fired on Israel what alternatives does it have? And the numbers game is a perversion of morality. Read a piece on this concept by my colleague Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Finally, Yaakov Amidror, who only 4 months ago was the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, gave a sobering analysis of the choices Israel has. Basically there are only two.

It can have a limited engagement to destroy current stockpiles and create a period of calm that might last two, three, maybe even five years, knowing it will have to fight this fight again.

Or it can re-conquer Gaza and stop the rockets for good.

Both come at a price. The only relevant decision is which price is the wise one? Which price is Israel willing to pay for quiet?

I am reminded of the wisdom of Golda Meir who said: “There will be peace when the Palestinians learn to love their children more than they hate ours.” And “I can forgive the Palestinians for killing us. I can't forgive them for causing us to kill them.”

The view from my hotel balcony
And yet, life goes on. An abnormal normalcy. Right now it's quiet. I'm sitting on the balcony of my hotel overlooking the New Train Station in Jerusalem.  It's a beautiful day. The beginning of day three.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mixed Messages

July 14, 2014 / 16 Tammuz 5774  

Mixed Messages: Israel is Under Attack. And Yes, Life Goes On   
Dear Friends,  
Arriving in Israel, the scene was somewhat surreal.     
On the one hand, Ben Gurion seemed almost normal. Almost, in that there were fewer people arriving than one would have expected during the peak of summer. El Al told us there have been 100 cancellations over the last three days. That explains the empty middle seat.     
And normal, in that there was not a rush of tourist or others leaving the country. The flow of passengers seemed about average.   
Everywhere I looked, in every meeting we had with Israeli officials, these were some of the mixed messages we saw and heard:  
  • Hamas rockets threaten more than 50% of Israel's citizens. Each and every one is a war crime in that they are aimed indiscriminately at civilians. Almost 1,000 rockets have been fired into Israel thus far. Each one seeks to send Israelis to bomb shelters; to disrupt daily life; to stoke fear in the Israelis and to cause as much damage and death as possible.     
    USY President Aaron Pluemer, and me, at the Iron Dome
  • Yet, driving down the beach in Tel Aviv one sees it packed with surfers, sun bathers, and more. Iron Dome is a miracle and plays a huge role in this. Thanks to U.S. financial support, Iron Dome is saving lives. Deployed to protect the major population centers this impressive defensive system has been more than 90% effective in shooting down rockets headed to Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. When a missile does get through, thanks to the Home Front Command’s preparation and the discipline of Israelis in following directions to shelter, there has thus far been no loss of life, minimal injuries, and minimal property damage.   
  • We've heard a very strong and clear message to thank the US for this.  
  • Iron Dome has given Israel the time necessary to make good decisions.   
  • And, Iron Dome has indirectly saved Palestinian lives in that Israel is able to respond strategically from the air, and not with more force, because of the lack of Israeli casualties.   
  • The mayors of Sderot and Ashkelon spoke to us about how one of the aims of the missiles, as stated in Hamas' charter is the destruction of Israel. They do not desire two states, they desire one – Palestine.  All of it. So the rockets are fired to cause Israelis to flee. What's Israel's response?  To build. The building projects planned in both of these cities is impressive. Sderot's population is growing, as are its higher educational programs and industry. And in Ashkelon, plans are underway for a beautiful new beach resort hotel. For them, this is not bravado. It's life. Give up Sderot and you give up Ashkelon. Give up Ashkelon and you give up Tel Aviv. I was reminded of the children's book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
  • At the same time, we learned about the preparation and work of social service personnel and emergency responders. In Ashkelon they created something they call GEARS –

  • Dinner at Netzach Yisrael with, from left, Ashkelon's head of social services; USY president Aaron Pluemer; Netzach Yisrael's Rabbi Gustavo Surazski; me; community members Terri and Marty Davis; Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld; MERCAZ Olami past president Rabbi Vernon Kurtz
     Geographical Emergency Analysis and Response System. What it does is map the typology of who lives where. For example, if a missile were to land in an Ethiopian neighborhood, emergency responders know they will need to send someone who speaks Amharic and understands the specific needs of that community during the crisis. The system tracks where there are concentrations of children, elderly, people with disabilities, and cultural nuances. We heard stories, too, of families unwilling to leave shelters or their homes, of post-traumatic stress disorder and what happens when the first responders themselves are directly affected. Just yesterday a missile landed in the front yard of the social services department, shook the building, burst windows, and shook the workers.     
  • The head of the social services department in the city, by the way, is a member of our Masorti kehilla in Ashkelon, Netzach Yisrael, as were many other people involved in the city. We were joined for dinner by the rabbi, president of the kehilla and others. It was heartening to learn about how much our Masorti kehilla contributes to the well-being of the citizens of Ashkelon.     
You, too, can participate in providing for Israelis at this time of need. United Synagogue has joined with URJ and JFNA in the #stopthesirens campaign. Give generously to your local federation or online and help all of Israel, including our Masorti Movement in Israel. Yesterday, JFNA allocated more than $4 million in emergency aid. Our Masorti Noam Camp was one of those recipients and received the necessary funding to totally relocate the camp and its 700 campers to the north. Thank you.   

From the moment I arrived this morning with Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Aaron Pluemer, USY International President, until midnight, the one unified message we heard was “thank you.” Thank you for coming on short notice and for showing your support and thank you for your solidarity. It means a lot and does not go unnoticed.  There was also unanimity on a thank you to the US government for the support of the Iron Dome system.  (Another action item: write your representative or senator and the administration to say thank you.)   

Israeli Ambassador Dan Shapiro with Aaron Pluemer

We met with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, two former IAF generals, one former British commander, and the mayors of Sderot and Ashkelon, and we had a late dinner with people from around Ashkelon. It was a full day, but inspiring. Inspiring, because we saw that not only did Hamas not break the spirit of Israeli society, but instead provided it with an opportunity to demonstrate the resilience and spirit of Israeli society.   

Yes, Israel is under missile attack. And yes, life goes on as normal.   

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Living the Words of Torah

For Jewish parents of school-age children, this time of year is always especially stressful. It seems that just as we breathe a sigh of relief at the conclusion of Passover, we fall into preparations for the end of the school year (and someone’s graduation), the approach of the summer (and all the preparations for camp or summer programs), a vacation or travel (if we are lucky) and preparations for the upcoming school year (whether it entails a child transferring to a new school or new stage of their education).

In the midst of all of this extreme activity, Shavuot happens.

In North America, Shavuot feels different every year, depending on when it falls in the secular calendar. Sometimes it happens when summer is underway, lending it a light-hearted character. This year, it comes so early in June that it seems an extension of Memorial Day.

From the vantage of Shavuot, Passover seems far away, a land with a limited menu we once visited. Indeed, at the approach of Shavuot, we are reminded of the seven weeks that have passed and of the flight of time. For those of us who count the Omer, Shavuot is a destination we approach day-by-day. It is a spiritual – not only spatial and temporal – journey we undertake as a community.

Shavuot is a real insider-Jewish holiday and reference point. Ask the average person to name three Jewish holidays and chances are that Shavuot will not make the list.

Neither is Shavuot’s meaning known widely among the general population. If anything, what people tend to know about the holiday known as Z’man Matan Torateinu is more likely related to cheesecake and blintzes and the custom of staying up all night learning Torah.

This year, as I considered the texts I wished to study on Shavuot, I found myself thinking of the living Torah aspect of this holiday – one of the three pilgrimage festivals – and pondering how best to sanctify the festival whose name translates as the Time of the Giving of the Torah.

The answer was revealed to me, most happily, in the course of a program organized two weeks ago by United Synagogue.

You see, two weeks ago, together with a robust group of United Synagogue staffers, I left the confines of our Manhattan office for our very first Day of Service. This effort was coordinated with our offices in 13 states and one province from New York to California. Together, we were nearly 90 people strong. Together, we served meals to homeless men and women; we helped low-income people gain access to government food programs; we played bingo, sang songs, and kibitzed with seniors at a home for the aged. Together, we came away touched by the people we met, struck by the level of need in our communities, and awed by the impact of the agencies we served. Together, we brought smiles to those who were sad, company to the lonely. We renewed our relationships; we found new meaning to the building of community. By giving to others, the Torah was given again and again as it was on Sinai.

Recognized as Jewish professionals and volunteers, our presence was a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name. We lived the words we study and pray. We were, quite, literally, busy with the words of the Torah, praying with our hands, feet and smiling faces. We were fulfilling the liturgical mandate: “la’asok b’divrei Torah.”

When we returned to the office, I shared several Jewish texts with our Manhattan staff that convey how deeply our sages believed that we are responsible for the welfare of our fellow human beings. I reminded my colleagues of the words from Pirkei Avot: “It is not up to you to complete the task; neither are you allowed to desist from it.”

I hope you will visit the United Synagogue Facebook page for pictures and more information about our recent Day of Service. And I hope that you will take with you…into this Shavuot and beyond…the ethic of living the words of Torah. It is what builds community. It is what makes the world whole. This is a wonderful, beautiful season, the beginning of summer in North America. The message of Shavuot makes everything bloom, helps those of us who feel overwhelmed by all our responsibilities as parents in this season of extreme busyness.

Anytime we can become embodiments of gemilut chasadim – acts of loving kindness – we pay tribute to  Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just Walk Beside Me and Be My Friend

Last week, in the midst of a meeting at United Synagogue, I was astonished to discover that the woman I had just met 20 minutes earlier was, in fact, someone I had previously known some thirty years ago.

The clue was the way she used her hands when she spoke. A passionate and articulate marketing professional, the woman – Pam Goldfarb Liss - had requested a meeting to discuss our new Strategic Plan. My initial reaction was gratitude for the opportunity to meet such a committed member of one of our nearby affiliated synagogues, the Orangetown Jewish Center… and then her hands went to work, punctuating and underscoring her points.

In an instant, a long-ago memory was evoked. I know her, I realized.

But from where?

And then three letters formed instantly in my mind: USY.

After a quick volley of questions – beginning with “Are you from Minneapolis?” – we nailed down the connection. She had been the chapter president of USY and I was newly arrived from Winnipeg. The year was 1984. It was a difficult time in my life involving loss and dramatic transitions but my USY chapter became my haven, my home, my community.

Having discovered our common bond, we both broke into wide smiles that didn’t abate until the meeting ended. The realization that we were teens together in USY was, quite literally, a conversation changer. Once that fact was ascertained, we morphed from organization head and synagogue member into friends, family, fellow sojourners. 

That powerful moment of serendipitous connection happens all the time, everywhere around the world. The shared bond of having been a USYer becomes a shorthand for a whole set of values, beliefs and aspirations.

And though there is a rush that comes from reconnecting with, say, old school and camp friends, the USY bond is especially deep and durable.

It is not merely the excellent programming that USY provides for Jewish teens; it is the lifelong relationships that USY fosters. Time and again, we find that USYers remain bonded with Judaism, with Israel and with one another.

In today’s mobile, disconnected, Jewishly-fragmented world that sense of meaningful relationship is rare.

To encourage the sustainability of USY, we at United Synagogue have been improving the USY experience by bolstering signature programs like Israel Pilgrimage, Nativ, and USY on Wheels, while launching several new initiatives.  We have raised more scholarship money than ever in order to allow more teens to experience our transformational immersive programs.   We’re intensifying our focus on social action and service learning, empowering USYers to become change agents in their communities and the world.

Connecting with Pam through USY last week lifted my spirits, made me feel ageless. The passage of thirty years meant nothing. In a flash, I recalled the transformative power of being part of this most unique fellowship at that most vulnerable moment in my life. I remembered the soul-stirring Shabbat experiences, the rousing songs we sang, the commitment we shared to being fully Jewish, fully North American, fully alive.

And as I was reflecting on the happiness of my USY memories, I remembered a conversation I had two summers ago with a young woman on Pilgrimage. The word she had used to describe her experience was “transformative.” When I pressed her to detail what she meant, the young woman told me that USY helped her face her fears.

This was a hefty claim and I must have looked skeptical so she continued. Walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, she told me, had been a terrifying prospect for her as she was highly claustrophobic, with an extreme fear of the dark to boot. So large was her dread that she almost sat out the trip; however, she was encouraged by her peers to face her fears with the reassurance that inside the tunnel she would be protected at all times with a USYer in front of her and one immediately behind her.

And so she was emboldened to take a journey she never would have taken otherwise.

Over the past few days, the story of this young woman has evoked a song that brings me back to my USY days; that the teens still sing. Known as “Lo Yisa Goy,” it begins:

Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow
Don’t walk in back of me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
And together we will walk in the way of Hashem

My serendipitous reunion with Pam reminded me of something I had always known: to paraphrase another popular song, I’ll never walk alone. Because of USY, I have companions walking beside me in sacred friendship, seeking the way of Hashem.

There is still space to journey to Israel on Pilgrimage or Nativ, with scholarship money available. Give your child the transformative gift of USY. For further information, please visit USY's summer programs information page.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tapping into the Relational Treasures of the Seder

One of the favorite preoccupations of Jewish communal leaders, it seems, is figuring out – and funding – innovative approaches to engage various interest groups in Jewish life.

Whether it is reaching out to the Next Gen, to families of young children, to teens, to Boomers or any other group, there has been a panoply of creative solutions to the problem of disengagement utilizing books, films, an Open Mike approach, a Shabbat format, new curricula, social action, contests, a nationwide initiative.

The success of these offerings rests in their ability to enable the formation of meaningful relationships. After more than a century of serving Conservative synagogues, we at United Synagogue know that the soul of successful programming hinges on its relational power. Indeed, in the wake of our Centennial this past fall, we initiated a Big Read of Ron Wolfson’s seminal work, Relational Judaism.

Utilizing the book’s teachings, we’ve created conferences for synagogue leaders all over the country about how to create congregations that focus on creating a deep sense of personal connection. And next month, we will be offering a webinar with Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, a pioneer in bringing a relational approach to his kehilla.

But why wait for our webinar? This upcoming week, the Jewish calendar presents a powerhouse opportunity for multi-generational, relational engagement in the form of the Passover Seder.

Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover is the most widely observed. Across the denominational divide, Jews are more likely to attend Seders than, say, Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur services. Additionally, people of other faiths are more likely to be guests at a Passover Seder than any other Jewish observance.

Herein rests the relational opportunity of a lifetime.

I hardly have to hawk the marvelous attributes of the Seder or promote the virtues of the Haggadah, a brilliant guidebook to the creation of living ritual. First-time visitors to Seders are usually struck by the interactive quality of the Passover meal, the iconic questions, songs, history, rituals, characters and commentary, the lively and sometimes argumentative discourse that arises from fulfilling the commandment of envisioning ourselves as the very generation that left Egypt.

The Haggadah distills all the elements of a blockbuster novel or film (and in fact, it has spawned both). It has heroes and villains, a tale of triumph against all odds. It has the revolt of nature, dangerous animals and diseases.  It has catchy tunes. It has the Angel of Death.

Each year, I find myself marveling at another aspect of the Seder and each year I am surprised anew by what engages my daughters, wife and Seder guests.

This year, I find myself repeatedly pondering the fourth of the Four Children – the One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

It seems to me that contained within the character of this “child,” and the Haggadah’s instructions for handling her, is a message for the Jewish community at this very moment, a timely and relevant message for all who are concerned with increasing Jewish engagement by building relationships of meaning.

The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask follows the Wise, the Wicked and the Simple children. Her question is silence. The Haggadah instructs us to respond to her silence with the words, “You open (the conversation) for him, stating, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:8).

Reams of commentary have been written about this intriguing fourth child with various explanations for her silence and explanations of who the “You” is.  From a contemporary diagnosis of a learning disability to a psychological assessment of apathy to the silencing shame that comes from lack of Jewish literacy, the character of the Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask resounds for us; indeed, it is a Rorschach blot of a character, taking on numerous shapes and forms.

Having a silent person at one’s Seder is so inconceivable that the Haggadah commands a response. The expected outcome is that by personalizing the story of the Exodus from Egypt, heretofore blocked channels of communication will be opened and the disengaged Seder guest will become a full participant in the Passover kehilla.

As most Seders are often family get-togethers, the Seder also creates a built-in ideal multi-generational community setting where teens can hear the stories of senior citizens, where Shoah survivors can pass their life learnings onto those who have only read about the Holocaust in history books, where Boomers and Empty-Nesters and school children are equal participants, where liberal and conservative points of view can be voiced with an air of tolerance.

In Noam Zion and David Dishon’s groundbreaking Haggadah – A Different Night – filled with sidebar commentaries from around the world, a resonant story accompanies the section on the Four Questions:

Isidor Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, was once asked, "Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?  "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: "Nu, did you learn anything today?"  But not my mother.  She always asked me a different question: "Izzy," she would say, "Did you ask a good question today?"  That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist.

This Passover, may we harness the innate power of our heritage, which mandates that we reach out to those who are isolated in their silence. This year, may we tap into Judaism’s relational essence, building bonds with our tradition and each other that bring multiple levels of meaning to our lives.

Please write and share your Seder questions, stories and shtick with us. What do you like to do around your table? What are your unique traditions, how do you build a kehilla in your home? And how do you take the power of the Passover Seder with you even when the special dishes are packed away and the final piece of matza is consumed?  Send your comments to Andrea Glick, co-editor of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. Check out some of the answers that people have shared here.

Best wishes for a meaningful, relational and memorable Passover.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Circle of Life – A Contemporary Purim Tale

One of the most profound lessons of the Hebrew Bible – and of Jewish tradition --  is to be found in Chapter Four of Megillat Esther, which we will read this weekend when we celebrate Purim. Therein, Mordechai compels Esther to go to King Ahasuerus not only for the salvation of the Jewish people but for her own sake as well.

Mordechai informs Esther that she is mistaken if she imagines that her royal position will protect her from Haman’s genocidal plot. He then goes one step further, appealing to her sense of personal mission, enabling her to envision herself within the context of Jewish history:

U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut -- And who knows if it was not for a moment just like this that you arrived at your royal position?

From the construction of this sentence, beginning with the word “and,” one can imagine Mordechai musing aloud, turning this concept over in mind, perhaps even stroking his beard as he pondered whether Esther’s royal position was tied up with the history and fate of the Jewish People.

Every year, this verse jumps out at me in the middle of the boisterous megillah reading, filling me with deep emotion. Yes, the concept of having been put on earth to fulfill a mission is deeply Jewish, but the resonance of this pasuk is also deeply personal for me.

Three decades ago, when I was 15 years old, my father’s second wife, the only mother I ever knew, passed away. Needless to say, this was a very vulnerable time for me. Aside from the trauma of maternal loss (compounded twice because my biological mother died when I was an infant), our family was plunged into distress as my mother’s death obviously had a devastating effect on my father as well.  By the time I got to college, I had to work full-time. Because of relationships I had formed at USY, I was able to get a job with an automotive warehouse whose Jewish owners were very involved with the local Jewish community and Israel.

One day, my boss called me into his office and slid an envelope across the table.

“What is this?” I asked with trepidation.

Smiling, he said, “It’s for you. Open the envelope.”

Wordlessly, I opened the envelope. There was a document inside showing that I was registered for a trip to Israel. “What is this?” I repeated.

“Our local Federation is sponsoring a trip to Israel and my partners and I decided that you should be part of it,” he told me. “This is your registration.”

I was a junior in college, a rabbi’s son, but I had never been to Israel before. That act of generosity changed the course of my entire life, setting me on a path towards the rabbinate and service to the Jewish People.

U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut?

I came back from trip to Israel the same way that most everyone does: uplifted, inspired, transformed. That experience is ultimately the reason I went to JTS and am now the CEO of United Synagogue.
Rabbi Wernick, pictured with Rabbi Rick Jacobs (URJ) and Steven Weil (OU)
That moment of kindness brought me to the most recent AIPAC gathering, where I told this story.  It was a seminal moment in my life. And it was inspired by the recognition – on the part of my bosses -- that individuals are capable of changing the course of Jewish history.

But there is a postscript to this story, a further extraordinary outcome to my having shared it at AIPAC.

What I didn’t know as I ascended the stage to speak was that the president of that automotive company was in the audience.

The man who changed the course of my life -- from late adolescence and onward -- was attending the AIPAC convention with his family.  The act of my sharing this story provided them with tangible, quantifiable, measurable proof that acts of chesed – loving-kindness – can change the world…often one person at a time.

Leaving AIPAC, I was awash in so many feelings. Yes, being part of a mega-gathering in support of Israel is heady enough; this year’s convention drew over 14,000 people from a wide ideological spectrum. And I had come to AIPAC on the heels of a recent, remarkable trip to Israel with the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Agency and Masorti Olami, our worldwide Conservative Judaism.

But the thought that has occupied me since my AIPAC presentation is best encapsulated by Mordechai’s words to Esther on the eve of destruction: U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut?

What, I wonder, would it mean if we lived our lives with the understanding that we are capable, at every moment, of great acts of transformation and action – through our own agency or through the enabling of someone else?

What if we lived life with the knowledge of the power and potential of chesed?

As we approach the holiday of Purim, let us take a lesson from Mordechai and his modern-day descendants – Harold Scherling, Michael Schoenberger, and Dan Ribnick – who were able to recognize the concept of et hazot – this moment.

As surely as the sun rises, each new day presents us with innumerable opportunities to act, to seize the et hazot.

And just as the decision of Harold, Michael and Dan to send me to Israel grew out of their communal consciousness and sense of Klal Yisrael, the core of our work at United Synagogue is to build, strengthen and transform our kehillot so that they are sacred communities of meaning and relationship.

This Purim, may we be able to act in the spirit of et hazot. This Purim, may we be like Mordecai and Esther, agents for redemption.