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It's Wednesday

April 2, 2014

Boker Tov. The other day I was with Rabbi Matthew Simon, Emeritus at B’nai Israel, and he shared his excitement about the new Ramah Day Camp we are developing. It seems that when the first Ramah overnight camp opened in Wisconsin in 1947, Rabbi Simon was the first camper to be enrolled. Or maybe it was his sister. Over the ensuing years, Ramah expanded to include 8 overnight camps and 3 day camps and summer programs in Israel. It serves as the camping arm of the Conservative movement - many think it is the jewel in the movement’s crown. It integrates the fun of summer camp with meaningful content. The Ramah experience is a wonderful part of growing up Jewish in the modern world.

Over 6500 kids and 1500 counselors join up for what the Jewish Agency for Israel (not an advocate for the Conservative movement) says is “not just a camp, it’s a lifestyle” – one that lasts well beyond the camp years. A Trinity College researcher documented the impact of Ramah on college students: compared to the general Jewish population, they are four times more likely to attend synagogue services, three times as likely to spend significant time in Israel, and three times more likely to date only Jews. Notables among alumni are Ben Bernanke, Wolf Blitzer, Michael Dell, Ted Deutch, Jerrold Nadler, Debra Messing, Chaim Potok, Craig Taubman, and Henry Waxman.

Beth El kids go to Camp Ramah in New England, in Palmer Massachusetts. (It would be too logical for them to go to the Ramah in the Poconos.) Palmer was not the jewel in the Ramah crown twenty years ago but it is on a great upward surge, because of the quality of its program and staff, because of its renowned Tikva special needs program, and because Beth El sends a ton of kids who help raise the level. In fact. we send more kids to Palmer than any other shul, which is good.

Not every kid is old enough or ready for overnight camp. The three Ramah day camps, the mother of them all in Nyack NY (with its fleet of busses spreading through the boroughs and beyond) and the others in Philadelphia and Chicago, provide a very Ramah like experience close to home. Some of us rabbis thought we should have that in our area too. And it is happening.

The first year, this summer, will be a one week pilot for kids entering grades one through four. It will be August 18-22, which is the week between the end of other camps and the beginning days of school. For now, we will be at Ohr Kodesh down the road while we look for a permanent camp site. Using the shul facilities and the great parks and pools nearby, we will provide sports, omanut (arts and crafts), rikud (dancing), shira (singing), bishul (cooking), a theme for each day, a Maccabiah (color war), you name it. We have a director, Shira Rosenbaum, with many years experience as a Ramah camper, counselor and Rosh Edah (division head.) We have an arts director. Palmer is handling the administration, logistics and supervision. Eight shuls in our area have already partnered in this effort. Tuition is amazingly reasonable, as is the optional breakfast club for early drop-offs. We have a webpage with much information and a director ready for your questions - please check it out at http://campramahne.org/day-camp-washington-dc/. We are so excited.

You have a kid or grandkid or niece/nephew free that week? They may be a good candidate for the special Ramah experience, and maybe they will share what Rabbi Simon still cherishes - the privilege of being among the first campers in the first season of what we hope will be a great addition to Washington Jewish life.
Have a good Wednesday and best regards. Bill Rudolph

P.S. This Sunday is big. Remember to bring non-perishable food, toiletries, rain gear, sports equipment and documents to shred to help make Good Deeds Day a success. At 4PM there is Songs of Love and Freedom. Join us for this unique concert, which will take us on a spiritual Passover journey through opera and the Jewish tradition. Featuring up-and-coming tenor Yoni Rose, baritone and Hazzan Matthew Klein, and internationally known conductor and pianist Giovanni Reggioli, this concert will engage our mind, our heart, and our Jewish soul. And, as a bonus, we will surely discover in the program a song, an idea, or a poem that we can take home to enliven our seder.
 


March 26, 2014

Boker Tov. Many months ago we put into place our annual Scholar in Residence weekend. It is always a highlight of the year and now it’s here. This time we welcome one of the dynamic young women sharping the future of American Jewry. Hers is a great story, speaking in part to the confidence in the Jewish future and in the future of Conservative Judaism that buoys me every time someone mentions the Pew Survey (see on that below). If our movement can attract talents like her, and can foster synagogue communities like ours, then there is much cause for optimism.

Rabbi Rachel Ain began her academic career in the Beth El preschool, so we can take credit for all that follows. She graduated from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Her B.A. is from Barnard College and her ordination from our Jewish Theological Seminary where she also earned an M.A. in Jewish education. She was a Lieutenant JG in the US Navy Chaplains Corps, as was I before the Navy had boats with motors, and she was part of the inaugural CLAL Rabbis Without Borders group, where she was trained in how to bring the wisdom of Jewish tradition into the larger public sphere.

Rabbi Ain became the Rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue in the summer of 2012. You can read more about this wonderful 111 year old midtown shul at www.spsnyc.org. Before joining SPS, Rabbi Ain was the Senior Director for National Young Leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America. Prior to that, she served for 7 years as the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, a Conservative Synagogue in Syracuse, NY.

She is a member of the Jewish Outreach Institute's Board of Professional Advisors, sits on the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at JTS, is on the Clergy Task Force for Jewish Women International, and is on the Rabbinic Cabinet for the Masorti Foundation. Rabbi Ain was one of the NY Board of Rabbis honorees at the annual Sukkah in the Sky event in 2013.

Rabbi Ain is married to Rabbi David Levy, the Director of Teen Learning and the International Director of USY. Many of our kids know David, now they and you will get to meet Rachel. They are the proud parents of two sons who attend the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, where she is a board member and the chair of the Rabbinic advisory committee.

Rabbi Ain will be very busy here this weekend, giving talks Friday night, Shabbat morning during services and after kiddish, and Sunday morning. You all have web access or you wouldn’t be reading this, so you can go to our website for the detail – www.bethelmc.org. The Friday night kickoff includes a delicious Shabbat dinner for which you need to reserve by noon today through hgoodman@bethelmc.org; you can also come for just the talk ca. 8:30PM. Her topics will range from the place of our movement in the conversation about the Jewish future on Friday night to tools for parenting and grand parenting Jewishly on Sunday morning, and a lot in between. Topics are listed on the website. You don't have to be at every talk, but you shouldn’t miss hearing her.

As you contemplate your weekend schedule, do have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Yesterday morning and this evening mark the beginning of the 37th spring semester of the Rabbi Samuel Scolnic (formerly Saul Bendit) Adult Institute. There are ten great courses that begin tonight: five each hour in Jewish history and thought and music and more. Even one on the Pew Survey, to be brilliantly led by yours truly and market research expert Sid Groeneman. Our website has the detailed listing. You can still register at the door tonight. And if you tell me you don’t have time now but will study next year, I will tell you that you won’t have time next year either, so do seize the moment; you will be glad you did.
 


March 19, 2014

Boker Tov. Last evening my colleague and friend Pastor Roy Howard led a fight to defeat an anti-Israel “overture” placed before the National Capital Presbytery. It contained the usual litany of false or distorted accusations; fortunately it was defeated 90 to 40. But Pastor Howard assures me that resolutions like it will continue to be introduced on local and national levels and, though they are usually defeated, the strategy is simple – it is to wear down those who argue for an even handed approach to the Middle East conflict.

On November 14, 2103, an interpreter at the United Nations General Assembly was working the proceedings in which nine anti-Israel resolutions were adopted. Not knowing that her words would be picked up by the entire forum and a worldwide webcast, she said the following to her fellow simultaneous translators:
“I mean I think when you have five statements, not five, but like a total of 10 resolutions on Israel and Palestine, there’s gotta be something, c’est un peu trop, non? [It’s a bit much, no?] I mean I know, yes, yes, but there’s other really bad sh*t happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.”

By the end of that legislative session, the General Assembly had adopted a total of 22 resolutions condemning Israel – and only four on the rest of the world combined. Remember, the rest of the world includes Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iraq, Somalia, the Sudan, etc.

One of the 22 resolutions condemned Israel for allegedly mistreating Syrian citizens on the Golan Heights and violating their rights under international humanitarian law, and demanded that Israel deliver the Heights and its residents to Syrian control. The august body didn’t specify whether Israel should give the area to President Bashar Assad, if he’s not too busy gassing and murdering tens of thousands of his own citizens, or to the rebels many of whom are intent on carrying out a global jihad. Nor did it state what would be the fate of hundreds of Syrian patients being treated in Israeli hospitals for wounds sustained in the fighting over the border.

Another of the 22 (this one passed like the other with over 150 votes for, a few against, and a few abstentions) said it was “gravely concerned about the extremely difficult socioeconomic conditions being faced by the Palestine refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territory… as a result of the continuing prolonged Israeli closures.” Note that there was nothing in that session from the UN about the more than 1 million Syrian refugees displaced in the last two years and living in conditions unlike any Gaza resident could even imagine. Note that there was no mention of the rocket and mortar fire launched by the Palestinians on southern Israel – money for missiles they seem to find within their “difficult socioeconomic conditions.” And note that the border is not hermetically sealed – that same week the granddaughter of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was transferred to Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikvah for treatment for an acute digestive infection – somehow Haniyah brought himself to ignore the BDS movement which calls for a boycott of all things Israeli. BDS is a great ploy to delegitimize Israel, but it shouldn’t stand in the way of getting the good health care which Israel freely offered.

The UN interpreter will probably keep her mouth shut as the steady barrage of anti-Israel resolutions continue, and of course they will. Unless she lost her job. But not to worry, Israel assured her a place of employment should she need it.

Criticism of Israel is fine, though I don’t support Jews doing it in the New York Times. But the UN, and elements in the Presbyterian Church, and their fellow travelers who spout the BDS litanies, are not criticizing to help make Israel a better country or even to help the Palestinians to have better lives. Their goal is much more serious. They will not rest until the Jewish state disappears. They are not fighting for an end to the occupation or for human rights, they use those as a smokescreen for their real goals. They ignore real human rights abuses and carnage everywhere else. We should not be fooled. Israel is not perfect, but it’s not even close to the country the haters try to portray. We should educate ourselves so we are ready to provide truth serum to friends or even our own children who hear the accusations and think maybe they are true.

I think it’s important to be face up to reality. Ponder all this and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Let me remind you one more time of our Clergy Planning Committee (CPC) that is hosting parlor meetings throughout March and early April to gather information for its report and recommendation. The first dozen meetings have been scheduled through some of the larger affinity and auxiliary groups (e.g., Sisterhood, Men’s Club, Religious School, minyanim). There is no limit to the number of parlor meetings we can hold. If you are interested, I encourage you to join a parlor meeting by emailing to cpcmeeting@bethelmc.org.
 


March 12, 2014

Boker Tov. Somewhere early on in my Hillel professional career, I realized I couldn’t do everything myself, or at least that I couldn’t do it all well by myself. One solution to that problem is delegation. I was never that good at that. Then came the revelation, but I cannot trace it to a particular moment. The better solution is empowerment. I became a big believer in empowerment - letting go of the controls and letting creative committed people do their thing. Organizations grow that way, and professionals can have a life.

Several very different examples of empowerment can be observed in upcoming days at Beth El.   Tonight at 7:30 PM we are screening an award winning film called “Bag It” and will meet its star and narrator, Jeb Berrier. The film follows Berrier on a global tour that started as a plastic bag expose and ended with a look at the devastating effects of plastic on our oceans and environment and even our bodies. Why this film at Beth El? We have an active Green Tikkun committee, ably chaired by Michele Lieban Levine. But the impetus for this screening comes from Matthew Gunty, all of 13 years old, who latched on to the film makers in Colorado, helped them show the film and its sequel Uranium Drive-In, hooked up with an organization in Arlington which is trying to eliminate plastic water bottle use there, and used his Bar Mitzvah money to bring the film and its narrator to our area for showings for that Arlington organization, for his school, and for Beth El.

Saturday night it’s Purim time. What a great antidote to winter doldrums! We used to hire a professional megillah reader for the traditional service (8 PM this year after we eat and pray.) Now we have a great cadre of readers, none much over 40, who do the job. Sunday is Bit O’Megillah at 10:45AM; we are giving the Sesame Street players (members) the day off and hired a great storyteller. It is followed by the Purim Carnival, which our Men’s Club has been running with all volunteer help for decades. Sunday at 5:30 PM is Megillah Madness. It is one of my favorite events and favorite paradigms of empowerment. Beth El was struggling ca. 2002. Scott Glick came to me with an idea for a Purim program that would build and energize community. With but one year off, with a succession of producer/directors begun with Scott’s five year stint and continued with a year each from Judy Futterman and Howard Hoffman and then three year stints by Alan Simon and now Steve Escobar, Megillah Madness has been a unique production that plays to 600-800 people each year and indeed builds community.

With the exception of song parody #1, always performed by a group including the clergy which aims to set the bar very low for the other parodies, this is an all volunteer effort that exudes creativity from the lyrics to the productions. Work on Madness begins in the fall. The producer/ director job alone is hundreds of hours of work. The truth is that if nobody came to hear Madness, it would still be a success, building community among the 50-75 members young and old who join together for the production. Since a lot of people do come to watch, it works in a much larger way. It is such great empowerment, letting creative committed people do their thing. It, like bringing “Bag It” to Beth El, is proof of the value of empowerment which is one big reason why we are succeeding so well beyond the norm.

Come join up for either or both parts of this empowerment cycle. Detail is on the website at www.bethelmc.org. In the meantime, it’s Adar, be happy. We pick up a new thread next week. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Reminding you of a specific piece of last Friday’s important presidential letter to the Congregation: Our Clergy Planning Committee (CPC) is hosting parlor meetings throughout March and early April to gather information for its report and recommendation. Every member of the Congregation is invited to attend a parlor meeting. Each session will have 15-20 people and should take about 90 minutes. Participants will discuss the needs of the shul, skills and traits we’d like in our clergy, and how best to secure the clerical team we’ll need going forward. The first dozen meetings have been scheduled through some of the larger affinity and auxiliary groups (e.g., Sisterhood, Men’s Club, Religious School, minyanim). Discussions at the initial meetings have been respectful, frank and very productive. There is no limit to the number of parlor meetings we can hold. If you are interested, I encourage you to join a parlor meeting by emailing to cpcmeeting@bethelmc.org.
 


March 5, 2014

Boker Tov.Check out these headlines:

  • Multiple classes working in a virtual online learning center.
  • Language textbooks with online digital companions.
  • Project Based Learning
  • Concept Attainment

Sounds like an MCPS update? No, this is a listing of some of the new initiatives that can be found in our very own Religious School! They are in addition to L2G, our hybrid model of classroom/online learning now in its third year, supervised by Geryl Baer, using Shalom Learning platforms and a values curriculum in a much-improved model.
I find all this to be very exciting. While our “year of education” was two years ago, its fruits are ripening nicely. Here is a brief synopsis of the above initiatives.

  1. We are capitalizing on the digital literacy of today’s students. Using the Behrman House Online Learning Center, a digital environment that allows students to access Hebrew and Judaic content anywhere and anytime, we now have 7 virtual classes with 65 students in the OLC. Two classes are piloting Hebrew textbooks that have online digital companions; two fifth grade classes are using the OLC for enrichment activities; and two third grade classes are using a digital companion to their Bible textbook.
  2.  We have introduced Project Based Learning (PBL) in all grades. It is a dynamic approach to teaching – google it and see how it can be traced back to John Dewey - in which students explore real-world problems and challenges and attain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they're studying through the investigation. Fourth, fifth, and seventh graders are learning 21st century skills and Jewish values as they brainstorm content for the 4U page of our Scroll, work cooperatively in teams to produce their ideas, and meet publishing deadlines.
  3. As part of an effort to implement a structured teacher supervision process, several teachers are working to adopt new models of teaching. One such model is called Concept Attainment. Google that too - it is a strategy that requires students to figure out the attributes of a concept by comparing and contrasting examples that contain the characteristics of the concept with examples that do not contain those attributes. Recently, fourth graders mastered this model with an exceptional lesson introducing Kashrut.

Rabbi Mark Levine, our new Education Director, is behind much of this change. He is also taking on overall responsibility for L2G moving forward so that it will be totally integrated into our School.

Our School leadership is also planning on a major change in the structure of our seventh grade program. Elisha Frumkin, our Associate Education Director, is the engine behind a process that developed a new model that, with Religious School Committee approval, will hopefully be implemented in the fall.

Too much change? Too soon to abandon traditional methodologies and formats? I think we dare not ignore reality, especially how differently our kids learn now as compared to even ten years ago. I would love to hear how you, especially Religious School parents, see all of this; write to me at the email address below. There is more on all this in the latest issue of the Scroll, timed perfectly to coincide with this column.

Enjoy the near tropical temperatures and the area’s return to near normal activity, and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Our Israel Media Series continues with the last episodes of Season One of Hatufim, the kernel from which “Homeland” was grown. 7:30PM this Saturday night. There is evidently a surprise ending.


February 26, 2014

Boker Tov. I have been trying to figure out how to write this column for some time. If I looked and acted more my age, maybe it would be easier to tell you that I will be concluding my service as senior rabbi of the congregation effective when my current contract expires next summer (2015). I celebrated my 70th birthday last summer, have been lucky to be doing rabbi work for 45 years, and now it’s time to start planning for a new phase in my life.

Sometimes I feel guilty about not wanting to work forever. I love what I am doing, haven’t tired of it, and don’t think I have stopped being good at it. In fact, in some ways I am at the peak of my career in terms of understanding the job and in bringing creativity to it. Beth El is doing more than OK and I can take a little of the credit for that. I so much thank God for all that. But I think it best to leave before I outlive my welcome, hopefully a few milliseconds before you start asking, “When is he leaving?” Almost all my friends from rabbinic school are already retired, so it seems time for me to do so too.

You will note that the end date is almost a year and a half from now. I know that a lot will change the moment this news is read. That is inevitable and will result in some unchartered waters for me. The synagogue has experienced transitions like this before and is stronger than ever, so I am confident you will handle this well. I can assure you that I will be working away until the last day.

President David Mills will be following this announcement with his own, focusing on the excellent Clergy Planning Committee process that he put in place some time ago to begin planning for this possibility. I know that David and his team are making sure there will be an open, productive and positive conversation about next steps, and a smooth transition. If asked, I will offer guidance on this process, but we are blessed with lay leadership and clergy and professional staff in whom I have great confidence. You are in good hands.

David has asked me if I would consider remaining involved with Beth El when I become Emeritus Rabbi, and the answer is yes. However, it is important that I step away from the wheel so as to ensure that future clergy will assume full and true leadership. Playing an appropriate role would be a delight, so it’s possible you won’t be getting rid of me entirely. At the same time, I am building a file of activities and projects, some of them substantial like helping to build a Ramah Day Camp, that will become my major focus in my next phase of life.

There is plenty of time for more words on this. I won’t be responsible for most of them – maybe a few It’s Wednesdays at most. I really don’t want this to be a big deal. Nobody is irreplaceable. If you see me, still say Hi (if that is what you are used to doing). I look forward to carrying on as your faithful servant for this next period of time, doing my job and enjoying the good vibrations that pour out of your hearts and make our community so special.

Have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph


February 19, 2014

Boker Tov. Here goes one more column on Conservative Judaism, our shul theme of the year, before we change gears. Last time I talked about Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s views on how to strengthen the movement. I also shared some of the submissions for our bumper sticker non contest. This time I will share a few late entries and then talk about the Ron Wolfson theory of what any Conservative synagogue (any synagogue for that matter) needs to do to be successful.

First some new bumper sticker entries. Assume the words Conservative Judaism followed by a colon precede each. What do you think of these?

  • Appealing to Your Heart and Your Brain
  • Judaism for the 21st Century
  • Radically Moderate
  • Building a Jewish Future

 

Now to Ron Wolfson, one of the best thinkers in our movement and on the American scene. In his latest book, out last year and called Relational Judaism, Wolfson argues that the general decline in membership and energy in synagogues and similar Jewish organizations is because they are spending too much time and effort on programs and not enough on connecting. Downsize the programming and start talking to one another instead, he argues. Build relationships based on shared experience and through commitments to work side by side and to join together in prayer. Rabbis, with this reasoning, are spending too much time at meetings or programming or reading emails; rather they should double down on building relationships, including pastoral visits. A survey of 20 congregations shows that a meeting with the rabbi for even one hour was associated with major jumps in positive feelings about remaining affiliated with that shul. Sounds right to me.

Two caveats. One, this takes a lot of manpower (to use the sexist term.) One review of the book quotes a Los Angeles Reform rabbi who says it’s hard to have this time to devote to people, to schmoozing, if the rabbi also wants to have even a little bit of a life. And this rabbi has a congregation not as large as ours and has a staff of 75 fulltime employees and another 75 part-timers, and it’s still hard!

Second, I think programming cannot be so easily dismissed as a synagogue strengthening endeavor. We are fresh off Kenneth Feinberg’s dialogue with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. It was a stimulating and remarkable night – a helicopter hovering overhead, the red phone never more than a few feet away, a famous guest in our house whose life story is pretty inspiring. Two Purple Hearts from Vietnam, fighting for benefits for Agent Orange victims as Deputy Administrator of the V.A., founding a successful cellular network, CEO of the USO, COO of the 1990 G-7 Summit, United States Senator, Secretary of Defense. In person, a charming genuine man who you feel you can trust, sitting right on our bimah, with a dozen members of the working press in attendance and the granddaughter of President Eisenhower there too. Take a poll of those in attendance and then tell me that programming can’t produce positive feelings about an organization!.

The “answer,” for me, is that both relationships AND programming are important. I learned long ago in Hillel that no organization, no matter how large, can succeed without a strong culture of positive individual relationships between the leadership and the membership. We try to create that at Beth El. We succeed at least somewhat, sometimes one on one (we don’t have the 75 fulltime staff) and more often through the creation of social and study and mitzvah groups that support and foment great relationships. If none of that is happening for you, do let any of the clergy or Geryl Baer know. And we program in pretty creative ways and think that is important too.

Have a great Wednesday and enjoy the warm day. Bill Rudolph

P.S. As you may know, our President David Mills has re-established the Clergy Planning Committee to examine the rabbinic/clerical professional staffing and other resources of the shul and to plan ahead for coming years. Sid Getz is chairing CPC 2.0, as he did CPC 1.0 (ca. 2010-2011); the committee includes representatives from all corners of the Beth El community. CPC 2.0 has already been hard at work and is now about to host parlor meetings for auxiliary groups and minyanim to gain additional input. If you are interested in participating, please email me.

P.S. #2. Speaking about our movement, we are in the forefront of the planning for a Ramah Day Camp in our area. A pilot program will be held August 18-22. Stay tuned for more information on this exciting development.


February 12, 2014

Boker Tov.Following up on last week’s new thread on our theme for the year, Conservative Judaism, and its lack of a good bumper sticker, let me share some of the best entries in our non-contest.

Assume the words Conservative Judaism followed by a colon precede each. Also, inside the parentheses is the initial of the first name of the author of the proposal.

  • Balancing Standards With Compassion (H)
  • Conveniently commutable community. (M1)
  • Embrace the Contradiction.  (D)
  • Ancient Wisdom For Modern Times  (J)
  • Heritage with a Twist (R)
  • Seeking Holiness Through Action (M2)
  • Conserving the Past, Engaging the Present, Visualizing the Future of Judaism (S)
  • In With the Old, In With the New (M3)
  • Deep Roots, New Shoots (M3 again)

What do you think? Entries are still welcome.  Of course a bumper sticker is not the answer to the problems of Conservative Judaism, but if we cannot explain who we are in a simple and engaging manner then we are not going to be successful in the kind of world in which we live.

I promised something of more substance about the challenges we face as a movement. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of our Seminary, has been writing a lot about this. We reviewed some of his thoughts on Yom Kippur afternoon and here are more.

Eisen thinks our movement has it right:  our unique style of being both in the modern world and in tradition, that any question can be asked, the balance we have between respecting halakhah (Jewish law and mitzvoth) and being an integral part of the modern world.

What do we need to do to strengthen the movement? The first order of challenges are ones we could tackle relatively easily if we had strong national leadership structures = working on our message (the bumper sticker) and quality control (any individual’s judgment of Conservative Judaism is based on what s/he encounters on the local level and there is too much variation in the “product”).

Next, we also need to focus on observance.  While we are at the top in assuming leadership of the Jewish community – remember my column on all the local agencies that Beth El members alone head – unless we can raise levels of observance (eg. Shabbat and holidays, learning and kashrut) the movement cannot be strong as it will lose many young people and the most committed adults who will end in Orthodoxy.           

Finally, we have to look beyond our walls. We must recognize that if we serve and save only ourselves, we will not serve or save ourselves; the way to grow Conservative Judaism is to reach out beyond it - to bring in more Jews, affiliated or not,  denominational or post-denominational, from what Eisen calls the “vital religious center.”

It will be no small feat to reach out to unaffiliated and post-denominational Jews while raising the level of observance.  That is part of the great challenge we face. But we face that challenge with the strength that comes from our unique style and the balanced way we look at the world.   

Next time we will talk about the Ron Wolfson theory of what any Conservative synagogue needs to do to be successful and see how it fits with what we are trying to do here at Beth El.

While you wait patiently for that, remember that a synagogue should be a place where you get challenged in your thinking about topics of the day, including what is going on in the world. Next Tuesday at 7:30PM we host the United States Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who will be in dialogue with our own Kenneth Feinberg for the latest in our series of conversations with important American leaders. We all should put in a good word for no decrease in what passes for world peace, for its own sake and so the Secretary is not pulled away for some crisis.  We are expecting a Justice Breyer type crowd, so don't come late. Best wishes for a good Wednesday.   Bill Rudolph


February 2, 2014

Boker Tov. By now you are supposed to know that our synagogue theme for the year is Conservative Judaism. It’s been a High Holiday and It's Wednesday and Scroll discussion item and yet we have barely scratched the surface. I plan to spend a few weeks on the topic now. This first of the columns is about bumper stickers and will end with my seeking your clever input.

Why has the Conservative movement lost momentum? The Pew Survey found that our denomination, once the most popular, is now half the size of Reform. Is that the way it’s going to be?  Rabbi David Wolpe, famous Wilshire Boulevard rabbi and author, has a simple answer. He says that Conservative Judaism will never regain the hold it had on the American public until we can summarize what our movement stands for in a bumper sticker. Maybe if it were simpler to explain what we stand for - what our brand means - we would make more sense and have more appeal with the masses.  Let us play with that proposal now.

For most of our movement’s history, our bumper sticker/ tagline was “tradition and change.” We were about conserving/ preserving Jewish tradition while making deliberate changes to meet the needs of the times (eg. driving to shul on Shabbat.) That formula served us well, and continues to make good sense, certainly to me. Except that the pace of change is so accelerated that conserving the tradition is a major uphill battle like never before, and besides that this bumper sticker isn’t at all exciting.  

Six years ago we spent Yom Kippur afternoon looking at a proposed rebranding. The brand makers, Shoshana Boyd Gelfand and Jonathan Gelfand, writing in the spring 2006 issue of Conservative Judaism, say that our problem is not our core beliefs or their applicability in this age, but not being able to figure out how our core values can live and thrive in our contemporary context. We know that American Jews are searching for meaning, are not much interested in being told what is right and wrong, and want to sample different styles and ideas. Yet for all the pluralism we espouse as a centrist movement, we continue to maintain rigid boundaries. If people cannot explore alternative modes of Jewish practice and thought within our movement, then they will look elsewhere. The real richness of the conversation will not take place within our boundaries. So where do we go with this? The answer, the bumper sticker, they say, lies in “passionate openness” = passion for the Jewish people and its traditions along with openness to diversity and multiple truths. Not bad, but so far not making it to too many bumpers.

This past fall, Rabbi Harold Kushner, my favorite rabbi-writer, talked at the United Synagogue Centennial about the David Wolpe challenge and then offered up the following bumper sticker:  kadshenu b’mitzvotecha, which means “send holiness into our lives through the mitzvot.”  Holiness, says Kushner, is articulating our humanity by doing things that human beings can do that other creatures cannot, mostly in imposing choice on instinct. That is what a lot of commandments are about  - imposing choice for example on how we eat and how we make a day of rest. Those choices make us fully human and make our lives holy in the process. I like this proposal but doubt that it will sway the masses.

So, I turn to you.  You are smart people.  You are part of a Conservative movement congregation that is based in Bethesda; Bethesda residents have more advanced degrees per capita than any other city of 50,000 people or more in the whole USA maybe the whole world. Many of you have spent much of your life as Conservative Jews. You have experienced the satisfactions and the challenges that a Conservative Jewish lifestyle and community offer.  What do you think our bumper sticker should say?  Write to my email address below with your sticker words and (if you wish) why you have chosen them. Who knows, you may become famous, and if Wolpe is right you may help our movement regain the hold on American Jewry that I strongly believe it merits.

I look forward to hearing back. Next time we will share winners and look at suggestions that focus on the way we do business.  In the meantime, I wish you a good and safe Wednesday.   Bill Rudolph

P.S. Our special February programming continues with our Hazzan in Residence, the very influential Jack Kessler, this Shabbat – check the website (www.bethelmc.org) for detail and do sign up for dinner today (hgoodman@bethelmc.org). Session two of the very powerful American Indians educational effort is on the 10th. Chuck Hagel on the 18th.


January 29, 2014

Boker Tov. We leave Einstein behind. He was a truly unique person whose Jewishness and God concept provide much food for thought. We have Family Sports Night in our rearview mirrors also – what a fun evening that was! The Rabbi in his Michigan jersey confronting the 350 lb Notre Dame (now Raven) defensive end and not backing down one inch. Next year we do it again and you now know not to miss it. There is so much more going on in the shul, besides the usual, and I thought of doing only P.S.’s for this column, but that would seem odd.

On Shabbat I talked about names mattering, even if Shakespeare denied it. I got on the bandwagon for the Redskins, more particularly the movement to change the team nickname. The name brings pain to many American Indians. As one writer put it, “Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game? Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces.” How must that feel? A name that conjures up images of violence, oppression, and hurtful behavior has to go, even where there is history and nostalgia connected with it. For a synagogue community, a place where we strive toward a broader awareness of the godly nature of all humanity, there should be no place for that name.

That wasn’t the end of my sermon, because the real problems of American Indians go far deeper than the nickname. I think we all know that but nobody seems to care much. I didn’t hear the whole State of the Union address but I bet you a DQ Blizzard that there was little or no mention of those problems. Among the 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the U.S., there are high poverty rates (over 27% living in poverty which is almost twice the national rate); suicide rates are high, as are mental health and alcohol use disorders. The Redskins nickname is just the tip of the iceberg.

Then I got to talking about how Beth El has a unique perspective on this issue. We are blessed with the presence of a congregant named Faith Roessel, whose Mom z”l was an activist Navajo Indian and whose Dad (an Anglo) helped build major educational institutions for the tribe. Because of Faith’s background, we are a little more tuned to the difficult realities the tribes face, and more tuned to Indian culture, and especially tuned to the beautiful blend of Jewish and Indian traditions that Faith and her husband Matt Slater’s family represents, as described in the Thanksgiving time Post Style Section front page story about them, the “Nava-Jews.” When that article appeared, in the same time frame that arguments about the name of the football team were becoming more pronounced, I thought the time had come for our community to talk not about football but about the difficult issues that American Indians face and whether there were paths to improvement. Faith was more than willing to help make this happen, and with her support and amazing connections, we will be presenting a two part education series, on Feb 3 and 10, called “It’s Not All About the Redskins.” The series features a Who’s Who of American Indian leaders working to identify and improve conditions, and is designed to 1) highlight the difficult reality that is American Indian life today and 2) to hear what is being done to change this reality and how ordinary citizens like us can help. I urge you to check our website (www.bethelmc.org) for the program and the terrific lineup of speakers that will be at Beth El, and join with us on one or both of those evenings. I think we have been given a unique gift and a unique challenge in having Faith and her family part of our community, and now is our time to pay it forward.

Have a good Wednesday and best regards. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Now for the other announcements foreshadowed above and mostly described on that same website. This Shabbat our latest Adult B’nai Mitzvah graduating class will be participating in the sanctuary service. This Tuesday at 7PM our Interreligious Learning Institute presents an interfaith dialogue, featuring young clergy from the three major western faiths, based in our Upper School but open to everyone. Friday night will be the first set of the fifty Lighten Up Shabbat dinners hosted by Beth El families for newer members. The AIPAC Policy Conference is March 2-4; we have a large delegation already registered and I am holding twenty additional reduced cost registration packets if you want to join me and them at this critical time. Finally, Rabbi Greg Harris is beginning a blog called “Reflections Off the Bimah.” Check it out for his first set of comments that fits well with our Einstein discussion; the link is http://gharris546.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/talking-about-god-off-the-bimah/
 


January 22, 2014

Boker Tov amid the snow and frigid cold.

I want to wrap up the Einstein discussion. Isn’t it great that one Walter Isaacson book could provide 3.5 somewhat worthy Wednesday columns? If I turned next to a different medium, the many terrific movies that have been around at year’s end (or to The Gatekeepers that we saw in IMS this past weekend), I wouldn’t have to think of what to say for 3.5 months. But let us turn to Einstein’s God, as promised.

Anti-Semitism, as we noted last time, was very much responsible for Einstein’s embrace of Jewish peoplehood and Zionism. His scientific work on the other hand made him a believer, not in the most traditional sense, but a believer in God nonetheless. Isaacson has a full chapter called “Einstein’s God.” It is worth reading. I can extract but a little for this little column.

People were always asking Einstein, the genius rock star of science, if he believed in God. His answer satisfied some and not others. He didn’t believe in a personal God and liked Spinoza too much. But let him speak for himself. One early interview, by George Sylvester Viereck, which ultimately ended up in a book called Glimpses of the Great, produced the following. “Do you believe in God?” “I am not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they were written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but does not know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

People weren’t satisfied. They kept asking. In the summer of 1930, he composed a credo, "What I Believe." It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is a fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there's something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."

But he did not pray, which, he explained to a sixth Grade Sunday school girl from New York, was because" a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer." But that did not mean that there was no Almighty, no spirit larger than ourselves. As he went on to explain to the young girl: "everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifested in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naïve."

Again, Einstein would not be considered a traditional Jewish believer. He did not accept the idea of free will, and he was (overly?) fascinated by Spinoza, whose God "reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." Spinoza, of course, was excommunicated for his beliefs by the leadership of his community. But again, Einstein was not an atheist. Throughout his life he was consistent in deflecting that charge. "There are people who say that there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views. "

So, with Einstein, we have a God that many people could appreciate. The idea of an impersonal god, whose hand is reflected in the glory of creation but who does not meddle in daily existence, is part of a respectable tradition in both Europe and America. It is found in some of Einstein's favorite philosophers. It accords with the religious beliefs of many of America's founders such as Jefferson and Franklin. And it’s in accordance with the thinking of a number of members of Beth El. For those of you who hold such a belief, if it’s good enough for Einstein who am I to complain?

Ponder all this about Einstein, stay warm and dry and safe and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. As soon as you take a break from pondering, go to our shul website, www.bethelmc.org, and feast your eyes on the smorgasbord that is our programming for the next few weeks. Pay special attention to Family Sports Night this Sunday, which will be an amazing new frontier for us, and to the about – to – appear, newly - developed programming that we are calling “It’s Not All About the Redskins” in early February. Interreligious Dialogue and so much more.


January 15, 2014

Boker Tov. More about Einstein, as promised. Longer than my usual, but there is a lot to say. By age 12 Einstein had developed a negative attitude towards religion and avoided Jewish rituals for the rest of his life. Yet, he lived his life with a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws. And, beginning when he was in his early forties, helping his Jewish brothers became his most important defining connection. How did Einstein go from rejection and avoidance to these connections?

Einstein’s rebellion from his childhood fling with ardent Judaism, coupled with his feelings of detachment from Munich’s Jews, had alienated him from his heritage. “The religion of the fathers, as I encountered it in Munich during religious instruction and in the synagogue, repelled rather than attracted me,” he later explained to a Jewish historian. “The Jewish bourgeois circles that I came to know in my younger years with their affluence and lack of a sense of community, offered me nothing that seemed to be of value.”

But German society would not let his connection to his heritage disappear. When Einstein got his first professorship, four years after he had revolutionized physics, the vote was almost lost because of his Jewishness. Faculty members needed to be assured that Einstein did not exhibit the "unpleasant peculiarities" supposedly associated with Jews – “intrusiveness, impudence, and a shopkeepers mentality” are referred to in this context.

Fame nearly did him in soon after, and here too there was a Jewish element. Fame can engender resentment, especially in academic and scientific circles where self-promotion was regarded as a sin. There was distaste for those who garnered personal publicity, a sentiment that may have been exacerbated by the fact that Einstein was a Jew. As his fame grew, and his ambivalence about the spotlight lessened, a small but growing group in his native country soon began vocally portraying him as a Jew rather than a German. Some became proponents of a "Deutsche Physik" that purged German physics of Jewish influences. In January, 1921, an obscure Munich party functionary picked up the theme: "Science, once our greatest pride, is today being taught by Hebrews,” Adolf Hitler wrote in a newspaper polemic.

Now comes the interesting part. The rise of German anti-Semitism after World War I, reflected in the academic experiences noted here, produced a counter reaction in Einstein: it made him identify more strongly with his Jewish heritage and community. There were German Jews who did everything they could, including converting to Christianity, to assimilate, and they urged Einstein to do the same. But Einstein took the opposite approach. Just when he was becoming famous, he embraced the Zionist cause. He did not officially join any Zionist organization, but he cast his lot in favor of Jewish settlements in Palestine, and national identity among Jews everywhere, and the rejection of assimilationist desires. "The Zionist cause is very close to my heart. I am glad that there should be a little patch of earth on which our kindred brethren are not considered aliens.” He took a special interest in one project, the creation of a new Jewish University in Palestine which eventually became Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Einstein's exploding global fame and budding Zionism came together in the spring of 1921 for an event that was unique in the history of science and indeed remarkable for any realm: a grand two months processional through the Eastern and Midwestern United States with Chaim Weizmann, then the president of the WZO and the future first President of the State of Israel. The trip was to raise funds to help settle Palestine and to create Hebrew U. Einstein was the "rock star" who made it work. He first balked at the trip, but decided to go. That decision reflected a major transformation in his life. Until the completion and confirmation of his general theory of relativity, he dedicated himself almost totally to science. But his time in Berlin had made him increasingly aware of his identity as a Jew and, as we noted, his reaction to the pervasive anti-Semitism was to feel even more connected, indeed inextricably connected, to the culture and community of his people. Thus in 1921 he made a leap not of faith but of commitment. "I am really doing whatever I can for the brothers of my race who are treated so badly everywhere" he wrote. Next to his science, this would become his most important defining connection. As he would later note, near the end of his life, after declining the presidency of Israel, "my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie."

What can we today learn from Einstein’s ultimate acceptance and embrace of Jewish peoplehood despite having no interest in Judaism the religion? Is that kind of embrace enough to ensure the next generations of Diaspora Jews? Does it take anti-Semitism to produce an engaged Jew? Or does it take the Zionist cause to do that? And what are the hopes for the many American Jews who don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism, don’t care much about Israel, and aren’t into the religion? I think about questions like that all the time. Maybe you do too, because they fit the post Pew Survey world of American Jewry to the T.

Next week we will enter the much debated realm of Einstein’s God. In the meantime, ponder all this and have a good day. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Do check out and join us for Family Sports Night on January 26th. It will be an exciting evening. And save February 3 and 10 for some important, about to be announced, programming.


January 8, 2014

Boker Tov. I used to live in Ann Arbor. It was cold like this for months, with snow always on the ground. I moved here and couldn't help but mock the locals, wimps of the highest order when it came to cold and snow, closing schools at the first flurry. Within a few years, my blood had thinned and I joined the world of the wimps. Maybe this will toughen us up a little.

Last week I promised to write more about Einstein, the subject of Walter Isaacson’s book and Chaim Weizmann’s great quote. There is so much in Einstein’s life that is worth talking about re: God and religion and the Jewish people, and you will hopefully bear with me as I engage with all this.

Today I want to focus on the earlier years. Einstein was slow in learning to talk. Doctors were consulted. Even when he began using words, there were quirks enough that the family maid dubbed him “der Depperte,” the dopey one, and others in the family labeled him as “almost backwards.” From early on, Einstein also had an impudent rebelliousness toward authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These traits made him (says Isaacson) the “patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere.” But, we surmise, his contempt for authority made him also question received wisdom - in ways that would make him the most creative scientific genius of modern time. And his slow verbal development allowed him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. As he put it, “the ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up” – so he probed more deeply. For parents and grandparents today whose kids seem to have extra challenges, aren’t these interesting lessons?

Einstein’s Jewish journey is just as interesting. He was descended from Jewish tradesmen and peddlers living in rural villages in southwestern Germany. Though Jewish by cultural designation and kindred instinct, they displayed scant interest in the religion or its rituals. His parents didn’t keep kosher or attend synagogue and considered Jewish rituals as “ancient superstitions.” At age 6 they enrolled him in a Catholic school in the neighborhood; he did so well in his Catholic studies that he helped his classmates with theirs. There was, however, anti Semitism among his fellow students, and he definitely felt himself an outsider. When he turned 9, he was enrolled in a new school, which supplied a teacher for religious instruction for Albert and other Jews. Despite his parents’ secularism, or maybe because of it, Einstein suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism; he kept kosher and Shabbat (not easy in his home) and even wrote hymns of praise of God that he sang on the way home from school. By age 12, however, he had begun devouring science books, and that produced a strong reaction against religion. “Through the reading of popular scientific books,” he would write, “I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.” He abandoned plans for his Bar Mitzvah and avoided religious rituals for the rest of his life!

But look. Einstein lived his life with a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws. And, beginning when he was in his early forties, helping his Jewish brothers became his most important defining connection. Near the end of his life he would write, “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie.” How did Einstein go from rejection and avoidance to these connections? We plan to talk about the next few weeks.

In the meantime, think about all this and have a great day. Bill Rudolph

P.S. From what we learn about him, if Einstein would ever have attended a Shabbat service, it would be Sisterhood Shabbat. That is this Shabbat. Remember those photos of Einstein riding his bike on the Princeton campus? In the right time, he would have been training for the Israel Ride. Join us this Monday evening to hear more. And read up (listserv or website) about Family Sports Night January 26th. This is a first time event, with exciting people, autographs and pictures with sports celebrities, memorabilia in an amazing silent auction, hotdogs and healthy food. Pre-registration appreciated.
 


January 1, 2014

Boker tov and happy 2014.

I couldn’t wait for the end of 2013 for one particular reason. Maybe it’s just me, but the quest for year-end contributions from the charities of the world was getting on my last nerve. A quantum leap in electronic volume compared to previous years. The subject lines are unmistakable: “Together we are changing lives.” “Save Twice as Many Lives” (I guess there was a matching grant.) “The Clock is Ticking” from multiple charities yesterday, a day where I had two dozen solicitations before dinnertime. Now, the charities are not fools - studies have shown that approximately 40% of the annual collection of non-profits comes in the last three weeks of the secular year. So, to be spared the onslaught, we should spread out our giving. I am not sure that will help, especially since charities now employ a legion of electronic communications/ social media people. Their job is send out stuff. And what stuff is better than fundraising requests in the slow weeks at year’s end? So, I see this year-end trend only accelerating and I don’t know how to spare you or me.

With that off my chest, I will share my favorite one liner of recent days and then what is arguably my favorite story of the whole last year.

During my short winter break I made it through about eight inches of the pile of journals and magazines, and one book, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe. There is so much in Einstein’s life that is worth talking about re: God and religion and the Jewish people, physics too if I understood that, and I can scarcely wait to discuss all that with you in coming weeks. In the meantime, my favorite line of the whole 551 page book was that of Chaim Weizmann following an Atlantic crossing that marked the already-famous Einstein’s first visit to the U.S. (1921). During the journey, Einstein tried to explain relativity to Weizmann, a scientist himself besides being Israel’s first President. Asked upon their arrival whether he understood the theory, Weizman gave this reply: “During the crossing, Einstein explained his theory to me every day, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it.”

And now for the story, shared by congregant E/B and confirmed to be accurate in an internet search. It’s a story from the Holocaust era that speaks to me on many levels. See what you think about it. It’s my gift to you for the new year, one which we all hope will be a good and at least slightly more peaceful one.

Elmer Bendiner was a B-17 navigator during WWII. He tells the story of a bombing run over Kassel, Germany, and the unexpected result of a direct hit on their gas tanks. "Our B-17, the Tondelayo, was barraged by flak from Nazi antiaircraft guns. That was typical, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a 20 millimeter shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot, Bohn Fawkes, told me it was more complicated. On the morning following the raid, Bohn asked our crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of our unbelievable luck. The crew chief told Bohn that, in addition to that shell, another 11 were found in the gas tanks. Eleven unexploded shells where only one was sufficient to blast us out of the sky. It was as if the sea had parted for us. A near-miracle, I thought. Even after 35 years, this awesome event leaves me shaken [continues Bendiner], especially after I heard the rest of the story from Bohn. Bohn was told that the shells were sent to the armorers to be defused. The armorers told him that Intelligence had then picked them up. They couldn't say why at the time, but Bohn eventually sought out the answer. Apparently when the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were clean as a whistle and just as harmless. Empty? Not all of them! One contained a carefully rolled piece of paper with a scrawled message in Czech. The Intelligence people scoured our base for a man who could read Czech. Eventually they found one to decipher the note. It was amazing! Translated, the note read: "This is all we can do for you now. Using Jewish slave labor is never a good idea."

Have a good Wednesday and a great 2014. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Mazal tov to the Worship and Study Minyan as it celebrates this week its 18 years of serious and creative worship services. Meeting on the first Shabbat of the month, and modeled on the minyan of similar name at Harvard Hillel, it has been the incubator of ideas and leadership that have very much shaped this congregation.
 


December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve we held our second annual Chinese Food and Movie Night, an even greater success than the first. Christmas Day is not a day off in my line of work, though I am about to go off the radar screen for a few days. Leading that sleigh is always very tough work, especially these days having to maneuver around all the drones. Did you see how Amazon Founder/ Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos envisions a day when packages will be delivered to our doorstep by drones? So much for free two day shipping with Amazon Prime; I can’t believe I was satisfied with that!

Christmas Day also brings relief from the daily dilemma of what to respond when someone wishes us Merry Christmas. I used to go to Florida to avoid that, but the relatives we went to visit are no more.

I want to talk about Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr., who is also no more. He passed away a few days ago. We can learn a lot from Edgar, for many decades the undisputed leader of Diaspora Jewry. Steve Solarz and others called him “the King of the Jews.” He could be an intimidating man. I thought death itself would be afraid of him and that he would never die, nor did he probably imagine that outcome either. I remember when he showed up at a Hillel event soon after breaking his collarbone in a bike accident. The accident, near the home he owned in Charlottesville, was caused by a truck which didn’t stop when Edgar cut right in front of it; Edgar evidently assumed that the truck would stop for him just like most people did.

Edgar was CEO of the family business, Seagram’s, and expanded it in many directions. Congregant K was one of his finest lobbyists. He was a billionaire when that meant something. He was the leader of the World Jewish Congress who took on the Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust survivors and took on Kurt Waldheim, with a sordid Nazi era history, when he became Secretary-General of the U.N. As he said at the time, “In forcing the world to face up to an ugly past, we help shape a more honorable future.” He was a great philanthropist; Hillel and MyJewishLearning and Jewish camping are just three of the causes that reflect his generosity. It is through Hillel that I got to know the man and got to see how he changed the trajectory of an entire movement.

In the late eighties, Hillel was rather moribund and struggling to meet its financial needs as B’nai B’rith could no longer do so. In 1988 Hillel got a remarkable new professional leader, Richard Joel, who became my boss. Richard is now the President of Yeshiva University. But Richard alone wasn’t enough. We knew we needed some wealthy lay leaders to not only pay the bills but to help support the vision that Richard had laid out for a real renaissance of Jewish life on campus. Edgar Bronfman was the number one hope. Richard wrangled an invitation to have lunch with Edgar in Manhattan. We sat for hours rehearsing what to say and not say during that lunch. It’s been a while so I don’t remember much of the detail, but Edgar was in, and that began a new era that did in fact transform Hillel. His name and his gifts brought in other big names and big gifts. He and Richard went touring the country, meeting students and faculty. University Presidents couldn’t cancel appointments fast enough to get to meet with them, be dazzled by Richard’s vision, and be able to tell their families that they met with Edgar Bronfman. The renaissance took place. What was one of the best kept secrets in American Jewish life became a model of organizational change. Hillel grew exponentially with an amazing Leaders Assembly, an accreditation program, the Jewish Campus Service Corps (Geryl Baer one of the Corps members), and much more. I was lucky to be part of that, and learned a lot that has been of benefit in my next life, being your rabbi.

Edgar Bronfman started exploring his own Jewish identity rather late in his adult life, and he never stopped exploring it. A Chumash was always in the briefcase that he brought onto his private plane. He had views about synagogues and about intermarriage (seeing it not as a calamity but as an opportunity) that made people think. He modeled philanthropy not just in being generous but in putting his body in the line of action for the cause. And, unlike most Jewish philanthropists who give the vast majority of their gifts to non Jewish causes, Edgar put his people first. As I think about his life, he modeled Judaism as a lifelong learning and giving project – he never stopped doing either. We would do well to emulate those qualities.

Enjoy this quiet Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Help with the morning and evening minyanim is most needed and appreciated at this time of year. There are time variations to be checked; see our website www.bethelmc.org.
 


December 18, 2013

I am continuing with Conservative Judaism, our theme for the year and our It’s Wednesday thread for the month. Last time we dealt with the question, if Conservative Judaism has institutions - synagogues like Beth El, USY and Ramah Camps - that are doing so well, does it really matter if the Conservative movement of which we are a longtime partner seems to be floundering? It does matter, but I am not going to repeat all that brilliance; just go to our website and look for my blog if you missed it.

As promised, today I will talk about why I have chosen to be a Conservative Jew. Half of the answer is about accidents of history, and the other half is about conviction. This is not a short story, so that even the short answer will take more space than my usual. Just read the parts you like. I grew up in the Reform movement because of the first accident of history. We went where my father did his Jewish education work. He was a public school principal who directed Religious Schools in his spare time. In my earliest years, it was at a Conservative shul in North Philadephia, but for most of my days it was a large Reform congregation in central Philadelphia. I loved that shul, loved the services with their Gentile choir and booming organ, thought what my rabbis did was an interesting and productive career path. I decided to be a rabbi, of the Reform variety because that is all I really knew. I followed that path, through undergrad school with a Psych major, through the Reform seminary in Cincinnati, and through my ABD years in Ann Arbor. When I didn’t get the faculty position at Haverford College, I began to work as a campus Hillel Director and began to hang around with more traditional Jews. I took a liking to how they lived and how they thought, davvened in an Orthodox minyan for seven years, began keeping kosher. By the time my family moved to Washington ca. 1980, where I took an executive position with International Hillel, I was no longer to be found in the Reform world. I dropped my membership in the Reform Rabbi union, hung out in Conservative shuls in the area, started working part-time at Beth El, joined the Conservative rabbi union, and never looked back. Reform was a great way for me to start my Jewish journey, but I personally needed more. It is hard to jump two denominations in one lifetime, so I happily landed where I am now. Again, without some accidents of history, it might have been different.

In the 25 years that I have been officially a Conservative Jew/Rabbi, I have had ample time to live the lifestyle and ponder the ideology of the Conservative movement. I have done so from the perspective of someone who grew up as a very committed Reform Jew and also spent seven years in the Orthodox orbit. I was, and am, taken by all that Conservative Judaism has contributed to Jewish life in America. Its focus on Hebrew and traditional rituals has been picked up by Reform and other liberal movements. Its halachic egalitarianism is being emulated by modern Orthodoxy today – just look at the recent decision to have male/female singing in Hebrew Academy plays. It continues the support of Israel that has been a hallmark since the movement's founding; Reform and Orthodoxy now emulate that position. Its focus on academic excellence and intellectual honesty has been picked up by hundreds of Judaic studies departments around the country. Some of the greatest synagogues in America are those of our movement, or those spawned by our movement including Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, Kehillat/Mechon Hadar and IKAR.

So much for past accomplishments. What makes sense for the Pew Survey framed future? I resonate with what Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen wrote recently. “If I had to chart a future for Jewish life in North America, and guess what path is most likely to secure that future, I would put my money on a model of Judaism that sees the world through an egalitarian lens; accepts the best that modernity has to offer; appreciates science and the arts; respects other faith communities and other Jews; and understands that, while good fences make for good neighbors, Jewish life relies for its survival upon low walls and high regard for others. I would bet upon Jews to learn by study and practice — albeit in ways that are new or evolving — what is distinctive in their heritage so that they always have something Jewishly serious to offer the world, resources with which to resist the many temptations of modern life, something to root them and infuse them with ultimate meaning in the face of fashion and ephemera.”

Like Eisen, I am drawn to Conservative Judaism because I believe I have a mission to serve the Lord my God, and so serve God’s creation with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul, all my might. Mind without heart, heart without soul, study without practice, ritual without ethics, Judaism without Jews, or Jews without Judaism —none of these will do. We need to turn to one another, celebrate what we Conservative Jews have accomplished in the past, and get to work on applying those insights and values to the future.

This is hardly the last word. Write to me at the address below with your thoughts. And have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Activity winds down for the break. Israel Media Series Saturday night at 7 or (if you saw episodes 1-3 of Hatufim already) at 8. Our second annual Erev Xmas film and food extravaganza for the whole family is Tuesday; find more information on our website, www.bethelmc.org. The daily minyan struggles some this time of year, please help if you can (weekdays 7:30AM and 8PM).


 

December 11, 2013

I am continuing with Conservative Judaism, our theme for the year and our It’s Wednesday thread for the month. Remember my closing question last week? I will remind you. If Conservative Judaism has institutions - synagogues like Beth El, USY and Ramah Camps - that are doing so well, does it really matter if the Conservative movement of which we are a longtime and proud partner seems to be floundering? (Remember our numbers overall are down vis-a-vis the Reform and Orthodox movements, and a bridging center cohort seems no longer in favor in religion politics or the news media. If we saw a bunch of ships listing in stormy winds wouldn’t we worry that others in the fleet would sooner or later be caught up in the storm?)

This is no simple question. I don’t throw you softballs. Your clergy spent some time on this at our weekly Tuesday study/ business session, held yesterday despite the horrific snow conditions. While I may be sharing our collective responses, any part of what I say that you don’t like should be blamed on Hazzan Klein (rabbis have to stick together.)

  1. The morale of Conservative Jews is not something to be ignored. Labels still matter, and we should feel proud to carry the label of Conservative Jew. In this sense, it does matter how the movement is doing beyond how we at Beth El are doing.
     
  2. It is a pity that when we (especially insiders) think of the Conservative movement we think almost immediately of disorganization and overlapping. For example, recently three of our movement arms unveiled keruv programs for reaching intermarried families in the same short period of time; each had no relationship to the others and it is doubtful that any will get enough traction to make a difference.
     
  3. What actually matters most for our movement’s image of vitality are the kinds of experiences people are having with the institutions of the Conservative movement, for example its synagogues. If positive, then we might worry less because over time the good will become known and celebrated. But are those positive encounters the rule or the exception?
     
  4. At least some of the malaise about Conservative Judaism can be traced to our generally poor job of articulating our relevance to peoples’ needs and our expectations of them. Meaning, just who are we and what do we stand for? A stronger movement would provide its constituents with strong answers to these important questions and the resources needed to act upon the answers. Lacking proactive and coordinated national leadership, we continue to struggle to define ourselves, both to ourselves and to the outside world.

Next time I plan to carry on with this conversation, getting more personal about why I have chosen to be a Conservative Jew. Remember, I didn’t grow up that way. I will do this not because I like to talk about myself, but to move the discussion along and to prepare the way for our Scholar In Residence, Rabbi Rachel Ain, one of the young stars of our movement, who in late winter will be spending a weekend with us and talking part of the time on these same issues.

While you contemplate all this, watch the ice and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. When we engage high profile national leaders to speak to us, there is always the risk of changes in plans. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, scheduled for a dialogue with our own Kenneth Feinberg this coming Monday, has a conflict. I feel badly – this week he was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we would have been such the logical breather. We appreciate your patience as we work to reschedule for after the first of the year.
 


December 4, 2013

I am taking up a new thread, as promised. It’s time to talk more about our synagogue theme for the year, Conservative Judaism. We have had sermons and Scolnic Institute classes and bits and pieces in It’s Wednesday, now it’s time to do more.

I always like to quote Yitz Greenberg, famous American rabbi and scholar and himself an Orthodox Jew, who said that it doesn’t matter what denomination you belong to as long as you think it’s no good. Self-criticism finds no better home than talking about one’s own brand of Jewish belief and practice. I think we Conservative Jews are the best at this, not sure why. And, related, we spend the least amount of energy working to strengthen our own denomination, focusing instead on the needs of the larger community (eg. leadership in the Jewish Federation/ AIPAC) sometimes at the expense of our movement’s needs.

So, why is our denomination floundering the most, according to the Pew survey and other studies? After WWII we were the dominant movement of the three in this country; now we have half the affiliates of the Reform movement and the Orthodox are slowly catching up to us. And does it matter?

For starters in this conversation, I refer again to Yitz Greenberg. In an interview almost ten years ago with a researcher from our own Seminary, when discussing the future of our movement given the attrition that was already noticeable then, Greenberg seemed to buy into the following analysis: few rabbis find there is much payoff in speaking the language of halachah and expectations in an age when Jews want community, music and dance, and celebration. There is also a fatigue with walking a centrist road when stark options seem more appealing. This certainly poses great challenges to Conservative Judaism itself, but also deprives the American Jewish community of a bridging movement.

Our success for decades was based in part on being that bridging movement, not Reform and not Orthodox, a middle way that felt “Jewish” and also responded to changing times. It seemed just about right. Today is different. The bridging movements/ media/ politicians are all struggling for bandwidth these days. A current analogy might be CNN trying to compete with MSNBC and Fox News. But surely it would be hard to say that the world would be better off without the center. Bridges like ours are important.

So, the first question for me is (and will be next week), if Conservative institutions including synagogues like Beth El and USY and our Ramah Camps are doing so well, does it really matter if the Conservative movement of which we are a longtime and proud partner seems to be floundering? And the next question will be whether the Hebrew Academy’s allowing mixed singing (washingtonjewishweek.com/at-the-end-of-the-day-applause/) teaches us anything about the validity and viability of the path we have chosen.

Ponder all that, and have a great Wednesday, the seventh day of Chanukah and first day of the new month Tevet. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Come Saturday night for “Havdalah in Rhythm,” our first kumsitz in about ten years; see the listserv for more information about this communal sing-a-long. After you finish singing, or not, please sign up to host one or two families/couples/individuals for one Shabbat dinner in February as part of our Lighten Up annual hospitality program; contact gbaer@bethelmc.org to volunteer.
 


November 27, 2013

Nothing here about Thanksgivukkah, or Chanugiving or even Thanksalatke, I promise. I wrote about it in the Scroll, talked about it last evening at our annual interfaith service with BUMC. I confess to being tired of it.
Last week I directed your attention to the summary results of our 2013 High Holiday survey, posted (still) on our website, and I promised to talk about them today. The services and the results are worth discussion, as nothing we do affects more of you. The Board has studied the findings, and our Worship Committee under the leadership of Rebecca Gross will be doing a careful dissection in the very near future.

There was plenty of good news. To start with, over 350 of you took the time to respond. 93% felt positive overall about the services they attended. Can I stop now? Major positive feedback focused on the Hazzanim, the congregational singing, the Family and Kol Haneshama services, Kol Nidre cello music, a cappella and duet music, the new Machzor, and Torah/Haftarah chanting especially by the teens. Most common dislikes were the poor acoustics and bad mikes, cold temperatures, the length of the services, and crowding in some of the kid services.

Other results: 80% felt that the services had “about the right mix” of Hebrew and English, but one in eight members struggled with the amount of Hebrew. 86% felt part of a community worshipping together. There is interest in more explanations of the service, more rotation of honors, and encouragement of greeting in the pews.

What are my takeaways from all of this? It is encouraging that overall the responses were quite positive and the dislikes and requests lists not too lengthy. Musical aspects of the services are highly regarded, which is important since I see music as the key to the soul. Feedback was most positive for the two newest services, Kol Haneshama and the Family Service; I believe it’s not just their novelty or our wisdom in helping develop them but their good leadership and the more intimate setting (both have about 500 attendees whereas the two traditional services seat close to 1000). If we could find venues that size that have parking and are predictably available even on weekends, we would have to give them serious consideration. We will keep looking.

There are conflicting realities in some of the findings. Crowding in kid services can produce somewhat chaotic conditions and has been identified as a problem for some time, but we don’t have obvious alternatives and most synagogues would be happy to have this problem. The length of our two traditional services was the single most repeated dislike; at the same time there is a clear desire for more commentary as the service proceeds but that would make them even longer.

There are a number of pretty specific responses that have been shared with the appropriate parties. There was a good level of appreciation that we did the survey. While we are not planning on making it an annual event, we will definitely continue to take the temperature on a periodic basis.

Next week we start a new thread. Enjoy the double holiday but first have a nice Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. Resources for Chanukah are now posted on the home page of our website, www.bethelmc.org. Included is Elisha Frumkin’s Jewish Family Living Guide to Celebrating Hanukkah at Home as well as articles about Hanukkah written by service leader/rabbinic student Evan Krame and by Adjunct Rabbi Mindy Portnoy.
 


November 20, 2013

Life goes on, except for the four Beth El families who buried a loved one in the last nine days. In between all of that sadness, I went back home to do a congregant family wedding on Saturday night, at the lovely new National Museum of American Jewish History. We stayed downtown, right across from Independence Hall, and davvened on Shabbat morning at the historic congregation Mikveh Israel.

Talk about historic. Established in 1740, Mikveh Israel is known as the “synagogue of the Revolution,” as it was home to Jews from New York down to Charleston and Savannah who sought refuge in Philadelphia from the British occupation. From then on, for over 200 years, its five different buildings on three different sites were home to communal and religious leaders of note. Included in the former were Haym Salomon (financier of the Revolution); Rebecca Gratz (the model for the heroine of Ivanhoe, founder of social service and educational institutions); Judge Mayer Sulzberger (founder of the YMHA, chair of the Publications Committee of the Jewish Publication Society) and Dr. Cyrus Adler (founder of the Jewish Welfare Board, editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia, President of Dropsie College, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary). Rabbis included Gershom Mendes Seixas, who fled from New York in 1780 and consolidated Mikveh Israel’s structure and Spanish-Portugese Sephardic tradition; Isaac Lesser who in his spare time wrote the first siddur printed in America and founded the Jewish Publication Society; and Sabato Morais, who in his spare time was co-founder of our Jewish Theological Seminary. From Mikveh Israel came famous institutions such as the first Hebrew Sunday School in America, Gratz College, Dropsie College and the JPS and JTS as noted, the American Jewish Committee, and now the Museum in which the wedding ceremony took place.

The worship customs are quite unique, beyond the melodies that mark Sephardic liturgy. The President (called the Parnas) wears a tux. Those getting aliyot wear special dress hats, from under which they get to have blessings made on a dozen or more family members for a mere $50-$100 contribution. The Torah service involves choreography that is striking in the meticulous way it is carried out, every movement exactly transacted. The carrier of the Torah takes small steps, one at a time, in a solemn procession to and from the Ark. I have never witnessed levels of reverence that I saw here.

With all those 270 years of history, and all that ritual and reverence, you have to have mazal too. For a long time now, few people actually live close to Independence Mall, but the congregation was not going to follow the masses to the suburbs. The worship crowd was small. There were few children around and not much weekday activity. In many ways, Mikveh Israel feels more like a museum of American Jewish synagogue life than a congregation with a vibrant future. I hope time proves me wrong. I do know that at Beth El we have barely 60 years under our belts, not as many luminaries, no Liberty Bell nearby, and no letters from George Washington or Ben Franklin or Abe Lincoln. What we do have are excellent human resources (=you), a good location, and momentum. I don’t know if it’s 210 more years worth of momentum, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

While we are thinking into the future, coming up immediately are two of my favorite events. The Latke Hamantash Debate, Sunday at 10AM, raises narishkeit to very high levels; don’t miss the academic procession or the clever debaters or the vote or the eating. The Thanksgiving service, celebrated now for decades with our friends across the street at Bethesda United Methodist Church, will be held over there this year, 7:30PM Tuesday. Great music and warm community and the service is only an hour (what can I say?). Join the throngs at either or both. For now, my best wishes for a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S Look on the homepage of our website, www.bethelmc.org, for a summary of the findings of our 2013 High Holiday survey. Thanks to the many hundreds of you who participated. Next week I plan to share my take a ways from the survey.
 


November 13, 2013

It’s Wednesday returns to its normal origins at my desk rather than the seat of my bike. I must confess that it’s hard to match those bike ride postings – they were so … experiential! Anyway, I will share some miscellaneous thoughts, but not before I note that we had quite the weekend at Beth El: the service to honor prayer leaders, the Gala, the Maccabeats – all excellent. Now we begin gearing up for Thanksgivukkah about which I for one am already tired of hearing.

It is hard to create much distance from the Pew Survey. It’s a full employment act for Jewish professionals – almost like the Miami Dolphins hazing incident is for sports writers - and seems to come up in every setting including even bike ride meals halfway across the globe. I actually worry less about the results themselves – the problems began when Judaism met up with modernity two hundred years ago - than that they may be demoralizing. Not only are we Jews out of synch with the rest of the world (that is nothing new) but people like you and me are out of synch with many (most?) in our own American Jewish community. Nobody likes to be that out of synch. I know we have much work to do to learn from the survey and stretch and adjust, but in the meantime we who see the value added that derives from Jewish tradition and Jewish community should not be wondering whether there is something wrong with us. We just know something they don’t.

It was hard to leave Israel. There is such vibrancy, so much good noise, so many amazing flashes of creativity. Birthright kids see it and are not the same again – they by the way offer one major piece of hope that the Pew survey would not quite pick up. Of course Israel has its internal problems. It’s a good thing we live in a perfect country ourselves so some of us (including too many of my colleagues) can focus on what is wrong with Israel. But for me the more worrisome reality is the neighborhood. The AP reported on October 18th that Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas captured an eagle with an Israeli transmission device on its back and claimed it was an Israeli spy. Of course the device was an ornithological tracking device used to monitor Bonelli eagles, of which there are just nine pairs of mating age remaining in Israel. Now there are eight. In recent times, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and Turkey have made similar accusations against migrating birds. Recently, Egyptian officials arrested a stork they said was spying for Israel. You have to laugh, don’t you? Crying would be more to the point - crying about the cynical world in which we live, which I bet glops onto accusations like these and sees them as further proof of Israel’s militaristic tendencies and ultimate illegitimacy.

It is kind of ironic. As Brookings scholar Aaron David Miller told a bunch of rabbis a year or two back, Israel will survive but its neighbors will never make that easy. I believe that American Jewry, with great neighbors, will survive too, despite the serious roadblocks we place in our own way. Ironic.

Consider all this and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. The Israel Media Series continues Saturday night (7:30) with the first episodes of season one of Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the Israel TV series that generated Homeland. Join us for a perfect reflection of Israel – in the midst of major concerns about war on nearly every border there is such great cultural creativity.
 


November 7, 2013

Boker tov.

Back on U.S. soil. There was no time to write and little new to say when the Wednesday deadline arrived. As it is, this column was written by your faithful servant above 30,000 feet and is being sent to you from the Delaware House, the first wifi on my way home from Newark.

I flew from Eilat to Tel Aviv on Tuesday to join with about 75 Washingtonians for a Jewish Federation pre - General Assembly mission, co-chaired by our own Janyse and Bernie Weisz and including a half dozen other Beth El members. The opening session featured M.K. Dov Lipman (more on him below) and Yitzhak Rabin's daughter Dalia who was an M.K. and now is Chairperson of the Yitzhak Rabin Center.  Yesterday my "faces of Israel" group spent several hours in Gedera focusing on Ethiopian Jewry acculturation issues and successes, then a few hours in Holon, a working class city near Tel Aviv which was never a tour stop but has succeeded in remaking and rebranding itself in fascinating ways. While it is time for me to get back to work, the mission people stay on for more learning about Israel's realities and its needs. Then they head to Jerusalem for Shabbat and then the G.A., one of the most important events on the communal calendar for decades now.

Israel faces many serious challenges, but it always has. As Ben-Gurion famously said, "Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist." Israel proves everyday the maxim," if you wish it, it need not remain a dream." Some of its actions may not sit right with me, but being there always inspires me. Dov Lipman told us a story that I won't forget. As an 11 year old living in Kemp Mill, he went downtown to demonstrate outside the Soviet Embassy, part of the Soviet Jewry vigil whose forty year anniversary we recently commemorated. While at the demonstration, somebody gave him a sign to hold up. It said, "Free Yuli Edelstein." Edelstein, you may recall,  was one of the most prominent refuseniks whose imprisonment and struggle for freedom captivated a generation. Fast forward to nine years ago. Dov Lipman and his wife and kids are on a special El Al flight with a plane load of Americans who are making Aliyah. The pilot gives his usual informational talk as the plane is taxiing, but finishes with these words, "I am here to take you home!" Fast forward to last January, the Israeli elections. Lipman, a fairly recent immigrant and modern Orthodox rabbi living in our sister city Beit Shemesh, gets elected to the Knesset on the Yesh Atid ticket. He is the first American born rabbi ever elected! And, when he reports for the opening session, the Speaker of the Knesset is none other than Yuli Edelstein!  How is that for the land of dreams?

We begin a new thread next week. Before that is our special Shabbat service honoring all those who help lead our minyanim; we also will call up for an aliyah Hazzan Klein and Rabbi Auster whose engagement has just been announced. Saturday night is our annual Gala; a few seats are still available for this our biggest fund and spirit raiser each year. And Sunday afternoon is the Maccabeats; their groupies have bought out all the seats we can fit in the building.

Before all that excitement, do have a good Thursday.   Bill Rudolph

 

 


November 1, 2013

Shabbat Shalom from Mitzpeh Ramon, a Negev town perched on top of a giant erosion crater.        All assurances to the contrary, there was no wifi at our Thursday evening youth center lodging, surely the only place in Israel without such a connection. So the Thursday column that I had 92 miles to prepare is now coming to you. My Happy Halloween message, very important, was also missed; not a big deal here but actually it was on the radar screen.

Thursday was the long ride. Apart from the middle 25 miles, it was a really great ride. We were hugging the border, first with Gaza and then with Egypt. From a small hill a few miles away, you can see the whole entirety of the Gaza Strip. Yet in that small space there are 1.7 million people, with Egypt keeping them out of the Sinai and Israel maintaining its gift of independence but closed borders for security reasons. It is quite a recipe for trouble, with no easy solution.

Thursday lunch was 66 miles from the start. We start early. The difficult 25 miles referenced above were just before lunch, almost totally uphill with lots of headwinds and we had already done 40 miles. For bikers, think anti Seagull Century. I was wasted and, given that the next 26 miles were to be marked by some elevation but even more wicked crosswinds, any attractive offer would have put me on the bus.  I decided to give it a try, and for the first time in modern memory it was totally tailwinds on that stretch and the fastest ride of the day. Remember about stopping one turn short of the top the day before? I try to learn from my own lessons.

The ride is co-sponsored by Hazon, a growing institution based in NYC that aims to create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. Among its programs are the largest CSA (community sponsored agriculture) program in the States, food conferences and festivals, bike rides in Israel and NY and Cal, the Jewish food education network, the shared space it has created for second-stage Jewish non- profits, and it's blog, the Jew and the Carrot (www.jcarrot.org) in partnership with the Forward. In practical terms, nobody is doing this important work with their vision (hazon) and scope. Much of the genius for all this is its remarkable CEO, Nigel Savage, who was our Scholar in Residence a few years back and continues to stimulate thinking among Jewish leadership in so many ways. He is on the ride, and I have some new ideas to being back to you from my dinner with Nigel.

The co-sponsor is the Arava Institute. We will visit there on Monday and I will report on its remarkable activities at that time, if there is wifi.

For now, we have done a 60 miler today with only a sandstorm and two ridiculous hills to mar the ride. We are settling in for Shabbat in Mitzpeh Ramon. Shabbat starts at 4:25 so I am rushing, but did want to send an update and wish you a Shabbat Shalom from Israel, not the only place in the world that you can keep Shabbat but the only place where it is part of the rhythm and rhyme of the Jewish experience going back to the patriarchs, whose footsteps we are always crossing.

Shabbat Shalom.  Bill Rudolph

 

 


October 29 - 30, 2013

Erev Tov from Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem

Anyone concerned about the Pew Survey of Jews in the United States need only have dropped in at Beth El on Sunday for Mitzvah Day. There was an extraordinary amount of good Jewish tikkun olam/social action, with participants from across the demographics of our community. At the shul alone, between the electronics being carted in to the big bags of clothing to the seventh graders working on their raking movements, it was actually kind of dangerous to be standing in the atrium. A nice kind of dangerous. Kudos to co-chairs Sheryl Miller and Jonathan Polon, and their several dozen activity captains, for a job well done and for creating a beautiful picture of people doing the right thing (which is what the word tzedakah means.)

I am in Israel for my second Arava Institute - Hazon Israel Ride and for a piece of our Federation's pre General Assembly mission. Wednesday we ride from Jerusalem to Ashkelon, either 29 or 55 or 63 miles depending on factors that were not as relevant when I did the ride six years ago. Factors like many of my body parts hurt and I haven't started riding. Anyway, we embark at 6:45AM, when you are cozily tucked in for the night (DST is already ended here) and reach the coastal city in mid afternoon long after the usual 7:30AM appearance of It's Wednesday. I didn't want you to worry, so I am sending this out late Tuesday while I have a good wifi signal, and hope to write again sometime tomorrow with more about the ride and why it is so much more than just a ride.

Leilah Tov.  Bill Rudolph

 

 

Shalom from Ashkelon.

We made it safely to the Mediterranean. It was a beautiful ride. I made the right choice of distance. The only problem was the hill coming out of Jerusalem. I thought I would become one of those tank carcasses on the roadside from the War of Independence. After a few miles of climbing, I had to stop to catch my breath. ( Note that most of my group had stopped long before but I hate stopping.) I was a sorry sight, draped over the handlebars, gasping for air. I caught my breath and started up the hill again. Around the first turn, not even fifty yards from my stopping place,  was the top of the hill and a long beautiful downhill. Sometimes in life we stop just a little too soon and miss out on more than beautiful downhills. I hope you haven't experienced that.

On the positive side, Israeli truck and car drivers were surprisingly kind to us as we frequently encroached on their turf. What's with that?

Today might be called Philistine Day. Early on we went by the open field where the young king - to - be David took out his slingshot and killed the Philistine giant Goliath. We went through Gath and are spending the overnight in Ashkelon. Together they are two of the five Philistine cities - the others are Gaza Ekron and Ashdod -  that were extant and flourishing when the motley crew of freed Israelite slaves entered the Promised Land. Very quickly our ancestors figured out that they would be wise to steer clear of the Philistines, who had mastered iron ( this was Iron Age I) and were able to produce weapons for which the Israelites had no answer.  The Goliath story was scarcely repeated until eventually the Israelite monarchy led by David and Solomon was strong enough to conquer anyone in its path.

Gath is a sleepy little town. Ashkelon is quite an attractive city that is growing despite the occasional rocket from the most southerly of the five cities, Gaza. Israeli control of Gaza and its environs was given up for a variety of reasons some years back; it represents now one of the significant political and security problems that Israel ( and now Egypt) faces. But on a beautiful fall day, only an Air Force jet streaking towards Gaza and riders yelling "car back" break the spell of tranquility.

Tomorrow is the longest day of riding. Up to 93 miles and a lot of elevation. I hope to report in on the day's ride and some narrative about co- sponsor Hazon tomorrow evening.    Best to,you for a good Wednesday.      Bill Rudolph

 

 


October 23, 2013

More on the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, released three weeks ago. Last week we looked at some of the chilling data about us: a general decline in belief and affiliation, a dramatic growth in our secular ranks where kids are rarely raised Jewish, and identification with the Conservative movement declining. Hopeful signs exist but seem mostly on the surface. People in my line of work still are talking about little else since, including a session sponsored by our Jewish Federation on Monday that drew over a hundred lay and professional leaders.

There is enough in this survey to occupy us for months, but as promised I want to comment on the one chart of all the charts that jumped out at me, the findings regarding Jewish identity. What does being Jewish mean in America today? Respondents were asked to choose from among 9 choices on what is essential to their sense of Jewishness. Here is the percentage of “Jews by religion” (the 78% of the sample) that indicated that a particular choice was essential. Secular Jews (the 22% who say they have no religion) had lower percentages on each of the choices, but the rank order was exactly the same, so there is something here. The 9 choices and the % that said each was an essential part of what being Jewish means to them are (formatting was good but will be lost):

Remembering the Holocaust 76%
Leading an ethical and moral life 73%
Working for justice/ equality 60%
Being intellectually curious 51%
Caring about Israel 49%
Having a good sense of humor 43%
Being part of a Jewish community 33%
Observing Jewish law 23%
Eating traditional Jewish foods 16%

Before my brilliant analysis, please stop and take a pencil and list which you consider essential. I would love to know how your list compares. Anyway, is this not fascinating? For me, it is emblematic of where we are as Jews in America and I can’t say that I like where we are. God Torah Israel – they used to be our mantra and they scarcely show up as choices. What does it mean that remembering the Holocaust is the most essential part? I certainly don’t want to offend survivors or Museum supporters, but I think they also would not want this to be the first choice. What is the takeaway from remembering the Holocaust that has any chance of building Jews who love being Jewish and want to make sure that their descendants do too? Leading a moral life and working for justice/equality are nice, but Gentiles do that too, and often better nowadays. Intellectual curiosity? More Nobel prizes, but what about Torah curiosity and the mitzvot that follow? In fifth place, finally, we get to something that I would call core and “sustainable” and uniquely Jewish– caring about Israel. But it is only slightly more essential than having a good sense of humor! Community and leading a Jewish way of life? Very important I would have thought and on the top of my list, second and third from last. I see little here that points to a better future than Pew found in our present, and I see a lot that explains why our Jewish story is not very compelling to more and more of our people.

As the community and your leadership absorb these survey findings, there will be more to say. In the meantime, we can blame ourselves for not being more effective teachers and cheerleaders and role models for what is great (and essential) about being Jewish, or we can blame America and western culture for the erosion of faith that we are seeing all around us, or we can blame both and that would be blame well placed.

The next two Wednesdays I hope to be on travel and writing from a remote location. The timing is such that the columns may not appear at their usual time. Don’t panic. Best regards and have a good day. Bill Rudolph

P.S. RSVP deadline for our annual Gala is Friday. The Gala is November 9th. It features “Forbidden Broadway,” which does to the world of theatre what Capital Steps does to politics, and it features hundreds of your Beth El friends joining together to enjoy the entertainment and support the cause. I hope to see you there.
 


October 16, 2013

Boker Tov.

I could write an It’s Wednesday every day this week and still not exhaust the important matters before us. That would include the rabbis who tortured husbands who wouldn’t give their wives a get, the death of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the energetic and refreshing Centennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism just now concluded, the continuing partial government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. But, promises are promises, so let me turn to the Pew study.

The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews was released two weeks ago. People in my line of work have talked about little else since. You can find it yourself at the Pew Forum website. The survey research was done with great care and expense, with advice from many famous Jewish demographers, so we have to take it seriously as chilling as it often is. A few highlights of the chill follow. The survey talks about a general decline in belief and affiliation among American Jews. We have talked about this decline in American society in general, but we Jews are few in number and we can’t just ignore the estimated 2.4 million people in America who are of “Jewish background,” meaning they are not Jewish anymore; there are only 5-6 million who do identify as Jewish. Among the latter, fully 22% (and 32% among Millennials) are “Jews of no religion” (also commonly called secular or cultural Jews) whereas in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey only 7% were that; two-thirds of Jews of no religion are not raising their children Jewish or even partially Jewish. After WWII [when there was a middle ground], Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination; now 35% of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18% with Conservative, 10% with Orthodox, and 30% are “just Jewish.” When you look at household composition, the average Orthodox household has 1.7 children compared with 0.3 children per household for Conservative Jews and 0.4 for Reform; that means we see aging populations outside the Orthodox world. Within all three denominations, there is switching but almost always in the direction of less-traditional Judaism: about 25% raised Orthodox are now Conservative or Reform, 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Very few move in the opposite direction. And so on.

Am I going to leave you with just this? Of course not. 94% of those interviewed are proud to be Jewish; even among the Jews of no religion the figure is 83%. Three quarters have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The 30% whose denomination is “just Jewish” are not excited about organized religion but are looking for community and we think just haven’t yet found their home in the Jewish community. Seven in ten of us feel either very attached or somewhat attached to Israel, same as in 2000. And, since all “politics” are local, I look at Beth El’s 1100 family units and the more than 800 kids we have in BEPS, the Religious School and the Jewish day schools and – not even counting toddlers – our children per household rate is at least 0.73.

Next time we will comment on the fascinating survey findings re: Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish? What is essential to our sense of Jewishness? In the meantime, don’t forget that Simon Rawidowicz wrote an essay decades ago called “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” We Jews are constantly afraid of our extinction, always it seems for good reason, yet here we still are.
Have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph

P.S. The Israel Media Series starts its fourth year this Saturday evening, 7:30PM. We will screen the film ”The Other Son.” Beginning in November, we will show Season One of Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the Israeli TV drama series that was sold to 20th Century Fox Television and adapted into the acclaimed series “Homeland.” I am proud of the IMS. Come see why.
 


October 9, 2013

Last Wednesday I plunged into the struggle over the Affordable Care Act that has brought about a partial government shutdown. I plunged deeper on Shabbat morning. I recommend Dan Balz’s excellent analysis of the political pickle we are in (“The Shrinking Middle Ground”) on the front page of the Sunday Post. Beth El is doing what we can to help during the furloughs – we are planning another lunch for Friday. The situation is always on my mind, meaning I like many of you alternate between anger and distress much of the time. The column needs to go forward, regardless.

Last week I promised a discussion (delayed by the shutdown), catalyzed by the debate about our response to the Syrian chemical weapons, about whether America is special. Some say that we are indeed a country founded on a vision of freedom, dignity and equality for all, our history driven by a desire to get closer and closer to that dream within our own society and for all humanity. America’s uniqueness is not borne of a sense of our being better than others. Rather, what makes us unique is precisely that we have the humility as a nation to realize that we must collectively answer to a higher cause and seek the welfare of all humanity, that we cannot turn inward selfishly and worry only about our own wellbeing. We cannot ignore the suffering of others.

I happen to think this is true. With all the problems we have, I do think we have a vision of a just world that leads us to intervene in world events more than almost any other country. While some say our interventions are ultimately about markets and money, I am not convinced. I think we have become the world’s policeman, and the main source of aid to victims of natural disasters, because we think that is our duty as citizens of the world.

What’s more, I think that Israel shares a similar “exceptionalism,” the result of an understanding that it has a sacred prophetic obligation to be a light unto the nations. That has led Israel to be among the first nations to respond to global disasters with teams of medical and search experts, and that has led Israel to set up field hospitals and provide medical care to so many injured Syrians carried from the border by soldiers of the IDF every day, despite the fact that Israel and Syria are still at war. How extraordinary is that? And while these interventions have a modest public relations value, I think the motivation is more the prophetic vision.  So, I am doubly proud to be an American and a Jew, even with what is transpiring on the Hill.

Next time and beyond, as promised last week also, I take up the fascinating and worrisome Pew Research Center’s Survey of U.S. Jews that was released last week. You can find it yourself at www.pewforum.org. Just a few teasers for now: after decades of high assimilation and intermarriage rates there are now an estimated 400,000 children with at least one Jewish parent who are not being raised Jewish at all and another 300,000 who are being raised partly Jewish and partly another religion; after WWII when there was a middle ground Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination, now 35% of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18% with Conservative, 10% Orthodox, and 27% are “just Jewish." 34% of respondents said that believing Jesus was the messiah is compatible with being Jewish. (That is especially shocking.) It’s not all bad news: 94% are proud to be Jewish (including 83% of those who are Jews of no religion) and the “just Jewish” people have strong Jewish identities that can be tapped. And there are Conservative shuls like ours and camps and youth groups that are flourishing.   More to come on this.

This Shabbat is the Bar Mitzvah of Benjamin Harris. It is the first clergy Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Beth El since Marc Rudolph had his exactly 13 years ago, so it is a big deal and we all look forward to celebrating with Greg and Rebekah and Ben and Maayan and Shoshana. In the meantime, have a great Wednesday.      Best,  Bill Rudolph

P.S. Samuel Scolnic Institute classes began this week, Tuesday morning and now Wednesday evening. The great lineup of courses for tonight can be found on our website. You can register at the door.  On Sunday at 10:30AM, our Age and Stage programming kicks off for the new year with the first of a number of sessions on parenting. Sharon Duke Estroff, educator and contributor of parenting articles to over 100 publications and mother of four, talks about digital parenting based in part on her book “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?”


October 2, 2013

With the holidays concluded, I was all ready to start a Syria related thread about America: that we are (or are not) a country founded on a vision of freedom, dignity and equality for all, our history driven by a desire to get closer and closer to that dream within our own society and for all humanity. America’s uniqueness is not borne of a sense of our being better than others. Rather, what makes us unique is precisely that we have the humility as a nation to realize that we must collectively answer to a higher cause and seek the welfare of all humanity, that we cannot turn inward selfishly and worry only about our own wellbeing. We cannot ignore the suffering of others.

Then came yesterday’s government shutdown, and I know I need to comment on that. In future weeks we will return to the postponed matter above as well as to the Pew study of American Jewry that came out yesterday and has many American Jews very nervous about our future.  

Given what is going on 10 miles away on Capital Hill, we certainly cannot claim to be better than other nations. We are more a laughingstock than special.  It is just about impossible to discuss this without being partisan, and I will fail on one count. The blame game for the standoff is in full motion, and there is a lot at stake.  I will restrict my comments to the Affordable Care Act. (I would never btw call it Obamacare, which makes it about Obama and not about the tens of millions of people in our society who can’t access affordable medical care. We join with Turkey and Mexico as the only industrialized nations that do not guarantee access to health care.)  It is not partisan to say that a large number of Republicans are using the budget bill as a means to roll back the ACA. They say it. They also say that we have a great/ the best health care system in the world and why would we tinker with it? This is where I lose my neutrality.  We may have great doctors and medical professionals, but we don’t have anywhere near the best health care system in the world. The data are clear. Life expectancy: 27th out of the 34 industrialized OECD nations; highest or near-highest prevalence of infant mortality and heart and lung disease; 46th among 48 countries in a Bloomberg study of the most efficient health systems.  At the same time, the WHO reports that we spend more on health per capita and as percentage of the GDP than any other nation. And remember about Turkey and Mexico.  To want to preserve that “system” is beyond defense and, frankly, anyone who argues for that should be embarrassed. 

So, I am more than perturbed. My only consolation is that, having watched Israelis do such a poor job of governing themselves and thinking maybe Jews are just not good at that, I now am comforted to know that Americans are not much better.  More seriously, I think what we see on the Hill is just a symptom of our division into two countries, red and blue for short, and there is very little common ground. That is very distressing for both the long term and for the short term when it produces the havoc in the lives of countless good citizens that this shutdown is causing.

It is never good to end on a distressing note.  So that you can feel constructive and that you are helping to shape a small piece of the future, read the P.S. one more time. And have a great Wednesday.   Bill Rudolph

P.S. We have over 250 responses to our High Holiday survey.  When we launched it, I bet Sid Groeneman a DQ Blizzard that we would get significantly more.  Are you going to let me down?  Please do the survey now, before 50 emails pile up on top of this one. Thanks.   https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/highhholidayssurvey


September 25, 2013

There is an important announcement in the P.S., which is where anything of value in this column usually ends up anyway. See if you can control your desire to see what is there – delayed gratification they tell me is a sign of advanced maturity.

Sukkot is winding down. It began for me with true proof of the adage, shver tzu zein a Yid, that it is hard to be a Jew. It’s Wednesday late morning, erev Sukkot. I have already written to you and taught my Parshah class. I have no schach for the roof of my sukkah and the clock is ticking. Schach has to be organic, like the bamboo I usually use. But bamboo is so messy and shrivels up to non kosher status (=doesn’t cover half the roof) within seconds of being put up.  Since I am cutting back on high fructose corn syrup, the Men’s Club corn stalk deal didn’t resonate either.  So the stand of Leyland Cypress that the previous owner put up to shield our house from the next door neighbor’s comes into view. It is fifty feet tall and growing out of control and needs a good trim. The very neighbor offers to help. Because it requires ladders and chopping up big limbs, it’s a two-man job. We start around noon.  I have an hour available for this, after which I have hours of shul work that cannot wait and I will just barely be ready for 6:30 minyan to welcome the Chag. The neighbor decides this is a chain saw job. Hasn’t used his in a while. Half-hour later it is working. Within minutes we have cut down more than enough for my schach needs. But the neighbor thinks the stand of trees looks ragged and would benefit from a little trimming here and there.  To make a long story short, after three hours we are done, with the Cypress looking good and enough schach for fifteen sukkahs laid out, but the rest of my day’s work is still awaiting me. It was only with the grace of G-d (Jews don’t usually talk about “grace” but it was that) that the work gets done and I get cleaned up and to shul by 6:30.  But I have yet to recover from the stress and it’s six days later.

Sukkot ends with three special days. Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot where we make extra hoshanot (circumambulation prayers) in the chapel with our lulavim, after which we will beat our willows into the ground, symbolically removing (hopefully) the last vestiges of the regrets and shortcomings that we have been working to shed all these days since Rosh Hashanah. We say that Yom Kippur is the last repentance opportunity, but actually we have till today.  Tonight is Shemini Atzeret, a mysterious full holiday that either concludes Sukkot or is a separate holiday of its own, take your pick. It is best known as the beginning date for six months of prayers for rain and for the Yizkor memorial service that is included in the morning service (at the 7:00AM or 9:30AM service). Then tomorrow night is Simchat Torah with lots of Torah dancing and candy bars and schnapps. Friday morning is more of the same and aliyot for everyone and our honoring Marci Kanstoroom and Craig Futterman for service to the congregation.  And then, because we shouldn’t have too much of a good thing, there are no holidays till Chanukah. The spacing remains problemmatical.

Moadim L’Simchah, a happy Sukkot to you.  Next week we begin a new thread.  Bill Rudolph

P.S.  This year we have decided to democratize our debriefing on High Holiday services. Sid Groeneman, a survey and market research consultant who is a Beth El member, helped us design a survey monkey to get your feedback.  Please help us know what is working and what needs to work better.  And please do so before you have forgotten totally about the services, let us say by October 1. I took the survey and it was 5 minutes. If you want to write some comments, it will be longer. If something is not covered, write to me at the address below. Thanks in advance for doing the survey.  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/highhholidayssurvey


September 18, 2013

Maybe we are getting used to it, sad to say. Or maybe if it’s not kids it doesn’t hit us as hard. They tell me that Jon Stewart said nothing about it. President Obama, standing but a few miles away, gave it a few minutes then launched into his scheduled press conference on the economy.  The media, on the other hand, covered almost nothing else all day.  Such was our Monday, the day of the Navy Yard shooting. Another sad day, in the tradition of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Aurora and Sandy Hook and on.  Isn’t it agonizing to see these horrors and to know that the next one is just waiting to happen? Men with a history of psychological problems with easy access to deadly weapons is our unfortunate reality that just about guarantees it.  Events like this do put in perspective the little things that we let bother us, and do make us appreciate our loved ones more than usual.  Jewish tradition doesn’t have too much to say about going off to work (or school or the movies) and not coming home alive, other than teaching us to make our days count and giving us a mandate to be God’s partner in making the world a safer and better place.

Yom Kippur, which actually has some aspects of an encounter with death, is in the rear view mirror, and Sukkot – one of my favorite holidays – comes along at a good time for us. Thursday and Friday are holidays, as are next Thursday and Friday, with sukkah dwelling and semi-holidays mixed in.  Do we know how to pack a lot of holidays into one little period of time or what?  

The first day of Sukkot features our annual Hiddur Mitzvah Judging Contest – seeing who best dresses and protects their lulav and etrog. There should be little doubt I will run off with the lulav holder trophy this year with my brand new entry, being held in secrecy till the morning; my only concern is that the judge who was most favorable to my entries has retired. Anyway, we have a lot of fun, the competitive juices flowing in an unusually civil way given that it’s Bethesda.  Friday is our eighth annual Deli Lunch, preceded by my special sermon on some aspect of the ancient tradition of corned beef and rye.  This year we will add to the regular fare a bit of deli from KOL Foods, whose meats come from pasture-raised, humanely treated, sustainable, kosher-slaughtered animals. There will be vegan smoked and peppered Tofurkey slices for the veggies also.  And ice cream sundaes for dessert.  Only kidding on the dessert.

Sukkot actually revved up on Sunday when sukkah building began in earnest, both in the shul’s back yard and in many of yours, and in about 30 homes where sukkot were put up and decorated by Religious School classes as part of our Build the Joy program. I got to three of those this year. They were so cool that my post Yom Kippur exhaustion didn’t hit till the afternoon, or maybe it was the Redskins that brought about my long nap. Anyway, Sunday was a beautiful day to be outside, and watching the kids building and making decorations and using so many of their senses, and seeing the parental figures schmoosing and taking it all in, reinforced what I always talk about, that Jewish education needs a good dose of the experiential and fun and family involvement. Yasher koach to Rabbi Mark Levine and Tali Moscowitz for arranging all this and thanks to the host families.

It has been a privilege to embark with you on another new year. I hope you have a good one, and a good Wednesday.  Chag Sukkot Sameach, a happy Sukkot to you.


September 11, 2013

Who will forget what we were doing when the horror that came to be called 9/11 was unfolding on our TV screens twelve years ago today? Who would argue that our view of the world wasn’t changed by that day’s events? You just have to drive by the NIH, or the White House, or check in for a flight to see. Syria is a different kind of disaster; if it weren’t for wanting the President’s word to mean something, it would be a little hard to rationalize bombing empty buildings to make a point when 100,000 were killed before the poison gas and we did next to nothing.    

Last time we talked about the passage of time, the big anniversaries (Battle of Gettysburg, March on Washington, Kennedy Assassination) and how Rosh Hashanah helps us mark time and think about how to use time more wisely. This Wednesday let me share my final helping of High Holiday material that won’t make it to prime time. 

The story is of a man who comes to a Brooklyn shoe store in 1949. He presents a wrinkled, tattered shoe repair ticket. He says, "Mister, you're not going to believe this, but I brought shoes to you in 1942 before I enlisted in the war. I forgot about them. I enlisted, I served, I got out. Thank God we won the war. Later I moved to Baltimore, married, had a family. Last week my wife is cleaning out my old suits and finds this shoe repair ticket. It jogged my memory. I was going to be here in New York on business today, and I thought I'd give it a shot because they were my favorite pair of shoes." The shoe repairman looks at him incredulously and says, "Unbelievable; how do you expect me to have shoes after seven years?" "Would you please go look? It's very important to me." "Okay, what did you want done?" "I wanted the soles repaired." "You wanted soles repaired. Okay, let me go look." He goes into the back, comes out 20 minutes later and says, "Mister, you won't believe it, we have your shoes." "You have my shoes after 7 years? I can't believe it. I'm so grateful. Well, can I have them?" The shoe repairman says, "Come back Tuesday, they'll be ready then."

We think we have all the time in the world to repair our souls – get the pun? – and yet, even though we have had all this time, we delay doing it. Yom Kippur, which touches many senses through its crush of people and powerful prayers and the humbling fast, beckons our return to being the best persons we can be. It is our ticket to a year to be proud of.  Please don’t wait to start on the repairs.  

Best wishes for a good Wednesday, a good new year and that by Saturday night when we belt out that final Avinu Malkeinu you will have completed a chatimah tovah (a good sealing in the Book of Life.)   Bill Rudolph

P.S. Check your tickets for service times and locations. Bring non-perishables for the Manna Food Center collection at Kol Nidre – in affluent Montgomery County, Manna needs to distribute approximately 16,000 pounds of food every single day of operation. Don’t miss the Seminar; if you didn't get the text yesterday, let me know.  And don’t forget your assignment:  make a list of things you did in the last year that you wish you hadn't done. And then make a list of things you did in the last year that made you proud of the kind of person you are. Bring it with you to services. It will remind you of the capacity we all have for doing evil and for doing good and will help us make the first steps in repairing our souls.


September 4, 2013

Now for a final helping of pre High Holiday material that won’t show up in prime time. First it was the CEO and the boiled seeds and the truth, last week it was the hunters and the two buffalo on the tiny plane and how we keep doing the same things. This Wednesday I want to talk about the calendar, as some of my colleagues will, because...

This is the earliest that Rosh Hashanah has fallen since 1899. And wait till Thanksgiving, when we light the first Chanukah candle the Wednesday night before. Never have those days coincided and they will never again. You will be inundated with great revelations on that topic, but not from me I promise, because I am already saturated with emails about it.

For now, I think Rosh Hashanah (early or late) does help us mark time in two important ways. One, it helps us to be more contemplative of the passing of time. On the world scene, look at the anniversaries that we mark this year:  the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ADL (in response to the last official lynching to take place in Georgia, that of Leo Frank), the 100th anniversary of Franz Rosenzweig's Kol Nidre epiphany (he walked into church that night, ready to convert to Christianity, but the effect was opposite and he went on to become one of the great Jewish thinkers of all time), the 100th birthday of Menachem Begin, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and the  40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. These events and milestones carry much significance and are worthy of contemplation.

And what about the passing of time in our own personal lives? Think about the past year. What would be the moments that you would want to redo?  What moments were so special that you would want to freeze them in time if you could?  Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to replay those moments and learn what we can from them or just enjoy them again.

And the other calendar related focus? The holiday also gives us the opportunity to think about how we might use our time more wisely. Most of us are have calendars that are over full, working parents especially. But many of us can blame ourselves for some of the overload – it is often of our own doing and we could carve out at least a little more free time if we wanted to. Less TV. Less web surfing. More reading or study. More community building. More family time. More of whatever we know we are lacking in the lives we are living.  Rosh Hashanah, like January 1, is a time to think about changing how we live our lives. Unlike January 1, Rosh Hashanah gives us real and undistracted time – in sacred community not on the sofa watching parades and football games – to think about adjustments. Let us use the time wisely.

Rosh Hashanah does come early. Tonight. May it be the start of a good and sweet new year for you and yours, a year in which we all benefit from the wisdom of the Psalmist who said, “Teach us, O Lord, to number our days.”   Best,  Bill Rudolph

P.S. Check your tickets for service times and locations. And don’t forget your assignment:  make a list of things you did in the last year that you wish you hadn't done. And then make a list of things you did in the last year that made you proud of the kind of person you are. Share your list with loved ones if you wish, but surely bring it with you to services. Think about it periodically but not during the sermons. It will remind you of the capacity we all have for doing evil and for doing good. 


August 28, 2013

Now for more pre High Holiday material that won’t show up in prime time. Last week it was the CEO and the boiled seeds. Most of you liked that except for B who thought the boss was a psychopath. The more common understanding: truth has to be a core value for any business and for any person.

A group of hunters chartered a plane to fly them to a clearing in the thick jungle. Following their instructions, the pilot returned two weeks later to retrieve them. He looked at the animals they had killed and said:

“This plane can only carry the weight of one buffalo. You will have to leave one behind.”

“But last year the pilot let us take two in a plane exactly this size,” they protested.

Under duress the pilot relented and said:

“If you did it last year, I guess we can do it again this year.”

The plane took off with the hunters and the two buffalo, but the small plane was unable to gain altitude and crashed into a low-lying hill. Miraculously, the men were safe. When they climbed out to survey the situation, one hunter asked:

“Where do you think we are?”

The other looked around and said:

“I think we’re about two miles to the left of where we crashed last year.”

The message:  we keep doing the same things. Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The beauty of the High Holidays is that, if we allow it, we get to stop time and think seriously about the things we do and resolve to try a different path. The rest of the year we are too busy or preoccupied for that important work and we keep crashing.

Now your assignment for the coming days. We will spend so much time on our sins – we say the Al Chet and Ashamnu close to 20 times on Yom Kippur alone - and not enough on the good we do.  Your assignment is to make a list of things you did in the last year that you wish you hadn't done. And then, the chiddush (the new thing): make a list of things you did in the last year that made you proud of the kind of person you are – things you did or said, acts of respect, telling the truth, keeping gossip to yourself, sticking to your principles, doing tzedakah. Share your list with loved ones if you wish, but surely bring it with you to services. Think about it periodically but not during the sermons. It will remind you of the capacity you have for doing evil and for doing good. 

Best wishes for a good Wednesday.  And speaking of wishes, it’s time for the traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting:  L’shanah tovah tikatevu. May you be inscribed for a good year.

P.S. To get further into the holiday spirit, join our Selichot programs/services at Beth El and Ohr Kodesh on Saturday night, and check out the Hazzan’s melodies on the sound cloud:         https://soundcloud.com/beth-el-melodies/sets/new-high-holiday-melodies

 


August 21, 2013

Two weeks from tonight it’s Rosh Hashanah. As has been the custom of late, I share with you in the weeks leading up to the big day(s) some of the material that I come across in my preparations that doesn’t make it to the big time but is important or provocative enough that I want to share it with you.  Last week’s discussion of working vacations and summer camp evoked many great responses, but with several funerals and so much else going on, I haven’t even had a chance to acknowledge the contributions let alone organize them into a coherent column.

A colleague shared this story, called “The Seed,” about how we should live our lives, which is kind of what the High Holidays are about. Here it is, in abridged form; even so the column will be longer than the usual for which I apologize in advance.

A successful businessman was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business.   Instead of choosing one of his Directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.  He said, "It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you. I am going to give each one of you a seed today - one very special seed.  I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you.  I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO."

One man, named Jim, was among those who were there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed.  Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow.  Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. More weeks went by, still nothing. Others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn't have a plant and he felt like a failure. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn't say anything to his colleagues, however... He just kept watering and fertilizing the soil - he so wanted the seed to grow. 

The year finally went by and all the young executives of the company brought their plants to the CEO for inspection.  Jim told his wife that he wasn't going to take an empty pot.   But she asked him to be honest about what happened.  Jim felt sick to his stomach. It was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right.  He took his empty pot to the boardroom. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives.  They were beautiful - in all shapes and sizes.   Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed, a few felt sorry for him! When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives.

Jim just tried to hide in the back.  "My, what great plants, trees, and flowers you have grown," said the CEO. "Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!"  All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He called him to the front.  Jim was terrified. He thought, "The CEO knows I'm a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!"   When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story.  The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, "Behold your next Chief Executive Officer! His name is Jim!"  Jim couldn't believe it. “Jim couldn't even grow his seed. How could he be the new CEO?" the others said.

Then the CEO said, "One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead - it was not possible for them to grow.  All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you.  Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!"  End of story.

The rabbi who shared this went on to these nice, high holiday type, conclusions:  If you plant honesty, you will reap trust. If you plant goodness, you will reap friends. If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment. And so forth. I really liked the story and the conclusions he made about it.  Until I began to think on it more.  Were the other execs really unfit for leadership? Nobody loves the truth more than I, but was what they did really dishonest? What would I have done in this situation? Sometimes life gives us lemons. Is it wrong to try to make lemonade out of them by adding some sugar and ice and other ingredients? Isn’t resourcefulness a virtue?  Is following the instructions always the best course of action, even if it leads us on a path to nowhere? In High Holiday Torah terms, when God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac and he goes ahead and is ready to do it, did he pass the test or did he fail it?  I am not sure what to think about Abraham, or the CEO test.

Ponder this. Talk to your friends. Write what you think. Better, write to each other. I can’t promise a response anytime soon. It’s the High Holiday season.

 


August 14, 2013

Let me share a concern and a question while it is still summer vacation time. Next week we get to more serious matters, for which I am ramping up slowly.

The concern: there is increasingly no such thing as a vacation. You may have seen the new Harris Interactive survey that found that 61 percent of Americans plan to work during their vacations this year. That is up from 52%  last year and 46% the year before, and Generation Y’ers are at 73%, so it’s a fast rising boat.  And the saddest part for me is that only one third of those who plan to work while on vacation is not pleased about it, meaning the other two thirds don’t seem to mind. 

Why so? The conjectures are 1) that the job market is still shaky enough that people feel edgy about completely uncoupling from the office, and 2) people are staying plugged in because they are afraid of being overwhelmed when they return to work.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, thinks it’s the latter. “It’s less the bad people making us do it. It’s more ourselves and worrying about what will happen when we don’t.” And, she says, while staying plugged in may ease our first day back, people need downtime and a chance to really recharge and to see things we don’t see until we really step back from work.

I for one struggle with this reality. I no longer let the emails accumulate until I am back working. I read them at least once a day on vacation, sometimes several times a day, and it’s not necessarily relaxing. I just don’t want to face the hundreds I will face if I wait even a week, which would make coming back to work too traumatic.  I will try to do better next year but I am not sure how.

Now to my question, which is also about percentages:  why do Jewish kids seem to go to summer camp in so much higher a proportion than other kids?  I don’t have any scientific data to prove that this is so, but I am certain it is. And when mentioning this to people recently, I heard from congregant L, who is now the first researcher on the It’s Wednesday payroll. She went to two local country clubs on a warm weekend in July. At the Jewish one (starts with a W) the pool was empty, maybe 9 people including a few kids. At the club that wouldn’t be called Jewish (starts with a C) the pool area was teeming with people, including tons of kids. How’s that for survey research? Kidding aside, I think the differential is real but I cannot figure why. It’s not like Jews like camping. Some have suggested that Jewish parents are more anxious to get rid of their kids for the summer, but I dismiss that out of hand. I do think there is something behind this, not sure what.

So, now is the time for your reasoned theories about this phenomenon. Please make them brief and send to my email address below. In the meantime, have a great Wednesday and, if on vacation, give that smartphone a rest.


August 7, 2013

Like clockwork, this column reappears once again on the first Wednesday of August, to continue more or less uninterrupted till next summer. Except this year, in which you got the bonus edition about Jefferson. I have received the requisite corrections about his greatness – he didn't mind slavery very much, his policies led to the War of 1812, he died in debt – so we need to curb our enthusiasm.

The first column always causes me angst. Not a good column, I say to myself, and nobody will read the rest of them. That paralyzes me. So I beg your indulgence while I get warmed up for greater things by sharing some of my summer reading.

For many of us the main drama of the summer – besides trying to figure out why the same Nats team that was the best in baseball last year can be so ordinary this year - has been the fate of Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on N.S.A. surveillance and was holed up in the Moscow airport seeking asylum. Would he, like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal, “ ever get out of the airport? He did, and now the focus is on what he revealed.  Most of the surveillance that Snowden revealed comes out of a project called Prism, begun in 2007 to help prevent terrorist attacks, tapping into the servers of the nine leading U.S. internet companies, and making many of us and many in Congress nervous and/or upset. Imagine that your email to me about legumes on Passover was being recorded and joked about around the lunchtable at N.S.A. And of course more serious invasions of our privacy are contemplated. 

One of the best pieces I saw about this was in the June 24 New Yorker, a piece called “The Prism” by Jill Lepore, a Harvard prof and staff writer at the magazine. It is subtitled “Privacy in an Age of Publicity,”  and  talks about the relationship between those two values.  Late in the 19th century, two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, published an article in the Harvard Law Review called “The Right to Privacy,” arguing for the legal right to be left alone. That right had never been defined before.  (The essay lies at the heart of every legal decision that has been made about privacy ever since.)  While sitting on the Supreme Court ca. 1928, Brandeis expressed the view (minority opinion in Olmstead v. United States) that wiretapping constituted a violation of one’s right to be let alone, and predicted that there would be far more pervasive means of espionage against our citizenry with the progress of science.  Going forward in the 20th century, conversely, we experienced the golden age of public relations, where publicity – the attention of the press - came to be something that many citizens sought out and even paid for.  These two realities provide the background that helps us understand where we now stand, which is face to face with what Lepore characterizes as the paradox of “an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.”

Fascinating take isn’t it?   Lots of people protecting their privacy, Congress investigating how it has been lost, while we at the same time are watching ourselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism [eg. Facebook] of our own design.  What is it exactly that we want?

Ponder that and have a good Wednesday.  Today is the first day of Elul. One month from now is the first day of Tishri, otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah. Use the month to do what you can to make judgment day a good one.   

P.S. This Shabbat morning, in the main service, Rabbi Mindy Portnoy will give the sermon, on Elul of all things. Rabbi Portnoy joins Rabbi David Abramson as our Adjunct Rabbis, very part-time positions that enhance our pulpit and teaching capacities. We are fortunate to be able to call upon them to help meet the needs of our growing congregation. 

 


July 31, 2013

Though it is not the first Wednesday of August when It’s Wednesday makes its customary grand return, I am more or less back at work and thought that something simple to execute – but of course meaningful – might provide a little food for thought on this last day of July which is also the last day of my vacation.  It’s been a good vacation for me, shorter than usual and closer to home than usual, but still good.

The last piece of our travels was five days in faraway Charlottesville. Gail and I spent some time at Monticello and came away as greater Jefferson groupies than we thought possible. What an amazing man! Besides being President and drafting the Declaration of Independence and founding a great University, Monticello reveals that he possessed a breadth of knowledge and skills that is pretty unique – architect, student of Greek and Roman culture, meteorologist, botanist and gardener, and more. He was also a keeper of more lists than even I. Whenever someone looks out at a crowd of very wise and learned people, as I do often from the Beth El bimah, s/he could well quote the adage that before him/her is the greatest collection of intellects since Jefferson had breakfast by himself. I think the adage is not far from the truth.

Jefferson said wise things too – his sayings fill many books. One grouping of twelve will be my bonus edition It’s Wednesday (and it’s almost Elul) food for thought for you. It has been called “canons of conduct in life” and is taken from a letter he sent in 1811 to his granddaughter Cornelia Jefferson Randolph.  Numbers 5 and 11 are missing from the grouping of ten that he shared in a different letter.  My favorites? Numbers 6, 9, 11 and 12.

Join me in hoping that the peace talks will go somewhere, and have a good day.  Bill Rudolph

1.     Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.

2.     Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.

3.     Never spend your money before you have it.

4.     Never buy a thing you do not want because it is cheap.

5.     Take care of your cents: dollars will take care of themselves.

6.     Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

7.     We never repent of having eaten too little.

8.     Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.

9.     How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.

10.  Take things always by their smooth handle.

11.  Think as you please, and so let others, and you will have no disputes.

12.  When angry, count 10 before you speak;  if very angry, 100.


Congregation Beth El is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

 
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