(cross-posted at the Forward)
Friday, November 23, 2012
One week ago, I was making plans with my family to attend Thanksgiving at my father's New York home. Yet on Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I was on a plane bound for Tel Aviv on a tour of solidarity together with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
When we arrived, we learned that a ceasefire had been declared between Israel and Hamas, ending the eight-day-long Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF’s impressive counter-offensive to the rocket assault from Gaza.
The first phase of the ceasefire brought with it a watchful, tense quiet. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I was grateful for the relative calm, the absence of sirens, the tenuous and possibly temporary peace.
Mindful of these blessings, we embarked upon our tour, heading to Ashkelon to visit with its mayor in the city’s bomb shelter. Since Operation Cast Lead, Ashkelon has suffered from rocket fire on a constant basis. Indeed, more than 200 rockets have fallen on this, Israel’s 10th largest city. We learned of the damage inflicted to schools and residential building. Fulfilling the mitzvah of bikur cholim, we visited injured civilians and soldiers in the local hospital.
From Ashkelon, we went to Beersheva where we also visited its injured and learned of the new normal in southern Israeli hospitals -- moving critical patients to safe rooms, stopping all non-emergent surgeries, preparing for wounded soldiers, civilians and yes, Palestinians.
In both cities, we heard much of the same story: sadness, fear, cynicism that this ceasefire will hold, that normalcy will ever be restored.
The purpose of the on-going rocket assault from Gaza is not to take out Israel’s ports or major facilities but to disrupt daily life and perpetuate a campaign of terror against civilians. Ashkelon, for instance is home to one of Israel's main power plants and the world's largest desalination plants. Strategic targets, yet the missiles are not aimed in their direction. Judging by the damage, they are aimed at the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, patients in hospitals. Since the second intifada, this has been the Palestinian strategy.
Back in Jerusalem, we met with Israeli President Shimon Peres for briefings.
My remarkable day concluded at the Fuchsberg Center for a moving and uplifting Thanksgiving dinner that included 210 people: this year's participants in our Nativ program, Nativ alumi, family and friends. This dinner, at USCJ's Fuchsberg Center, is a much-anticipated annual event and people do not miss it for anything, except for military service, though we were lucky to have a few soldiers able to join us. One reservist show up in his IDF uniform. Our current group of 80 students family members lend great spirit to our gathering, which included A Capella singing and a video in which participants gave statements of what they are thankful for.
This morning, among several speakers we met with Arnon Mantver, the director of JDC Israel and learned about the work JDC is doing to help people affected by war. This important meeting highlighted some of the benefits of our partnership with Jewish Federations of North America and the Union of Reform Judaism.
It enabled me to understand, in an up close and personal way, the important ways in which our funding is helping Israeli civilians cope with the existential threat they face on a daily basis, whether by working with children to counteract the stress, anxiety and fear of being in shelters, providing food, medicine and supplies to the disabled and elderly, helping make what is broken whole.
I am filled with pride when I note the many ways in which the Conservative and Masorti movement is a partner in delivering these important social services.
I did not undertake this Thanksgiving weekend trip to Israel lightly; it was upsetting to leave my family, especially at this time. But once in Israel, I was overwhelmed by how thankful everyone was for our visit and inspired by the solidarity of the Jewish People. In crisis, we relearn an important message: we are one. Our group included a wide range of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.
As I go into Shabbat, my feelings are mixed. My American optimism wants to believe that Operation Pillar of Defense will ensure a bright and safe future for Israel, now and forever. The spirit of American thanksgiving still resides in me; reminding me of the innumerable blessings of being a Jew, of having a Jewish State in my lifetime.
This week's Parshah, Vayetze, contains the story of the Sulam – Jacob’s Ladder. Jacobs dream of a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth, with angels going up and down. The significance of the angels originating from earth and rising to heaven is a metaphor for the human quest for sanctity. When we act with holiness in care for others, we become God’s angels.
I saw angels ascending and descending during my solidarity tour of Israel.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Thursday, November 8, 2012
May you live in interesting times, goes the well-known “blessing” whose darker meaning is actually: “may you live in difficult times.” Though often referred to as “the Chinese Curse,” it always struck me as Yiddish in essence.
Those of us who reside in the region of the country affected by Hurricane Sandy last week and yesterday’s Nor’easter have just gotten a super-sized dose of “interesting times,” with death and devastation on one end of the spectrum and discomfort and disruption of our normal lives on the other hand.
And tucked between the bookends of Mother Nature’s fury was a presidential election that revealed how truly divided American society is at this point in time.
We are blessed with living in interesting times, indeed.
Yet, as I drove back to my New Jersey home last night through snow, sleet and freezing rain (worrying about Sandy’s victims and refugees in light of the plummeting temperatures and my own newly-restored power lines in danger of crashing for the second time in a week) I drew comfort from the heroic work being done by the staff and kehillot of United Synagogue who have joined the relief effort spearheaded by emergency personnel and relief organizations, both governmental and private, national and regional.
|The Dix Hills Jewish Center (Dix Hills, New York) |
davened ma'ariv by flashlight in the absence of power.
Within hours after Sandy’s devastating effects were known, our Kehilla Relationship Managers and district leaders reached out to USCJ kehillot in hurricane-affected areas. While most of these kehillot lost power, thankfully most suffered no damage to their facilities; still there are some kehillot that sustained very severe flooding and other damage.
Additionally, in the communities of our kehillot, untold numbers of people remain without power, including heat and hot water. Tens of thousands are now homeless because their houses are either uninhabitable or completely destroyed. On a personal note, my sister and her family – which includes her elderly in-laws – have endured nearly two weeks without power or heat in their Great Neck, LI homes.
Springing into action, United Synagogue took the following steps:
· We created a Disaster Relief Fund. The monies collected will go toward 1) providing modest grants to kehillot for immediate needs that can’t wait for insurance reimbursements; 2) disaster relief groups directly helping people recover and rebuild and 3) in several months, helping kehillot cover expenses they incur that are not covered by insurance or other funds.
· To date, USCJ has made a grant of $10,000 to Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief group now working in the storm zone, and a modest grant for a laptop computer to Temple Beth El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, which lost all its office equipment due to flooding. We are also working closely with United Synagogue of Hoboken (NJ) to make sure it has heat for two b’nai mitzvah to be celebrated this Shabbat.
· Because they have canvassed so many synagogues, our staff and lay leaders are making connections among kehillot so that those not affected by the storm can assist those who were. They are also connecting kehillot with agencies that offer disaster relief.
One important take-away from the past week’s activities is that advance planning goes a long way. Rabbi Paul Drazen, United Synagogue’s special assistant to the CEO, has spent the better part of the past eight months planning safety and security guidelines for our organization and our kehillot and that work was critical to our ability to mobilize for this disaster.
Another source of invaluable information on coping with disasters comes from our Torah, in particular the current weekly portions, which detail the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was open on all four sides. On a personal note, my family and I have relied on the open tents of friends and neighbors over the past week. I encourage everyone with power and heat to emulate Abraham and Sarah’s model of hachnasat orchim and open their homes to those who are rendered homeless by the extreme weather we are suffering.
The antidote for living through interesting times is the outpouring of caring and fellowship from individuals, organizations and kehillot throughout the world. During this crisis, I could not be more proud that the USCJ synagogues have lived up to their mission as kehillot kedushot -- sacred communities -- embodying the many meanings of sanctuary.
Here are Some Additional Suggestions for Helping Out:
· Donate to United Synagogue’s Disaster Relief Fund so we can continue to help kehillot and communities trying to recover and rebuild. (If you are Canadian and need a tax receipt, send a check to United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1000 Finch Avenue West, Suite 508, Toronto, ON M3J 2V5.)
· Donate to relief organizations (see a list below) or contact local groups to see what they need. Before you collect anything, contact a relief agency to find out what they need and only bring those items.
· Contact a neighboring kehilla and ask how you can help, or contact your Kehilla Relationship Manager to find out who needs help.
If You Need Help or Want to Donate/Volunteer
m.fema.gov (for smartphones/mobile devices)
New Jersey: http://www.lsnj.org/
USCJ Disaster Relief Fund
Jewish Federations of North America
Nechama (To Donate or Volunteer)
Nechama is a Jewish disaster relief organization that provides on-the-ground help. Currently, Nechama is working at three sites in Hoboken, NJ, including United Synagogue of Hoboken.
If you have not done so, please contact your Kehilla Relationship Manager to let him or her know how you’re doing. They will work to connect you with help. You can find contact info for the KRMs here.
Posted by Gila at 1:42 PM
Friday, October 19, 2012
Note from Rabbi Wernick: In light of the recent discussions and news of the Christian Jewish Roundtable, and my colleague Rabbi Paul Drazen's leadership for USCJ in it, I have invited him to blog about the topic this week.
My interest in interactive communication was revealed to me at a young age when I tried to have a conversation with a friend using two cans connected by a string. Perhaps some of you will remember doing the very same thing. Though my home-made phone hardly worked, I was intrigued by the idea of being able to communicate with another person intimately across the divide of space. In some ways, the can
contraption of my youth is the spiritual godfather of modern communications
devices. Though the ubiquity of wireless phones has introduced a steady stream
of meaningless conversation into our daily lives – often belonging to strangers
with loud voices, these phones area also portals for engaging and important
communication that bridges spatial divides.
Engaging and proactive conversations are the ones I treasure, personally and professionally. Indeed, the underlying goal for the many conversations we have in our work at United Synagogue, especially in areas of public policy or interfaith work, is for our words to build bridges across the many divides of life. In our conversations, the purpose is not to convince the others to change their minds or beliefs, but to foster an understanding of what speaks to others’ hearts. The goal is illumination, to share sincerely held, heartfelt stands and beliefs.
When the conversations are good, that is what happens. But sometimes, as with the tin cans and string, the communications effort fails.
Two weeks ago, in the middle of Sukkot and the start of the long (at least for government workers) Columbus Day holiday weekend, members of the Jewish community who have been in dialogue with counterparts in many Christian denominations through the venerable effort known as the Christian-Jewish Roundtable were shocked to learn that many of the Protestant partners in that conversation had sent a letter to Congress, asking for a formal review of Israel’s human rights violations with an eye towards ending aid to Israel. There is a plethora of descriptions of the content of the letter itself [See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20121017/us-jews-protestants-israel/ for but one of the stories.].
For the Jewish groups who had participated faithfully in these discussions -- USCJ included -- news of the letter came as a shock and felt like a betrayal by partners who had seemed committed to speaking frankly, earnestly and sincerely across the divide of religion and political belief. It was not just the content of the letter to Congress but the fact that it was sent three weeks before our next scheduled Roundtable discussion, on the eve of an important Jewish festival.
The childhood yearning I had for friendly conversation persists.
I hope that – despite this setback – we can return to our interfaith roundtable and speak as friends.
Paul Drazen is the Director of Special Projects and Special Assistant to the CEO at USCJ.
Posted by Gila at 4:52 PM
Friday, October 5, 2012
As the final days of Sukkot draw near – and Shmini Atzeret, Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah wink in the distance – observant Jews around the world can be heard taking a collective sigh of relief.
Not that it hasn’t been wonderful, this alternate universe we enter into each fall, this mandated season of celebration and togetherness.
Of course it has been wonderful and joyous and also difficult.
And sometimes draining.
If it was only a party, we would not have to be commanded to be happy.
“V’samachta b’chagecha!” we are mandated. And you shall be happy in your holiday observance.
“V’hayeeta ach samayah!” we are instructed. And you shall be only happy.
At first flush, this seems an odd thing, this commandment to be happy.
Must we really be commanded to be happy?
Imagine commanding a child to be happy on their birthday. And if Rosh Hashana commemorates the birthday of the world, all of humankind should rejoice at this joyous celebration.
Yet as anyone who has taken the time to read the Machzor knows, the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is suffused with the awareness of our mortality. It is in our liturgy. It is in the wearing of the kittel.
On the High Holidays, we stand before God, petitioning to be included in the Book of Life for one more year. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are essentially rehearsing for our final days, putting our spiritual houses in order, contemplating our inevitable death so that we might know how to live.
And then, with the arrival of Sukkot, we have survived God’s judgment and the critical hour of the weighing of our souls and we are delighted to find ourselves still among the living.
Yet, if we are overjoyed to have merited one more earthly year, the question remains: why must we be commanded to be happy on Sukkot?
An obvious answer is that Jews live with knowledge of the fragility of happiness. How many celebratory moments – public and private – have been shattered by violence throughout Jewish history? Why else break the glass at a Jewish wedding, recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem during one of life’s peak moments?
So, we can understand the commandment to be happy as a wise yet sad commentary of the existential state of living at the nexus of simcha and tsa’ar – joy and sorrow.
Yet this year, the message of V’samachta b’chagecha was driven home most poignantly for a community in Minneapolis and for me as well, because of my deep connection to this particular kehilla.
With preparations for the festival of Sukkot underway, a disgruntled former employee entered a business in Minneapolis – Accent Signage Systems – and opened fire, killing the owner, the manager, a UPS driver and several employees.
The business owner, Reuven Rahamim, was an active member of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, one of our kehillot, a shul where I have deep personal ties, where I had served as a Kadima USY advisor, whose previous rabbi – Hayyim Herring – had also been my own.
Immediately following the shooting, articles and tributes flooded the Internet, attesting to the fact that a man who served as the cornerstone of the civic and Jewish community had been brutally murdered.
Reuven Rahamim. It is worthwhile to ponder his last name – Rahamim -- which means mercy. By all accounts, Reuven Rahamaim was a man who fulfilled the promise of his name, which is one of God’s attributes, repeated throughout the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy.
So, the family of Reuven Rahamim and his friends and congregants and workers are left with shattered lives, yet still mandated to be happy during the festival of Sukkot through Simchat Torah – which literally translates as The Happiness of the Torah.
And the friends and family and coworkers of all the victims of this latest workplace massacre are left shattered and wondering how they will ever be fully happy again.
This year, I fully understand God’s mandate to celebrate in the face of sorrow. V’samachta b’chagecha is a commandment because sometimes being happy is very, very difficult.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
This past weekend, I had the distinct privilege of presiding over the installation of Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky at Congregation Agudas Shalom Synagogue in Saskatoon, Canada.
The appointment of Rabbi Claudio, as he is known, was big news -- not only for the Jews of this Western Canadian city… but also for the local community. In addition to local Jewish dignitaries, we were joined by members of the Provincial and local governments, clergy of all faiths and local civic leaders over the course of the weekend. The occasion of a rabbi’s installation was deemed important enough to celebrate on a wide scale. I was moved and impressed by the outpouring of support and media attention inspired by Rabbi Claudio's appointment.
Of course, Rabbi Claudio deserves every bit of the star treatment he received. Born in Santiago, Chile in 1974, he was ordained at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary of the Conservative movement.
After graduating, Rabbi Claudio first served in a congregation in Bogota, Columbia before joining Congregation Agudas Shalom.
Built in 1958, Congregation Agudas Shalom is a kehilla whose influence extends far beyond its physical dimensions. The appointment of its first full-time rabbi in 50 years was not only a milestone for the community but a vote of confidence and investment in its future vitality. According to all the estimates and demographic projections, Saskatoon is poised for rapid growth, expected to double its population in the next 15-20 years, from 250,000 to half a million people. The leadership of Agudas Shalom is fully anticipating -- and supporting -- that growth."
The Jewish population – currently holding steady at 2,000 members – is also expected to double in size, or more, during that time. The leadership of Agudas Shalom, in installing a new full time rabbi, is clearly planning ahead and investing in their future.
The Shabbat I spent with this very special kehilla was sweet on so many levels. First, the personal. Being at the synagogue over Shabbat enabled me to reconnect with a dear old friend – Heather Feynes – the immediate past president and an active member of the kehilla. While we reminisced, I was introduced to the pillars of the community who welcomed me like I, too, was a member of the family. I was also able to meet Harold Jacobson, a family friend of the Feynes's from Florida and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who is a native of Colombia. He made the trip just to participate in the festivities. It was his friendships and his network that provided information from Columbia which validated the kehilla's choice in Rabbi Claudio.
For a small synagogue without a full-time professional for so many years, Agudas Shalom has made a big mark. For a small shul, you cannot believe all the activities that take place under its roof. The place is hopping with life and enthusiasm and passion. Quite literally, Agudas Shalom has earned the distinction of being the central Jewish address of Saskatoon. They are involved in reconciliation and dialogue with other faith groups. They are financially secure.
Agudas Shalom is truly a model kehilla, living the dream of an engaged, connected Conservative Judaism. And while the hiring of a full-time rabbi is a stretch for them financially, it is also an investment in tomorrow. That’s what they are doing. Rabbi Claudio is the right person for them. A dynamic personality, he wants to be in a small community, he wants to build relationships. His intelligence is as great as his menschlichkeit.
His appointment marks a great and successful shidduch for Agudas Shalom.
I took away so many valuable lessons from my Shabbat in Saskatoon…about what makes a successful kehilla, about how to exist in harmony with the surrounding community, about how to invest in the future, about how to build successful interpersonal relationships.
Heading into Yom Kippur I am reminded of a lesson we all know internally, but which bears repetition because we sometimes forget:
Success is about engagement.
If we want to grow a vibrant community for today and for tomorrow, our message should be not about membership but engagement.
At United Synagogue, we are about relationships, not numbers.
If Yom Kippur is a time of reflection and heshbon hanefesh and reflecting on what one needs to do to grow in year ahead, let us draw inspiration from Congregation Agudas Shalom Synagogue in Saskatoon.
In other words, let’s not beat our breasts in despair this Yom Kippur, but raise our voices together in song…and celebration.
G’mar Chatimah Tova.