July 23, 2014
Boker Tov. The Israel crisis continues and I can’t seem to distract myself from thinking and writing about it. Let me write this Wednesday about Israel more from a gut than an intellectual level, about how my insides are feeling at this very difficult time. I apologize for the length of this piece.
First, it is unbelievably frustrating to know that it didn’t have to be this way. In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza, giving this narrow strip of land its first chance in history, following previous occupations by the Egyptians, British, Ottomans, and others, to exercise sovereignty. That could have become the springboard for a new start, perhaps the beginning of a Singapore on the Mediterranean. Things didn’t start well and within two years Hamas, categorized as a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, seized power. Rather than Gaza's construction, the goal became Israel's destruction. The Hamas Charter chillingly spells it all out. Building missiles became a national obsession. Where schools were built, too often education for "martyrdom" was the norm – and a special facility was set aside for an arms depot, just as in many hospitals and mosques. Hamas simply does not play by the rules governing democratic societies. In that spirit, it does not try to protect civilians, but uses them for protection, as human shields for rocket launchers and other weapons systems. All this can be difficult for some outside the region to grasp. It runs so contrary to how we live our daily lives, much less how, when necessary, we wage war as democratic nations. People cannot, or don’t want to, understand it. As David Harris of the AJC puts it, “This is a time for moral clarity in the international community. If the fundamental distinction between Israel and Hamas – between the fireman and the arsonist, between the democratic society and the despotic regime – cannot be recognized, then woe unto us.”
And that is where my insides are at this time, in a rather woeful state - because of the loss of Israeli soldiers, so young and often leaving behind wives and children; because of the loss of Palestinian lives when the bunkers can only be used for weapons; because of what can come out of the tunnels; and because there is no easy victory to be had and the intolerable status quo seems to be the likely outcome of all this fighting. I remind myself that Israel has figured a way out of other intolerable situations, like the suicide bombings, and that it will figure all this out too, but so much of its ingenuity should not have to be devoted to such matters.
The part of the gut that is the most complicatedly wrenching – because it is reacting to something so unfair - revolves around the predictable response to this conflict on the streets of Europe and in the American press. It is scary to hear mobs in Europe and demonstrators in Turkey yelling “death to the Jews.” It doesn’t feel good to see the Post front page (vs. occasionally the inside pages and editorials) make Israel look like a vicious heartless bloodthirsty bully. How do we come to peace with the threats and the press attacks? Not only do they imperil Israel’s existence, but part of us may worry that “they” will think of all Jews in the same vile ways.
There are at least two ways of dealing with this, I think. One is exemplified in yesterday’s Huffington Post piece, called “I’m Done Apologizing for Israel,” by colleague Menachem Creditor. He is a shul rabbi in Berkeley and takes a hard left view on almost everything. But he is done apologizing to a cynical world that expects Israel to behave in a way that would lead to its destruction and that nobody else would countenance. I print his full piece at the bottom, it is worth reading.
The other way is to fight back in the ways we can. Fight back against the press, which is literally being held hostage in the Strip at this time and whose access to Gaza (and being able to go home someday) comes at the price of agreeing to Hamas’s demands that it count victims the way they wish (eg all are civilians) and show the kind of pictures they want. Some of us have cancelled our subscriptions, others are writing constantly to the editor so that he doesn’t think silence is acquiescence. Fight back against the economic costs of this war (the psychological costs will be there far longer I fear) by giving tzedakah; yesterday’s Crisis Memo #4 suggested two ways and I hope you will be generous. Thank our Congress people who are amazingly supportive of Israel and need to be recognized for that. Just yesterday, Barbara Mikulski’s office announced that the Senate Appropriations Committee that she chairs passed the FY2015 Defense spending bill which includes $621 million for the U.S. Israel Cooperative Missile Development Programs including $351million for the Iron Dome. Initiate discussions of the war’s true nature with friends and colleagues who may only know what they see on those newspaper front pages. Support your relatives and friends in Israel. And don’t lose the dream that kept us going through 2000 years of exile so that we could become a free people in our own land. It is our historical and our legal right to be there. People have tried to destroy us and that dream, but it doesn’t and it won’t happen. As long as we stick together.
Hoping for better news soon, and praying for the soldiers, I wish you a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Some nice news on the home front. Our son Marc is getting married in August, as you may know. He and Karen will be called to the Torah for their aufruf this Shabbat in the main service. Marc will chant the Haftarah. We will shep naches and invite you to join us in doing that.
July 16, 2014
Boker Tov. Globalization, and America’s role in it, can wait. There is the old story – almost as old as most of the stories you send me - of Altmann and his secretary who were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary. “I notice you’re reading Der Sturmer! I can’t understand why you’re carrying a Nazi libel sheet. Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew? “On the contrary, Frau Epstein,” Altmann responded . “When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Sturmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”
At a difficult time as this is for Israel and we in the Diaspora who worry about Israel, I find myself gravitating to certain newspapers and websites and blogs that come at the conflict in a way that feels fair. In this case, it's the opposite of the Der Sturmer story, as the more Jewish sources are the ones that feel fairer and better. From these sources I can “enjoy” the Netanyahu quote that you may have seen: “We’re using anti-missile systems to protect our civilians – they are using civilians to protect their missiles – that’s the difference.” To me, that is not only clever but also the reality on the ground. It seems so obvious but see if you can find that in the Post.
And I resonate to what Bill Maher said: “There’s just not another country in the world that would allow missiles to be rained down on them without fighting back. What I find so ironic is that after WWII, everybody said, ‘I don’t understand the Jews. How could they have just gone to their slaughter like that?’ OK, and then when they fight back: ‘I don’t understand the Jews. Why can’t they just go to their slaughter?’ It’s like, ‘You know what? We did that once. It's not gonna happen again. You’re just gonna have to get used to the fact that Jews now defend themselves – and by the way, defend themselves better.’” Did you see that in the Times?
I do force myself to read/ hear what the major media outlets have to say, but it leaves me mostly angry or depressed. Some friends think it’s not so bad this time around, I wish I could agree. The newspaper headlines are the worst. And why does Israel get lumped with Hamas, as if they have symmetrical goals or are equally bent on taking innocent lives? How does it get mostly lost that Hamas is aiming solely to kill civilians and create terror, while Israel tries harder than any army would to limit civilian deaths. I am always asking myself, and anyone nearby, whether much of the mainstream media is clueless, biased, anti-Semitic, or out to undermine Israel? I don’t think they are any of that. Taking up the cause of the underdog? Maybe, but fair coverage is still needed. I wish I had an answer.
This is the third “war” in five years with the Iranian-backed terrorists who rule Gaza. No quick end seems in sight for this one, partly because there is no mutually acceptable mediating entity. Please support Israel in the ways laid out by me in Crisis Memo #1. Please join the community for the Stand Strong for Israel Solidarity Rally this Thursday at noon at Farragut Square. Write letters to the editor – one might slip through. And keep hoping for better news. Israel’s whole existence has been one of miracles (witness the Iron Dome) and, as Ben Gurion said, “in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
Best wishes for a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
July 9, 2014
Boker Tov. On the road in New York, up for a site visit to the Ramah Day Camp at Nyack. It is a fascinating and inspiring camp. I hope we can create something somewhat like it someday here. In the meantime, we have almost met our goals for the pilot this August and are excited to launch our very own Ramah Day Camp, just the fourth in the country. As with our Ramah overnight camp in MA, Beth El has the largest delegation of kids of any synagogue.
Last time I wrote about globalization - the origins of the World Cup soccer ball and the possible demise of nation states - and promised more about the U.S. role in spreading the message. I will deliver on some of the promise today and more next week. I need to pay attention first to what is going on in one particular nation state, Israel. It has been an excruciating few weeks, from the abduction of the three yeshiva boys to the discovery of their bodies to the savage murder of the Palestinian teenager by Jewish zealots to the rockets from Gaza and Israel's response. Two comments on the murder of the Palestinian teenager will have to do for now.
I embrace the strong words of Yishai Fraenkel, the uncle of Naftali Fraenkel, z”l, who recently told the press that “the life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.” Second, I struggle with the moral high ground that Israel has maintained over its neighbors and how much that savage murder narrowed the differential. It did narrow it, but I am reminded that the Palestinians glorified and are hiding their murderers while Israelis turned in their murderers and the authorities are bringing them to justice. And, along these same lines, its bombing in Gaza to silence the rocket fire aimed at its civilian population is preceded by warnings to residents to get out of harm's way. Imagine that happening were the situation reversed.
Back to globalization. Last time I said we would take up the role of the U.S. as dominant cheerleader for globalism and consumer of global production par excellence and what we are teaching the world in the process and what forces and reactions that can produce. Let me begin the discussion with some statistics from Steger's intro referenced last week.
- Average time Americans spend watching TV per week. 34 hours
- Average time Americans spend socializing per week. 5 hours
- Numbers of ads, logos and labels seen by the average
- American every day. 16,000
- Percentage of Americans who regularly watch TV during dinner. 66%
- Percentage of Americans who are obese. 36%
- Amount of rubbish produced by Americans in 2010. 226 million tons
- Total mass of living humans on earth. 287 million tons
Pretty depressing if this is the message we are exporting to the global community through the culture we have created.
I will share some final thoughts on this topic next time. Have a good Wednesday, as we hope and pray for at least slightly better news from the Middle East. Bill Rudolph
July 2, 2014
It’s Wednesday has never appeared in July, but sabbatical and vacation schedules of my clergy colleagues make it my pleasure to be on duty in July and to be taking care of the usual things I do, though at a slightly slower pace. June ended with the sad news of the discovery of the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers. Though we knew nothing good would come out of their disappearance – either this or (like Gilad Shalit) being held incognito in who knows what kind of conditions for years to generate the maximum prisoner exchange and put bad guys back on the street – the news was so disheartening. I don’t know what to say, honestly, except we should all offer our deepest condolences to the Fraenkel, Shaar and Yifrach families. May they know no more sadness, and may they know that their people will not forget their sons or the values they lived for.
I want to talk about the World Cup in a way that will actually end up relating to Israel. In my 18 inch stack of reading the last two weeks was A Very Short Introduction to Globalization by Manfred Steger, suggested reading from the daughter-in-law to be. Steger uses the 2010 World Cup ball (“Jabulani”) as an example of today’s global dynamics – it was supplied by Adidas (a gigantic transnational corporation based in Germany), named in Zulu, manufactured in China using a latex bladder made in India and a thermoplastic rubber produced in Taiwan, the plastics being generated mostly from Middle Eastern petroleum carried on mostly South Korean built ships.
For Steger, the term “globalization” is about much more than a ball. It refers to “the expansion and intensification of social relations and consciousness across world-time and world-space” that can transform our present social condition of conventional nationality into one of globality. There is no such thing as our own little world anymore. Nowhere is this more clear than in economic matters. Economic connections across the globe are being stretched and intensified, transnational corporations and large investment banks have increased their power, and international economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank and WTO have had their roles intensify. Some argue that nation-states have lost their dominant role in the global economy, since capital markets make them vulnerable to economic choices made elsewhere.
These economic effects are part of a larger argument that fascinated me, about whether globalization calls into question the very principle of state sovereignty. As we ponder the growing impact of the economic connections just noted as well as the growth of intergovernmental organizations, and as we consider the future prospects for regional and global governance (think EU), we need to wonder whether political arrangements beyond the framework of the nation-state may be on the horizon. Maybe the division of land space into “domestic” and “foreign,” and the development of identities based on “us” vs. “them,” which have along the way produced demonizing images of the Other and supplied the energy required for large scale warfare, are potential “victims” of globalism. Can globalization break down borders? There is definitely something attractive about that possibility. Could it be that nation-states, the way the world has been structured since 17th century Europe, are going to be increasingly irrelevant? Could it be that now that we finally have the State of Israel, with all the sweat and tears that were and still are required to create and sustain it, could it be that having a state is too much an “old school” idea for it to continue to be functional in the long run?
Not to worry, not everyone is sanguine about these developments. Anti-globalization proponents like Patrick Buchanan here and Marine Le Pen in France think that nationalism is the only way to go and that economies should be designed in ways that serve narrow national interests. The allure and commands of the global economy, they argue, are supported only because most politicians are beholden to transnational corporate interests. With different arguments but similar fears, proponents of “justice globalism” (think WTO protestors) argue that globalization has increased worldwide disparities in wealth and wellbeing, and there is evidence that validates their claims. So there is some push back, and maybe the idea that gave us Israel is not an anachronism. I just wish we knew for sure, and that the likes of Buchanan and Le Pen were not carrying this particular torch.
This barely scratches the surface of the discussion. Next time we take up the U.S. role in globalization, for which it is the dominant cheerleader as well as consumer of global production par excellence, and what forces and negative reactions that role can produce, and whether we can help build a truly democratic and egalitarian global order that protects universal human rights without destroying the cultural diversity that is exhibited in nation-states and that is the lifeblood of human evolution.
These are weighty matters that actually reflect on sports and Israel’s existence, two items very much on our radar screens at the moment. Ponder them and have a good day. Bill Rudolph
June 11, 2014
Our journey through Catskills nostalgia where “nobody puts Baby in the corner” was put on hold due to Shavuot, about which I wrote briefly and (of course) meaningfully last Tuesday. I am still feeling the nostalgia bug, maybe it’s the time of year, and since I am about to take two weeks of vacation, I don’t want to stir up any hornets nest (get the pun?) by dealing with issues like J Street or the Presbyterians deciding whether to slam Israel again or another school shooting. Instead, let us go to the sport of greatest nostalgia, baseball.
A rabbi, Micah Greenstein, was speeding through Arkansas in the 1960’s, trying to get back home for services on the day before Yom Kippur. He was pulled over in West Memphis. “What’s the hurry?” the police officer said. “I’m a rabbi on my way to…” “What’s a rabbi”” the officer said, not the slightest bit gently. Rabbi G was getting worried that this might not be a simple matter. “Well,” he said, “a rabbi is a little bit like a priest for Jewish people.” “Yeah? Well, we don’t know much about that here.” The officer began to walk back to his car to write the ticket. “Please,” Rabbi Greenstein pleaded, “I am trying to get to my congregation before Yom Kippur.” And, with that, the police officer just stopped. He walked back to the car. “Yom Kippur?” he asked. “You mean the day Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch in the World Series?” “Yes!” Rabbi G shouted. “That’s the day!” “Well,’ the officer said, ‘that’s an important day.” And he let the rabbi go on his way.
Stories like that, based on Koufax’s refusal to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, were a major piece of the exhibit “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American,” running now at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. We bussed up there two weeks ago and had a most enjoyable day looking at the story of Jews and baseball and other exhibits. Koufax was the main attraction, and what he did that day resonates with Jews to the current day. He wasn't an observant Jew but he understood the symbolism and about honoring his faith and even more his Jewish fans. But he didn’t think it was that big a deal, nor did he imagine that sitting out Game 1 of the World Series would become legend, a lesson at every Jewish school and dinner table in America.
There are many great stories that go with that decision, but my favorite was when Don Drysdale (himself a Hall of Fame pitcher) took the start that Yom Kippur day and pitched terribly. When Walter Alston came to the mound to take him out, Drysdale said: “Hey skip, bet you wish I was Jewish today too.”
There were so many more stories. I resonated with the special relationship that Hank Greenberg had with Joe DiMaggio. Both knew about prejudice. Joe’s father, an Italian-American immigrant, was not allowed to fish in San Francisco Bay or visit the city because of the same hysteria that led to Japanese American interment camps, and Greenberg battled anti-semitism all his career, especially when he was close to breaking Ruth’s homerun record.
But, of all that I saw, one picture stood out above the rest, to me but maybe nobody else. It’s of a side street in a city neighborhood. All the kids in the neighborhood are out there watching a stickball game. That simple. That, people, is how I grew up. We came home from school and (if it wasn’t a Hebrew School day) changed and we were in the driveway between the houses playing ball till dinnertime. Whether it was stickball, half ball, dodge ball, football, wire ball, step ball, it was all we did. I think there were no girls in the neighborhood. We just all hung out, kids as much as five years apart in age, playing ball. I saw that picture and was really nostalgic. Kids today are racing around to lessons or practices or sitting working their thumbs or their phone keys or the remote. They are living lives mostly independent of their neighbors and are more and more sedentary as they reach high school. I don’t see how to turn that around, but I am certain it would be good if we could.
Ponder that and have a good day and I will talk to you again ca. July 2. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Things are slowing down for the summer at Beth El. This Friday night is the last Kol Haneshama instrumental service for the season, a special one to celebrate its 13th anniversary. On Shabbat, Elyse Lowet becomes the last Bar/Bat Mitzvah in the sanctuary as it now exists. We got the final permit yesterday and construction (actually destruction) begins Monday. Our website will follow the progress of the renovation. Many activities, like prayer, will continue.
June 3, 2014
No, you are not confused. It is Tuesday. Tonight begins the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates Sinai and our receiving the Torah, so there will not be an It’s Wednesday this week. I didn’t want you to think I was checking out early. Instead, I offer a word about Shavuot.
There’s an old Hebrew expression that I often think of as I celebrate Shavuot: Hakol taluy b’mazal; afeelu sefer Torah sh’b'hay’chal, "Everything is dependent on luck, even which Torah scroll gets taken out of the Ark."
If that is true, then I'd have to say that of all the holidays in our calendar, Shavuot is the least lucky. It's a forgotten holiday. Only two days long, just one in Israel, it passes with little notice and even less fanfare. Confirmation was created to give it new life, only somewhat successfully. Because of perennial conflicts with the regular school calendar, we stopped doing Confirmation on Shavuot starting this year. Oh well.
Maybe the problem is that on the holiday of Shavuot we have very little symbolism. We would think that on this holiday on which we really became Jews with the acceptance of the Torah, which really makes the Jewish People Jewish, that this would be our greatest holiday. Why isn’t it filled with more pageantry and ceremony? After all, it is the day we received the Torah.
The answer, to my mind, is because the Torah as an object is not the most important thing. What we are supposed to do is internalize the Torah. We are supposed to become the Torah. We are not supposed to worship an object outside ourselves and then feel we have done our duty. The Torah was not meant to be idolized. It can even be sold to rescue captives or to get married. It is not receiving the Torah, but implementing it, that is important, thus making ourselves the Torah.
Moshe Rabbeinu, when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the first set of Ten Commandments, broke them. How could he break something given to him by God? The answer is that these ten commandments had no basic holiness. They were holy only if they could have an effect on people, change the people so that they would want to live good and decent lives. Therefore, we should understand that the purpose for studying Torah is to make us want to do what we should do, to internalize our faith. It is not showy outward appearance that is important. Shavuot stresses that by not having many symbols. It stresses that it is the inner person that counts. The study of Torah should transform us so that we do not want to do anything else but live good and decent lives. May we strive to do this each and everyday as we continue to receive the Torah in our lives.
Ponder this and have a nice Tuesday. Chag Shavuot Sameach. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Besides the Tikkun tonight, optional dinner followed by six hours of stimulating study beginning at 7:15PM, flyer for which you received yesterday on our listserv, there are various services for the Chag including two shifts of Yizkor Thursday morning. The listserv today will have the detail.
May 28, 2014
Last Wednesday we talked about the way we Jews think, about polarity and complexity and simple answers never being right. Today let us turn to matters more of the heart. Let us talk about nostalgia. Nostalgia is called “primitivism” in scholarly circles. When I worked on my third graduate degree, I was out to prove that “the good old days” were a common fixation in Biblical times also, especially in times of crisis when people yearned for the more simple and peaceful times that they (and we) assume existed earlier.
Nostalgia is no stranger to this season, graduation season. Beth El families have been traveling the country for college graduations and now it's time for the high school ceremonies. We cannot help but think back (nostalgically) to our own commencements, where nobody was texting and where the robes did not say “do not wash or dry clean.” But, honestly, were the speakers really more inspiring, and were we really paying any more attention than kids do today?
When we think about American Jewish nostalgia writ large, I think we start with the Lower East Side and the Catskills. Life was so rich and Jewish in those places – that at least is how we think of them. And we still mouth those place names with a degree of awe, even though there is nothing much Jewish in either place anymore. Just say Grossingers or the Concord and the herring taste buds go berserk. Younger people don't even know what we are talking about. But start one line from a particular movie set in the Catskills and I promise you that ages 12-92 all know how to finish it. "Nobody puts ... Baby in the corner." Few movies strike such an enduring chord in Jewish hearts as "Dirty Dancing."
The Forward had a section on Catskills memories last fall. I am getting to read it now, in graduation nostalgia time. Eleanor Bergstein wrote the “Dirty Dancing” screenplay in the mid eighties. The setting was the summer of 1963, just before the assassination and the radical action of the 60's, when " traditional values America" was on the cusp of losing its foothold. The movie premiered in 1987, introducing audiences to the Catskills on the eve of their decline - Jews looking for vacations were going skiing out west or to Europe.
Why does "Dirty Dancing" still resonate 25 years later? It illustrates the triumph of nostalgia and reveals just how powerful the Catskills mythology has become. Maybe because there is content to the nostalgia. As Bergstein puts it now, “Baby believed, as did I, that if you reached out your hand and your heart, you could make the world better." And, she goes on, "One of the reasons Baby's father was a hero is because he could have lost his medical license [for helping Penny after her illegal abortion]... I wanted to show what would have happened if we [only] had illegal abortions."
That content resonates because there is indeed “nothing new under the sun.” Skirmishes over Roe v. Wade don't seem to ever let up, and we are bombarded every single day with human behavior that should convince us that no matter how much we reach out our hands and heart, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But something in us will not be deterred. Baby keeps coming out of the corner and soaring into Johnny Castle's arms to tell us not to give up, that we cannot stop trying to make the good prevail. With all that we as a people have faced, which makes us masters at nostalgia because the present has often been so difficult, we still have never given up that determination. We are doomed if we do.
Ponder this and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. The Annual Meeting and rabbi succession vote is this evening. 8:15PM. Beth El has had 60+ years of annual meetings but only three head rabbis. Tonight is your opportunity to elect number four. I hope to see you there.
May 21, 2014
Lately we have spoken about role models and rabbinic succession. Now, in the season of academic degrees and graduations and our own new-format Confirmation, let us ponder matters of the mind. More specifically, how does the Jewish mind work, and why is it never satisfied with simple answers? My thanks to Los Angeles colleagues Ed Feinstein and Harold Schulweis for the kernel of this column.
According to a popular Talmudic tale that almost everyone knows, a stranger once approached Hillel and Shammai, the two great sages of the first century, with a request: "Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot." First he brought the request to Shammai. Shammai picked up a builders rule and smacked him alongside his head and dismissed him. So he came to Hillel with the same question. Hillel taught him: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Zil ugemar - now, go and learn." We all acknowledge Hillel's answer. It is loving, accepting and kind. But Shammai was right.
What is the stranger asking for? He wants wisdom without the work. He wants spiritual enlightenment without spiritual discipline. He seeks inner peace without the arduous process of facing his own darkness.. He is looking for a simple truth to live by, void of complexity, detail and nuance – and quickly. Who has time to master all those dusty books?
Rabbis hear this kind of question every day. But we are bound to disappoint, because Judaism never comes that way. That is not how Jews think. In our tradition, there is a distinct pattern, a texture of thinking. You find it everywhere – in Bible, Talmud, philosophy. It is never on one foot. Perhaps in God's mind, truth is unified. But when it reaches us, it is always in the form of argument, attention, polarity. Truth is too big to fit into simple maxims, too important to set down in simple rules, too unwieldy to learn on one foot. Judaism teaches us to acquire a taste for complexity and contradiction.
Rav Naftali, the Ropshizer Rebbe, told his Hasidim that before he was born an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns. On the right side it offered Talmud tractate Taanit: “The learned man should be a fiery furnace.” On the left side it quoted Talmud Ta’anit: “The meek and lowly shall inherit the world to come.” On the right side from Talmud Brachot: “Man should be wise in his fear of God.” On the left side from the Yalkut: “You should be simple hearted in your love of the Lord.” And there were more contradictions, and the Rebbe pondered them. Until he heard the voice of the angels announcing, “You are now to be born.” Whereupon he resolved in his heart to follow both columns no matter the contradictions. For all of us, to be Jewish is to live both columns. It is to live with tension, ambivalence, and paradox. “Polarity,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is at the heart of Judaism.”
Consider this image: a pendulum, swinging back and forth. The arc described by the pendulum is truth. If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc and you say, “This point, here at the zenith, this is the truth” … or if you stop it down at the midpoint and say, “This is truth” - you are wrong. You will always be wrong because truth is the pendulum in motion.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin taught, in a similar vein, that every difficult, complex problem in politics, life or thought always has a simple answer, which is always wrong. Not just wrong – deadly. For throughout human history, we Jews have always been the exception to somebody's rule. We've always been the anomaly to someone's absolute. And we have suffered for it. This is why extremism of any kind makes us so anxious. It is what scares us about fundamentalism. Whatever reduces truth to a simple absolute reduces us.
Every morning we recite, “Blessed is God who creates light and darkness, peace and all else.” Judaism is not a monism, which is the view that all reality is one unitary organic whole with no independent parts, that all experience can be reduced to one principle, one idea, one path, without contrasts and tensions. But neither are we dualists who break everything into sharp disjunctions between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, us and them. We are monotheists. We can acknowledge the contrasts in experience because we affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity. That is the meaning of the first of the 10 Commandments, “I am the Lord your God.” In worshiping one God, we embrace life's rich complexity. We insist upon it.
So now we know why we are the way we are? Ponder all this and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Next Wednesday is the important congregational meeting and vote. Join me the next morning as our bus leaves for my ancestral homeland and the National Museum of American Jewish History and its special Jews in baseball exhibit; contact Geryl Baer if interested at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 14, 2014
Boker Tov. Last week, from the rolling hills of North Carolina, I wrote about some prominent examples of Jewish men behaving badly, and how I think a lot about positive role modeling. Which was a perfect segue for me now to talk about my colleague, Rabbi Greg Harris, who, after an extraordinarily thorough process led by the Clergy Planning Committee (CPC), has been nominated by the Board to be my successor as your Rabbi.
As you may have noticed, I did not play a role in this process - partly to begin on the “letting go” aspects of my retirement, and more importantly to give you free rein to make up your own minds on this important matter. The synagogue leadership, and anyone who asked me, knew from the start that I was strongly in favor of the Rabbi Harris succession plan, and I am pleased that the CPC and the vast majority of congregants who participated in the process came to the same conclusion.
Greg Harris is one of the finest human beings I have ever known. Beyond that, he raises the rabbinate to a higher level through his caring and the communities he builds and the relationships he makes. The experts now think that the key to success for Jewish organizations of all kinds, in this post Pew Survey world, is not in fancy programming or gorgeous facilities but in the quality and quantity of human relationships that people are able to make as they participate in the life of the organization. This is key, and there is nobody stronger at making this happen than Greg Harris.
There was only one year of the thirteen that I have been rabbi of Beth El that Greg was not by my side. Whatever success I can claim I happily attribute to two factors beyond mazal and what I learned in Hillel: 1) Greg’s skills at community and relationship building and 2) the fantastic human resources that Beth El is able to call upon from within its own membership. That would be you. Rabbis come and go, each of us brings different skills and strengths to the work. If we have any brains and self-confidence, we know to surround ourselves with winners (both professional and volunteer) who can do whatever we cannot do and who will make us look good. I have every reason to believe that Greg understands all this, and that Beth El will continue to thrive with him at the helm.
Today I write to let you know that I support Greg to lead Beth El and to tell you why. Later I will ask you to support him in his endeavors so that we can continue to be a community to be proud of. In the meantime, have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. The decision on whether to promote Greg Harris to (head) Rabbi of Beth El, effective the summer of 2015, will be made at the Annual Congregational Meeting on May 28th at 8:15PM. Please mark your calendar and join me there.
May 7, 2014
Boker tov. Writing from the road, deep in NC horse country for my second annual May ride here. Beautiful riding, rolling hills. I am taking personal vacation time, having used up my allotted for the year, so this it's Wednesday isn't costing you a cent. And it probably will be worth about that.
I think a lot about role modeling. The fact that I went skeet shooting after yesterday's ride is a secret that I held back last year, when I also managed to shoot down three clay pigeons. But the rabbi using a shotgun? I obviously have some ambivalence about it. I talk a lot about gun control, which is so needed and so elusive. So why would I be using a gun? And does that disempower me from gun talk? I decided it's OK. Recreational safe usages of guns should not be eliminated, no more than archery or fencing should be, and gun control people are not advocating that. I hope I model good behavior in enough ways that you will overlook this possible failure of judgment.
Then my thoughts turned to Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers who made totally racist statements to his mistress that were leaked to TMZ and produced an outcry that continues to reverberate. It took me until last Wednesday to realize Sterling is Jewish, the son of eastern European Jewish immigrants. He changed his name from Donald Tokowitz. Great role model. Everybody thinks he is a total jerk, but it is interesting how Jewish charities are not returning his money ( he gives relatively small amounts to Jewish and non sectarian causes) and some might continue to accept it if it helps people in need. Google his current name and Jewish if you want to read more about that. For me, he is an embarrassment. He joins a long list of Jewish men ( has there been a woman?) who behaved badly - Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, mayor Bob Filner, Rep, Steve Cohen come to mind at the moment. I don't think any of them is Jewish in an active way, so our tradition is not to blame, but I think we all feel diminished as Jews by their actions.
One little sidebar. A number of television commentators have gone out of their way to mention that Mr. Sterling is a Jew, a gratuitous and therefore anti-Semitic racist remark. When talking about Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his racist remarks, nobody mentions his ethnic or religious identity because it is not essential to the story. Why is it different with Sterling? And why, on the Daily Show, when Jon Stewart highlighted the racist remarks of the two men, did he say that " as racism has caught on in America it quickly caught on with many Jews." Do Sterling's remarks prove that? And what evidence does Stewart, who is Jewish, have for indicting us on this issue? He should be ashamed, on a variety of levels, the least of which is being clueless about anti-Semitic racist remarks.
I look forward to getting back on my bike this morning and flushing negative thoughts from my system. You please have a good positive Wednesday. See you this Shabbat. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Our celebration of Israel continues with a special musical Shabbat service this Friday night followed by a dinner hosted by BEENs. RSVP for the dinner today to Hattie at hgoodman@ bethelmc.org.
April 30, 2014
Boker Tov. Last Wednesday it was fundraising. Let me try a change of pace to university politics. I lived in that world a long time and usually I see the issues clearly but this one is stumping me a bit.
You may be following the story too. It’s not a simple one, so read this in installments if necessary. Brandeis University has withdrawn its offer to give an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, eight days after announcing the honor. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s story is a heroic one. She was born in Somalia to a strict Muslim family and raised in Kenya, survived civil war, female genital mutilation, abuse, and an arranged marriage. She fled to the Netherlands in the early 1990s. After renouncing her Muslim faith, Hirsi Ali became an outspoken proponent of women’s rights, especially in the Muslim world, and a staunch critic of Islam. She served as a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006.
The problems arise because of how she has couched her criticism of Islam. Ms. Ali has referred to Islam as "the new fascism" and "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death" and has said that "violence is inherent in Islam." "We are at war with Islam," she has proclaimed, asserting that it must be defeated. The president of Brandeis, Fred Lawrence, said in his announcement of the change that "we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."
Supporters of the Brandeis decision, made after seven days of pressure from within and outside Waltham, include Rabbi Eric Yoffe (former head of the Union for Reform Judaism and himself a Brandeis grad.) He knows that radical and extremist elements exist in the Muslim world. When they kill and torture in the name of God, they hijack Islam in the process, subverting its image by professing to speak in its name. But (says Yoffe) “in this instance, none of that is relevant. Ms. Hirsi Ali's sweeping statements of condemnation do not make vital distinctions that civilized people must always make. I am referring to the distinctions between radical and fanatic versions of Islam and moderate and centrist versions of Islam. As we Jews know very well, there are real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements.”
Of course there is an opposing viewpoint, mostly from more conservative voices such as William Kristol. In the recent past, they point out, Brandeis has honored American playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, who have both made most unfortunate anti-Israel remarks. As recently as this March, Tutu opened Israel Apartheid Week in South Africa by comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid and reiterated his endorsement of BDS. Kushner, in an infamous 2004 interview with Haaretz, called the creation of Israel a “mistake.” Yet in 2006, former Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz (my former running buddy from Ann Arbor days) defended Kushner’s honorary degree, saying, “Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the university does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.” That remark was made in response to a campaign to pull Kushner’s honor. “That Brandeis withstood Zionist unhappiness in 2006, and went ahead to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, points to who today really has power in the United States—and even in the Jewish community,” are the strong words of Middle East Forum President Dr. Daniel Pipes, whose daughter attended Brandeis.
To complicate matters, one of my favorite thinkers and staunch defenders of Israel, Yossi Klein-Halevi, writing with a Muslim colleague, Abdullah Antepli, rushed to print endorsing the Brandeis decision. These two writers argued that both Muslims and Jews often promoted “each other’s renegades.” They put it this way: “Some Muslim groups enthusiastically embrace born Jews who spew a form of self-hatred that borders on anti-Semitism, while some Jewish groups sponsor born Muslims who have repudiated Islam and have made a career of exposing their former faith.” As they saw it, Hirsi Ali had “crossed the line from critic of Islamist extremism to demonizer of Islam itself.” No university, they argue, that promises to abide by “inclusivist values” could honor this. Note that Hirsi Ali is not banned from speaking at Brandeis, she just will not be receiving the honorary degree.
What do you think? Is Brandeis applying a double standard? I waver on this. Demonizing a whole religion is clearly unacceptable, and we all know or should know Muslims who wish us only well. But Brandeis has honored people who don’t hesitate to say hateful things about the largest Jewish community on the map. Are we fine honoring people as long as they only dump on us? I do see something of a double standard there. But I mostly think Brandeis did what it had to do. I also think its leadership should be embarrassed that it came down like this, that a “Jewish” university acted in such an amateurish way.
Ponder this and stay dry on this last Wednesday of April showers. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Yom Haatzmaut begins Monday evening. Our Religious School has numerous activities to celebrate Israel’s 66th birthday. We also are joining up with B’nai Israel on Tuesday evening for food and entertainment (see listserv – www.bethelmc.org ) and having our annual Shabbat service and dinner on May 2nd with our choirs and Israeli food coordinated by Empty Nesters I (see listserv for that too.)
April 23, 2014
Boker Tov. Passover is in the rear view mirror, not soon enough for those who find the eating regimen not to their liking. Worship services were very nice and, not being a fan of bread or pasta, I loved the Chag. Now it’s on to the next observance. This Sunday night and Monday is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is a community wide observance on Sunday afternoon at 3PM at B’nai Israel and a unique Beth El observance beginning at 7PM Monday evening.
It was/is the Holocaust that partly lurks behind this column, along with my new pet peeve about Jewish organizational life. Here is what arrived from the Jewish National Fund just before Shabbat, subject line “Never Again.”
Stand up and be strong in the face of anti-Semitism.
Late on Tuesday, in front of the local synagogue in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, notices were handed out by three men in camouflage uniforms and ski masks ordering Jewish residents to register with the pro-Russians or be deported to pay a registration fee of $50 before May 3 and list all real estate and vehicles owned.
The notice, which was condemned by the world as "intolerable, grotesque and beyond unacceptable," ordered all Jews over 16 years of age to pay a registration fee of $50 before May 3 and list all real estate and vehicles owned.
"In case of failure to register, the perpetrators will be stripped of their citizenship and deported forcibly outside the country with confiscation of property," read the notice.
The last time such notices were distributed to Jews in Eastern Europe, 6 million of our people were sent to their deaths.
This time we have the land of Israel to protect us.
Help strengthen the land of Israel. Make your voice heard.
Donate now [– with their URL]
Throughout history the Jewish People have fought for the freedom to go home - home to the land of Israel. Today, thanks in large part to you and Jewish National Fund, the homeland is thriving and freedom is secure.
Anti-Semitism exists. It is our job to counter-act it, to take action, to stand up and to be strong in the face of adversity.
Be proud of our land. Be proud of the success of such a young nation. Recommit to the vitality and continued success of the land and people of Israel. Thank you for all you do for Jewish National Fund and the people of the land of Israel.
Help build the land of Israel. Make your voice heard today.
Donate now [– with their URL]
There was more to the email, but it got my attention at the first “Donate Now.” I really appreciate the work JNF is doing in Israel - planting trees, doing reforestation, helping with water issues – but how does that mission flow to or from possible anti-Semitism in the Ukraine? Only if JNF thinks living in Israel is the only good response to anti-Semitism, in which case I want to see their leadership all making aliyah. No, from where I sit, the fringe activity in the Ukraine seems to have been an excuse to try to raise money for JNF from anxious Jews.
JNF is not alone in this. Between the unfortunate shooting in Kansas City and the Ukraine and Pesach, I got dozens and dozens of emails from Jewish organizations that expressed concern about one or both events or offered greetings for the Chag and ended by asking for money. Occasionally, the message fit the mission.
Young people attribute their growing disinterest in organized religion to disgust with the politics and constant requests for money that they see coming from the institutions of their faith communities. I used to chalk that up to rationalizing their disinterest but I am beginning to commiserate with them at least on the money thing. I think the culprit is not just the need for donations but the need for staff hired to do marketing and social media to justify their existence. So, any and every excuse to “get the word out” is latched onto. I worry about the consequences. A better path would be to think twice before filling our Inboxes and then stick to the mission, and let that be so compelling that it sells itself.
Ponder all this and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
April 9, 2014
Boker Tov. This time of year I break out the collection of Haggadot, both to get into the spirit of the holiday and to find new chomer (resources) for my sedarim. Sometimes what I find seems worth sharing with you. The Haggadah of former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Jonathan Sacks came out about ten years ago. It is one of my favorites. I share with you a portion of one of the introductory essays that tells the story that each of us is trying to tell on seder night. He just tells it better than we do. It’s much longer than my usual, but I think it’s worthy of your time.
“I begin with a personal reminiscence of an occasion where I had an unusual opportunity to say what the story of Pesach meant to Jews and why it is, for me, the story of stories. It took place in Windsor Castle, home of Britain's kings and queens and the oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world. In 2000 I was invited to deliver the St. George's lecture, an annual address in the presence of Prince Philip. As the first Jew to be accorded this honor, I thought hard about what to say. I thought of the history of Jews in Europe, driven for so many centuries from country to country without rights, power, or a home. I found myself thinking back across the centuries to an earlier and painful age in British history: the first blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190, and the expulsion of the Jews by Edward I in 1290. Those events set a pattern that was to be followed in one European country after another during the following 200 years. What would our ancestors, harried and afflicted, have said had they been able to foresee that one day one of their number would be invited back to the home of the king who had sent them into exile?
I wanted the honor the memory of those Jews of an earlier age, to tell of their courage and tenacity and thus say something of what it meant and still means to be a Jew. In the course of my remarks I said this: ‘I try to imagine what it must be like to inherit a building like Windsor Castle. To live in such a place, so steeped in history, is to want to know that history - how this building came to be, and why. In the course of asking the question, I would learn about how it began, in the days of William the Conqueror on the legendary site of King Arthur's Round Table. I would discover that it had been added to, rebuilt, extended and change many times in the course of the ensuing centuries…
‘Learning this history would be more than simply discovering facts. Because I had inherited the building it would be my history. I would not have chosen it. It would have chosen me. Inescapably though, I would've entered into a set of obligations, a moral relationship with the past and future. I would be part of the story of the castle and its heirs. The very fact that it was still here, still dominating the landscape, part of the historic legacy of Britain, would tell me something of great significance to my life. I would slowly realize that generation after generation of the kings and queens of England had endeavored to preserve the castle and hand it on intact to future generations. They had vested their hopes in those who would come after them, that they too would do the same. And now that it had come to me, I would know beyond doubt that I too was morally bound to protect it, and that if I failed to do so I would have betrayed the trust of those earlier generations, as well as failing to honor my responsibility to England as a whole. The result would be that when disaster struck - as it did in the great fire of 1992 - I would know that I had to restore the damaged buildings, not necessarily exactly as before, but at least in keeping with the whole. That is what it is to live in the context of history.
‘Jews,’ I said, ‘will never own buildings like Windsor Castle. We are not that kind of people. But we own something that is, in its way, no less majestic and even more consecrated by time. The Jewish castle is built not a bricks or stone, but of words. But it too has been preserved across the centuries, handed on by one generation to the next, added to and enhanced in age after age, lovingly cherished and sustained. As a child I knew that one day I would inherit it from my parents, as they had inherited it from theirs. It is not a building but it is, nonetheless, a home, a place in which to live. More than it belongs to us, we belong to it; and it too is part of the heritage of mankind. What we have is not a physical construction but something else - a story.
‘It was given to me by my parents when I was a child. I received it on the festival of Passover. It is an exceptionally moving story. It tells of how our ancestors were once slaves who, through a succession of wondrous events, were given their freedom. They then began a journey across the desert for 40 years, and later through a wilderness of dispersion for 2000 years, in search of a home, a promised land, a place of grace and justice and freedom and dignity. Though at times the destination seemed to lie beyond the furthest horizon of hope, they did not give up. They never ceased to travel. And I am part of that journey. I did not choose to be, any more than the member of the royal family chooses to be born into royalty; but this is my legacy, my heritage. It defines who I am.
‘I know, just as does the heir to a castle, that I am a link in the chain of generations, and that I owe a duty of loyalty to the past and the future. That is what Edmund Burke had in mind when he called society a partnership "not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” I am part of the story whose earlier chapters were written by my ancestors and whose next chapter I am now called on to write. And when the time comes, I must hand it on to my children, and they too theirs, so that the Jewish story, no less than Windsor Castle, can live on.’"
Next Wednesday is Yom Sheni Shel Pesach, the second day of Passover, a holiday, so this column will take a brief recess. Do have a wonderful Pesach. Bill Rudolph
P.S. For information about services, fast of the firstborn, our shul second seder, resources for your own seder, do look around on our website, www.bethelmc.org. For the regs about Passover kashering and eating, check out www.rabbinicalassembly.org for the Pesach Guide 5774. Write to me (address below) or Rabbi Greg Harris (email@example.com) if you have questions, even about legumes.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (email@example.com). 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.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
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
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.