Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Neil Armstrong and the Season of Reflection

Like many people, I was saddened to learn about the death of Neil Armstrong last week. I’ve always been inspired by Armstrong, a humble man yet the consummate explorer, who fulfilled the dream of millions when he stepped onto the lunar surface in 1969. What an extraordinary goal that John F. Kennedy set when he declared, in 1961, that the U.S. would put a man on the moon within the decade. And what an indelible moment when Armstrong, an Ohio boy who grew up dreaming of flight, showed that when we set our hearts and minds toward reaching a goal, we can actually achieve it. 

I feel a sense of loss at Armstrong’s passing. Maybe because we as a society seem to have lost the boldness, the sense of possibility needed to commit ourselves to the kind of collective action that could put a man on the moon. But I’m hopeful, as well, because this is Elul, the month of reflection leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it is the perfect time to recapture that bold spirit. 

We sometimes make the mistake of thinking about cheshbon nefesh, the spiritual accounting we’re asked to perform this time of year, as if it involved simply toting up our deeds and misdeeds, like so many beads on an abacus. In fact, we have the opportunity to do so much more: we have the opportunity to dream. What could we be, what could we accomplish, if we put aside all the minor setbacks and worries that have chipped away at our confidence and resolve, making us doubt our ability to accomplish great things? What could we do if we stopped indulging in criticism and negativity, in worrying what others might think? When he made his ’61 speech, John Kennedy surely knew how foolish he would look if the U.S. failed to put a person on the moon in a decade. Somehow that didn’t stop him.

Recovering a bold spirit is vital not only for us as individuals, but for our countries and our institutions. A year ago, the institution I lead, United Synagogue, undertook sweeping changes and committed itself to achieving difficult goals. These include nothing less than helping our synagogues transform themselves into powerful, vibrant centers of Jewish life. Could we fall on our faces? Of course. But in the last year, one day after another, we’ve done the hard work of trying to bring our dream to fruition. We are far from finished. Yet we’ve seen progress, especially in the necessary but sometimes painful transformation of our own organization. My hope for the coming year is that we maintain our resolve, keep setbacks in perspective, and see just how far we can go with the new focus and tools we’ve developed.

As we prepare for the New Year, it might do us all good to remember Neil Armstrong, a humble yet determined man who set himself the outrageous goal of stepping on the moon. He knew he could have failed. And he tried anyway.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The True Meaning of the Month of Elul

For Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Elul, here’s a tweet from the Old World:

Schver zu sein ein yid – It’s hard to be a Jew.

While this bit of wry, world-weary wisdom might sound dated to 21st Century ears, it rang true for virtually every generation of Jew in virtually every country in this world until the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Today, a truer tagline might be: It’s expensive to be a Jew.

Of course, the high price tag of North American Jewish life is linked to our success as a community with all the edifices and accoutrements of a high-functioning social group. Among our proudest achievements: magnificent houses of worship that we must keep functional, filled and fabulous.

But filled pews may be a misleading indication of a successful kehilla, if one is to believe a recent Forward article. This piece posits that only half of those who claim to belong to Reform and Conservative synagogues in the greater New York area are actually dues-paying members.

Based on the recent NYC Community Study commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York, the Forward recently reported that:

Roughly twice as many people consider themselves members of synagogues as the number of people that actually pay dues to those congregations.
That’s one intriguing interpretation of a discrepancy that surfaced within the data collected in UJA-Federation of New York’s recent survey of Jews in the New York area.

Clearly, I cannot speak on behalf of my Reform brethren. And while I do not deny that some people of means indeed frequent synagogues without ever paying membership dues, alleging that half of those claiming to belong to a Conservative synagogue are actually full-time visitors is not only inaccurate but irresponsible as well.

I know this from visiting our kehillot and I know this from speaking with Conservative rabbis. The Forward article does a great disservice to our community by portraying a large number of the Jews in our pews either as greatly impoverished or opportunistic freeloaders.

More to the point of a constructive conversation is the comments thread spawned by the article, which focuses primarily on the high cost of being Jewish in North America. So let me turn this conversation on its head and address the individuals or families in our kehillot who would like to pay their dues…but are truly financially strapped.

First, the good news: I do not know of any synagogue belonging to USCJ that would turn away a member or family for lack of funds, especially during this time of national financial hardship. In times of crisis, including financial crisis, a synagogue should be the first place to turn.

Indeed, most synagogues will provide a sliding scale for membership. Members who are truly unable to pay their complete dues – or even a portion thereof – always have recourse by arranging a meeting with a kehilla representative (depending on the synagogue, it could be the rabbi, cantor, executive director, president, a member of the board…or all the above) to discuss options.

If I may offer my own suggestion for individuals or families struggling with cash flow, it would be to barter: offer services in exchange for payment, until the crisis abates. A kehilla is only as strong as its members. Volunteer to give a class in adult education, teach b’nai mitzvah or become part of the annual dinner committee. Lend your professional expertise in ways that would benefit the synagogue. The creative, dedicated involvement of members not only builds a tightly-knit kehilla, but can provide synagogues with help that can generate revenue.

Instead of the crushing hardship, prejudice and persecution that went along with being a Jew, we now have the high expense of being Jewish. Yes, we had the blessing of the flush years yet now, during leaner times, we still have the freedom and security to lead wholly Jewish lives in most places on earth.

The current economic downturn has wreaked havoc widely. And times are tough for Jews mostly because of the high price tag of being Jewish. Let us remember that times are tough but not because of persecution.  As North American Jews, we had only the blessing for so many decades; it is as if we lived the fruition of God’s promise to the Jewish people in this week’s parasha, Re’eh. Though times are difficult, we are still abundantly blessed. We have built a remarkable, strong and multi-layered Jewish community. We will overcome this difficult moment.

I believe that part of the solution lies in re-envisioning our synagogues as the sacred centers of our communities and not as clubs that require sold memberships.  To begin this transformation, we have to imbue the prospect of belonging to a kehilla as part of our sacred mission as Jews. Visit my blog in the coming months for more writing on this critical matter.

Rosh Hodesh Elul is the perfect moment to start this transformative process. Now is the time to turn to your local kehilla to seek the support of a caring community, to be inspired by your rabbi, to provide succor and assistance to others less fortunate, to take a mind-expanding adult education course, to meet new people, to get involved, to barter your skills and services, to help make it a mikdash – a sacred sanctuary.

If you are financially blessed, perhaps consider sponsoring the memberships of others who cannot afford to pay the full amount. If you are a well-networked person, be a connector and help others find work.

In the spirit of Elul, let us live by the acronymic meaning the rabbis assigned to the month: Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li.

I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.

These words are meant to inspire us to draw closer to God during this month, leading up to the Jewish High Holidays. These words also are the words often engraved on Jewish wedding bands and ketubot.

Let us adapt this phrase within our kehillot during the month of Elul and beyond. Let us inspire the members of our kehillot to fully live the blessing of being Jewish in the contemporary world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Gabbai of the Heavenly House of Worship

Today I buried a friend and former congregant, one of the lamed vavniks, the legendary 36 righteous people for whom God keeps the world spinning on its axis, according to Jewish tradition. His name was David Oser and he was one of the finest, kindest, most empathetic people I was ever privileged to know.

In the course of this difficult day, it suddenly dawned on me that my late friends last name held special meaning. The word for helper in Hebrew is ozer, strikingly similar to Oser, in fact, virtually indistinguishable.

Now, I long ago stopped believing in coincidences but David Oser was the consummate helpmate, a man who lived as if his mission was to help others through life.  Although he did not consider himself Jewishly educated , he was in shul every day, waiting to pitch in whenever help was needed, even if the help involved shlepping. For instance, when we needed Torah scrolls transported from Phildadelphia to Brooklyn for repairs, he volunteered immediately for the onerous, time-consuming task.

Rabbi, he said to me. I might not be able to write a big check but this I can do.

David Oser. David the Helper.

Kshmo kein hu; as his name, so he is.

The sun rises, the sun sets and the world loses an ozer -- a man who was a helper to all, who built and nurtured community. The 700 people at David Osers funeral paid tribute to his important place in the kehilla.

And as I stood, grief-stricken, amid the mourners, I felt the sharp juxtaposition of the lovingkindness David Oser brought into the kehilla with the violent hatred that fueled the massacre of innocent Sikhs in the midst of prayer in their kehilla, several states away.

As shocked as I was upon first hearing of the murder spree in Milwaukee, the true horror of it only struck me at David Osers funeral as I processed the fact that the killer brought a weapon into a house of worship with the intent to take life.

A house of worship is where we hold prayer books and prayer shawls and one another.

It is where we come together to seek God and learn how we can join as Gods helpmates in the awesome and important job of Tikkun Olam.

We need our houses of worship to be filled with more people like David Oser. We need people who lift their hands to help, not to inflict harm.

David Oser left this world too soon, but I am comforted by one thought. As we were filing into the funeral service, someone commented that it was especially strange not to see David Oser standing in the back of the sanctuary to greet people because that was precisely what he always did.

And so, I make my own midrash to make peace with the impossible news that my friend has been taken from our midst. And in my midrash, David is in the great sanctuary of heaven, his warmth and caring helping to welcome the victims of the Milwaukee massacre into the Afterlife.

As this image filled my mind, I realized that it was not such a stretch to think of David doing this in heaven.

In my remarks, I quoted the famous passage in Micah 6:8: O man, what is good? And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

This verse describes my friend David Oser, David the helper.

May our houses of worship host those who act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, seeing themselves as helpers of humankind, helpmates in the task of eradicating hatred from our homes and our communities.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

DNC: Deuteronomic National Convention

It’s election time in the U.S. and the campaigns are in full swing. Mitt Romney just returned from a trip to England, Israel and Poland to demonstrate his foreign policy chops. President Obama has announced a trip to Israel in his hoped-for second term, as well as some policy decisions seemingly designed to defeat Romney’s efforts to diminish his foreign policy accomplishments. And soon come the party conventions, where we can only hope the candidates will give us a peak at their core values, their genuine visions for America’s future.

I mention vision and values because to me they’re at the heart of choosing a candidate. I ask myself: What is this person’s vision for a just society, and is it a vision I can support? As a religious Jew, in reflecting on what a just society looks like I turn to the Torah. When one thinks of the core values of Judaism certain essentials come to mind: liberation from slavery; the uniqueness of God; the Ten Commandments affirming a moral and sacred order to human existence; and the ensuing list of mitzvot which implements the love relationship between God and the Jewish people.

All of these are found in this week’s Torah reading, Va’etkhanan. Here, in stirring eloquence, our greatest prophet and political leader, Moses, reminds us that our central task is to live in accordance with the teachings of God; to conduct ourselves and our dealings with others in such a way that we cultivate the wisdom, compassion and justice possible for human society.

This Shabbat is also called Nakhamu, Comfort, after the first word of the Haftarah. It arrives immediately after Tisha B’Av, and we derive comfort in its message of a future of redemption through teshuvah and growth. We also derive comfort through history – 2000 years after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem we are still here; not just surviving, but flourishing. We understand, therefore, that the moment we are now living through is not permanent; change is possible, desirable even, and the future awaits us if we recommit ourselves to God and to each other.

Va’etkhanan asks Jews to recommit to a sacred covenant that binds us, a timeless vision of a just society. It is a vision of comfort, well being, meaning and purpose that is larger than any individual or party platform; something that will extend beyond our own lives, that will continue even when we are gone. 

It may be naïve, but I would love to hear our candidates describe what they see as the core values we as a society should live by. Beyond talk of tax increases or decreases. Beyond empty pandering to the right or left. I would love them to inspire us, as the Torah does, with a vision of how citizens coming together, acting justly, can be a force for good. Like Moses, truly great leaders both empathize with our human frailties and demand that we try hard to live up to our highest values.

Now that’s the kind of convention speech I wouldn’t miss.

And you? What kind of speech would you love the candidates to make?