May 1, 2013
Boker Tov. How did it get to be May already?
We have made our way through a very heavy part of the calendar. In the context of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) three weeks ago, and Israel’s 65th Independence Day two weeks ago, and the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this week, my almost constant thinking about what it means to be Jewish and what we bring to the world is even more constant. So let me share with you a paragraph written in response to those very two questions by Alan Dershowitz. It was part of a Moment Magazine symposium a few years back that I have quoted before (e.g. pieces on the same questions by Jonathan Sarna, Dara Horn, and Joshua Foer.) This one is almost perfectly tuned to this calendric moment.
Alan Dershowitz is no shrinking violet. Besides teaching law at Harvard, he is often in the news - defending some public figure or supporting some cause or doing something that people think is either great or preposterous. Here is his take on the Moment Magazine questions.
“Being Jewish today includes both a positive and a negative element. On the positive side, Jews have contributed enormously to every aspect of life in the world—literary, scientific, legal, medical. We tend to be overachievers, leaders and people who exert considerable influence on our communities. But this success continues to breed jealousy. To be a Jew today means always being put on the defensive about something, whether it’s Israel’s imperfections or the imperfections of individual Jews. Being a Jew means never being bored, never being able to say that we are completely safe and secure and never being able to forget the past. As Jews, we must offer the world a vision of moral clarity. There is no clearer moral litmus test in the world today than attitudes toward Israel. By defending Israel while being critical of some of its actions, we force the world to confront its bigotry, its imposition of a double standard on the Jewish state and its refusal to confront the oldest of prejudices in the newest of guises. “
What do you think? Is he on target? Too paranoid or negative, such that – if he is right - nobody who had a choice would choose to be Jewish? Does this maybe resonate better with his generation than with younger Jews? Your feedback is welcome, to the address below. Just be brief please. And don’t let your response keep you from enjoying the post-London weather of this Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Daily minyan attendance always has its ups and downs. Right now it’s been hard to get a minyan, especially in the evening. 8PM (except tonight is 8:20 as the Samuel Scolnic Institute concludes). The service is very short and the kaddish sayers are most appreciative.
April 24, 2013
Through what kind of Jewish lens does this rabbi see key events of the past week – Boston of course and also the gun vote on the floor of the Senate? Much has been written about the former, overshadowing the Senate’s failure to bring to a vote legislation to make gun background checks more comprehensive.
When I look at such things, I often come back to the same Genesis text and the same midrash about it. The Torah says that when it came time to create humans, on the sixth day of creation, it seems that for the first and only time in the creation that God sought counsel, presumably with the angels (only here does it say “let us make man…” and the “us” couldn’t have been the geckos) and only then did God create us. The midrash suggests what was going on: God knew how important and how risky this last piece of the creation was and didn’t want to do it without first consulting. The rabbis think that the consultants, the angels, didn’t want us to be created, because we humans can actually be better than them - better because angels have no choice but to be good, and we do. If we make great choices, we are better than even the most perfect angel who has no choice but to be perfect. So God, according to the midrash, had to distract the angels and create us while they were not paying attention, otherwise we might not be emailing today.
It makes sense, the hesitancy. No part of the creation is more spectacular and more worrisome, none can soar or crash like we can. In the starkest of ways, we got to see both possibilities last week. In Boston we saw how hatred can breed terrible violence - innocents losing life and limb, a whole metropolis in “shelter in place.” On the Senate floor we saw elected officials stare death in the eye and blink, failing to confront in even the simplest way the kind of gun violence that brought us Newtown and Aurora and so on – even though in private meetings they said the opposite.
But last week we saw human beings soar too. In Boston, we saw it within a few seconds of the bombings, as strangers rushed to make tourniquets for the wounded and tried to stop their hemorrhaging in every way imaginable, and we saw it with police risking their lives to bring the fugitives to justice and we saw it as other strangers began sending money to help heal the victims (eg. the One Fund Boston is already at $20 million, to be administered by our own Kenneth Feinberg). Such courage and such big hearts! And on the Senate floor, four Republicans defied the NRA, and around the country gun control activists have redoubled their efforts, believing that if 90% of the population wants this then they cannot give up.
Soaring and crashing. Before our eyes. But we know both of those happen every single day, in many places, in less notable ways. For me the true test of humanity is what most people do with their lives and what choices they make. Most people do the right thing – they raise their kids, honor their parents, put food on the table, rush to help, give to charity, are true to their word. In their own modest ways, soaring towards heaven. And proving God’s wisdom in disregarding the scoffers.
For me, the answer to the Boston bombers and courage-less politicians is simple - to help those we can help, and to double down on our efforts to make humanity a creation of which to be proud.
Ponder this and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Are there more important people in society than our teachers? We honor those who teach our kids in our Religious School this Friday night. For information about Teacher Recognition Shabbat and a weekend that is full of too many activities to highlight, please check the Tuesday listserv announcements or our website.
April 17, 2013
After 9/11, it was common to say that Americans now realized what it was like to be Israelis, living with the possibility of a brutal terrorist attack in the background of their lives. If Israelis could learn to live with terror, people said, maybe we could too. When the bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, it happened to be Independence Day in Israel. I am sure that Israelis saw the carnage in Boston and felt both sadness and resignation. This, after all, is what they know life can be in our time. For some of us, the tie between America and Israel and terror was once more reinforced.
It always bothers me when people do what I just rehearsed, talking about Israel as a teacher of how to live with terror. Wouldn’t it be so much better if people were talking about Israel as a teacher of the positive rather than how to get used to death and maiming. Well, I am thinking this is a good time to rehearse some of the positive, as my personal mini tribute to Israel on this its 65th birthday. Comparisons with our own U.S. realities, as we approach our 237th birthday, may be included.
· Gender blindness: Israel elected its first woman head of state 44 years ago; here we are still waiting.
· Skin color blindness I: while Ashkenazim and Sephardim had very different cultures and outlooks in the first decades, and would rarely marry one another, those distinctions have disappeared in all but the most elite circles, apart of course from legumes on Pesach (you knew I would somehow get back to that). Here, too many African Americans and Latinos are still stuck in a reality that is inferior to that of whites.
· Skin color blindness II: Israel has whisked over forty thousand Ethiopian Jews to live in Israel and has invested enormous human and fiscal effort in their acculturation; what other country has looked to bring black Africans into its borders to live as productive citizens?
· Making The Most with What You Have I: Israel has almost no natural resources or fertile land or water but has figured out how to build a land that is practically flowing with milk and honey, and now desalinated water.
· Making the Most with What You Have II: With few natural resources, it has focused on its human resources, the creativity and ingenuity of its citizens. The “Start Up Nation.” 71 Israeli companies traded on the NASDAQ, exceeded only by the US; scientific research institutes that rank 3rd in the world; it ranked second in space sciences and produces the third most scientific papers worldwide per capita; home to over 900 life science companies with more clinical trials of stem cell treatments than in any other nation; first in the world in number of medical device patents per capita.
· Value of Life I: Israel traded 1027 prisoners, mainly Palestinians and Israeli Arabs of whom 280 were serving life sentences for terror attacks, for one captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit; American citizens sit in captivity as political prisoners in places like Cuba and Pakistan (e.g. Alan Gross and Warren Weinstein) with little effort to gain their release.
· Value of Life II: Israelis stop everything to remember fallen soldiers on Israeli Memorial Day; Americans stop at malls and pools on American Memorial Day.
I am not trying to knock America, a country that has been extraordinarily good to people like you and me. Nor am I naïve about Israel’s challenges – too many Israelis are living below the poverty line, there is too much corruption in the political leadership and too little tolerance for differing religious viewpoints. I am just trying to point a spotlight on the good that Israel is and does, so that it has a (deserved) chance to be a positive force and role model for us and the world.
We are the first generations of Jews in 2000 years to see a Jewish flag hoisted above the walls of Jerusalem and the first generations in 2000 years to see what accomplishments can come with the reestablishment of Jewish life in the Promised Land. Come celebrate all this at our special 6:30 PM musical Shabbat service followed by dinner this Friday evening – reservations required for the latter through Hattie at email@example.com by this afternoon. Or come to this year's final Israel Media Series showing, Oscar nominee “Footnote,” at 8:30 Saturday night. I didn’t even talk about the amazing things this tiny country does in the cultural arts.
Before Shabbat, join me in praying for healing for the Boston victims, and have a good Wednesday.
April 10, 2013
Jewish kids go to college, almost without exception since WWII. Some of the colleges we attend(ed) feature intercollegiate athletic programs in football and basketball that really grab our attention. For me, back in the day, it was basketball. The Big 5 games at the Penn Palestra were the most exhilarating (or frustrating) things I had ever experienced. My throat still hurts thinking about them. When I was doing my PhD studies at the University of Michigan, it was mostly football. As Bob Ufer used to say, “In Ann Arbor football is a religion and Saturday is the holy day of obligation.” Not for every Jew of course. And those game going Shabbat observers would first go to shul then to the games in The Big House, their tickets and house keys carried in ingenious ways that didn’t violate Shabbat.
I remain a Michigan ABD to this day, but I never did get Michigan out of my system. Come for Shabbat dinner almost any time and you will hear the Birkat HaMazon finish in a Michigan way. I returned to Ann Arbor to be Hillel Director a few years after grad school. My first born, Dan, from the first residency, was joined by Sara, born in East Lansing. Old timers remember Dan – he is the one I used to drive to school each fall semester following which I would begin on High Holiday sermons on the return ride. Dan spent most of his early years in Ann Arbor, before we moved here. When it came time to go to college, there was little doubt where he would end up. He had four great years at the U of M, excelled in academics and really got into Michigan sports. When he married Jenn, it was with a (legal) piece of Big House turf under his feet. So…
Ten days ago the Michigan basketball team made it to the Final Four (do I need to explain that?), the first time since the Fab Five brought them there twenty years ago. Dan was going, meeting up with a bunch of frat brothers. I don’t have a bucket list (more on that someday) but I thought it might be cool to see an NCAA basketball championship and what better time? I ordered one of his extra tickets, got a refundable plane seat in case U-M lost Saturday night’s semifinal, and when they won I was - buoyed by the sight of dozens of Michigan tee shirts and sweats that came streaming into shul on Sunday morning - off to Atlanta.
It was a great final against Louisville, a “classic” it’s being called, but Michigan lost. No fairy tale ending. But it was an unforgettable experience. Besides spending time with Dan and my daughter Sara (a producer for CNN), and seeing many famous people very close up (for starters, the Fab Four, Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard, Cazzie Russell, both Coach Thompson’s, Lefty Driesell, Evander Holyfeld), the most amazing part of the experience was the energy in the stadium. There were 78,000 people there. When one or other team went on a run, as each did at different times, the place just erupted; it felt like the building was going to rise off its moorings. The roar of the crowd. It is breath stopping.
They say that people today, especially younger ones, have loyalty to nothing but themselves. It’s not quite true. It certainly wasn’t true Monday night. How we capture within our community the kind of energy that a game (it was after all just a game!) can generate has been a challenge I always ponder. And how we get busy people to give up time to reunite with the roots that nourished them, in many more ways than the four years of college, is more and more a challenge. The closest we get to the energy and the presence is, I think, at the end of Yom Kippur – especially when, exhausted as we are, we are singing Avinu Malkeinu. Sometimes on Shabbat morning it has that special feel too. Any thoughts on how we make that a more common experience?
Enjoy the arrival of spring and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph (Doctoral candidate, The University of Michigan)
P.S. Big doings this weekend. Friday night includes Kol Haneshama and traditional services and a Zhava sponsored dinner (rsvp for the dinner today please to firstname.lastname@example.org). Sunday features the 60 piece smorgasbord of delicious learning called Routes (10AM to 5PM at AU, information at www.pjll.com) and at 5PM our Yom Haatzmaut concert with the wonderful Kol Sasson a cappella group from Maryland and our own Marak HaYom. Tickets at the door.
April 3, 2013
Passover is complete and you can eat as many legumes as your Ashkenazic heart desires, not to mention bread and bagels and pizza and pretzels and so on. Let me share one final thought about one of my favorite holidays.
We did a little skit in shul on the Shabbat before Pesach in which we rather cleverly tried to explain to some actor playing Moses why he/ Moses is not mentioned in the Haggadah. That happens to be the case, and it’s pretty surprising. There are many speculations on this question. The one I saved for now is that Moses was evidently a pretty lousy family man, too busy hanging out at the Tent of Meeting - where he was leading his people and dealing with their issues - to spend much time with his wife and kids. Passover is the ultimate family holiday, so leaving Moses out of the Haggadah made sense because the authors didn’t want us to think that neglecting our families was OK. Interesting to ponder. I heard from you about wonderful sedarim all across the globe. I hope that, wherever yours were, that they were full of family and the wonderful craziness they bring with them, and if not, that next year will be better in that regard.
Sunday night/ Monday is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, to be followed a week later by Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. These special days commemorate two of the most significant happenings in all of Jewish history. When we think of the six million, or of the dangers that Israel has faced almost every single day of its existence, we understand that it has never been easy to be a Jew and that that reality hasn’t changed much over the millennia. So why bother? If ultimately we are a people little distinguished from any other, then the struggles we have had to face don’t make sense. If, on the other hand, we find joy and value in our traditions and our community, and if we take seriously our mission to be a light to the nations, to model in everything we do the kind of humanity that others would want to copy, then it makes sense. Think about which it is for you, and have a good Wednesday. We pick up a new thread next week.
March 20, 2013
Passover is so here. Faithful readers have bounced back from the confusing situation re: kitniyot that we delved into last Wednesday and are moving ahead with buying and cleaning and stressing. I have found that the ratio of women who stress out at this time of year compared to men is 100 to 0, and that is no tribute to men’s greater sense of balance and calm but to our relative distance from the actual preparations. Not that it has to be that way.
Humor is one way of managing the Passover stress. I will share two modest examples. Recently I read that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is following up on his recent ban on soda containers over 16 ounces to take on the quantities of wine and matzah that Jewish law says we are required to consume at the sedarim. For the drinking of the four cups, 3.3. oz. per cup (vs. the required 5.3) will be the maximum permitted under New York City law. The larger amounts, the Mayor said, are “overly burdensome on the NYPD when they have to haul your machmir tuchus [‘your stringent backside’ doesn’t quite resonate does it?] off to detox.” And for the matzah, no more than the size of 1/3 of an egg (vs.1/2). For the Mayor, the matzah quantity is an issue both of our gaining less weight and of our systems not getting backed up. After all, he said, it’s no wonder that Moses was pleading “let my people go.”
And then there is the little satire on the chumra fever that has swept over the religious world, especially around Pesach time. A chumra is a “stringency” (machmir above is from the same Hebrew root) - a halachic decision that keeps raising the bar and causing many Jews to say “why bother?” The ban on legumes and rice is an old example about which we spilled much ink last Wednesday. Another example is aluminum foil now having to have a Passover certification - even though the heat at which it is produced is enough, if applied to a pig, to make it kosher. Joking aside, no chametz (leaven) could in any way imaginable survive that process, so that the need for certification is ridiculous. The satire comes from a fictitious rabbi, Yisroel Grundfliegel. He says we have been neglecting a key hiding place for chametz, dental braces. They too should be koshered for Passover. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The rabbi’s preferred method is what we call libbun, accomplished by crinkling your lips up to expose your teeth and then running a blowtorch along the entire length of the braces. There are some authorities, he points out, who are more lenient – they permit koshering of braces just by dunking your open mouth into a bowl of scalding hot water. [Caution: none of this is to be taken literally, please G-d.]
I hope your Pesach will be excellent, with lots of family and friends together, lots of joy and just a few stringencies, with sedarim where your kids or grandkids or nieces show how much they have learned, a time to appreciate all the freedoms we have and to celebrate a tradition in which we have commemorated our first freedom on the same exact days for over three thousand years in a row. Compare that to what Americans do/ don’t do on July 4th after less than two hundred and fifty years.
Next Wednesday falls on a chag. No column. Come to shul and you can hear what is on my mind. For this Wednesday, study the shul website (www.bethelmc.org) for all Passover notices, under The Week Ahead, and have a great day.
March 13, 2013
A very Kabbalistic English date today, and a perfect time – with Passover less than two weeks away! – to take up the question which is overwhelming my Inbox. The question is, of course, whether Ashkenazic Jews (most of us) can eat rice and legumes on Passover? New fuel for the fire arrived in the spring issue of Voices of Conservative Judaism magazine, where no less than the President of our movement’s Schechter Institute in Jerusalem says we can eat them. But it is hardly that simple, so Scrooge will once more try to explain why the “yes” needs very much to be hedged.
Prof. David Golinkin (citation below) is correct that a zillion renowned rabbis of the Orthodox persuasion - including even Maimonides - ruled that only the original five grains (wheat barley oats spelt and rye) may become chametz – they and their derivatives are forbidden during Pesach unless certified kosher for Passover (eg. matzah.) Rice and legumes don’t ferment, they decay, so they should be fine to eat. Despite that consensus, rice and legumes began to be prohibited anyway – nobody really knows why for sure - around the 13th century, even though many rabbis called it an unnecessary chumra (stringency) or, more poetically, a minhag shtut (foolish custom). The Sephardim, far wiser than us Ashkenazim, didn’t buy into it, to this day. We did. But given that there is admittedly no good reason to observe this stringency other than tradition, can we eat rice and legumes? The Orthodox Ashkenazim still say no, it’s the tradition. More and more Conservative authorities, like Rabbi Golinkin, are saying it’s OK. I like that our movement questions customs that never made much sense. But I also think it’s not so simple. Bear with me, as it gets a little complicated, and please forgive the unusual length of today’s column.
First off, it’s a little silly that we can’t make it eight days without rice and legumes. What kind of wimps are we? When we get to the end without them it is so great to be reintroduced to them; it’s like coming home from a long vacation and realizing how great it is to be home. That being said, if we lived in Israel I would be the first to drop this stringency. There are two sets of hechshers/certifications there – one for Ashkenazim and one for Sephardim - and therefore many foods are available that are certified kasher l’Pesach l’okhlei kitniyot, meaning they are totally fine for Jews who don’t follow this “foolish custom” but otherwise want to be kosher for Pesach.
Here in the USA, till now there is basically just the Ashkenazic hechsher/ certification, which you will only find on foods that do not contain rice or legumes. It would still be OK here, says Rabbi Golinkin, to eat plain rice and kitniyot that are not processed in any way. But much of what would be appealing to us would be packaged processed items – Uncle Ben’s, canned goods, mixes, products with corn sweeteners, soy milk, etc. etc. Very few of those items would be available to us certified kosher for Passover by Sephardic standards - even if they were certifiable - since there are so few Sephardim here and hechsher’s cost a lot of money. So, with few exceptions anything processed that contains rice or legumes would not have a kosher for Passover hechsher here. We would be reduced to reading labels to see if maybe the product was OK for Passover, and I want to assure you that we don’t know enough to avoid introducing chametz of all kinds into our homes and diets, because processed foods have many ingredients (not to mention what happens in the processing itself) that would render them unfit for Passover even for Sephardim.
What do I do personally? I stick with the Ashkenazic tradition. I can take it for eight days. Conservative Jews do have reasonable grounds to make a change, though here in the States I can recommend nothing beyond pure unprocessed legumes (fresh or frozen corn or beans or pure peanut butter) or pure rice. But remember that once you make this switch, or the more radical one involving processed foods whose labels you think seem OK, your home that was kosher for Pesach may no longer be that in some eyes. I worry about us ending up with too large a gamut of standards. What you decide won’t affect my family, since we don’t eat out at all on Pesach except at shul. Think instead about your family, and your guests, and what makes sense for you.
For a general Passover food guide that works for Conservative Jews, check out www.rabbinicalassembly.org and look for the Passover guide for 5773. Note that it doesn’t go nearly as far on the legume/rice issue as does Rabbi Golinkin. For his take on things, you can check out the full article at http://www.cjvoices.org/article/the-kitniyot-dilemma/ Or write to me or the other clergy if you have specific questions about this complicated topic or other Pesach issues. But don't write to ask how many times I rewrote this column because it didn’t make enough sense. I am sure it still does not. I love Passover. It is my favorite holiday, but around now each year I am not sure why.
Think about tradition and change, and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Our search for a new Education Director continues. It’s an important hire for the congregation. The public session, open to all, is once again at 10:30 – 11:30 AM in the Swoff Chapel. This Sunday we will meet our third candidate, Rabbi Mark Levine. Feedback on all the candidates is welcome at email@example.com.
March 6, 2013
It’s begun snowing in Washington, and it seems that every activity has already been cancelled. A specific shul update will be forthcoming shortly. The minyan will meet regardless; if you are off of work and/or live nearby, we will probably need help making it to ten. 7:30AM and 8:00PM.
The largest gathering of American Jews these days is the AIPAC Policy Conference. It brought 12,000+ supporters of Israel to D.C. for three days of speeches, briefings, and lobbying visits on the Hill. All your clergy, and many dozen of your fellow congregants, were among the myriads. The quality of the programming, and the energy, were beyond first rate, as is the ongoing work of AIPAC supporting Israel and supporting the policies of its elected officials regardless of their party affiliation. The only problem with the whole picture is that Israel’s existence seems to get more precarious as time goes by, so that much of the programming was focused on the challenges it faces, which are - by any standard - pretty monumental. The mood was hardly celebratory as a result; sober might be a better description. The Conference schedule heavily emphasized the Iranian threat, all the turmoil in the post Arab Spring Middle East, and efforts to further intensify the U.S. – Israel security alliance. Not so much about the Palestinians because of the dearth of optimism about the peace process.
Among all the attendees, the Conservative movement was very conspicuous. Closest to home, the Beth El delegation was one of the largest of any shul in our area, and some of AIPAC’s most prominent and productive professionals are Beth El members. On the broader level, while there are no figures about movement representation, it was announced that Conservative rabbis numbered over 200 and were easily the largest cadre among the clergy. I think this reflects the reality that Conservative Jews take very seriously the needs of the Jewish community writ large. That is good. We see it in the leadership ranks of Jewish Federations like our own as well, but sometimes it’s at the expense of the support and energy we could give to our own movement. It’s always been that way, and if I had to choose, I would stick with that broader vision. And that is how I have always spent my volunteer time.
Israel’s situation, beyond the obvious geopolitical dangers, is compromised by ignorance in the general population, by purposeful distortion by its enemies, and by its own lackadaisical attitude towards world opinion. It’s far from a perfect country, nor is it what it would be if we were the prime minister, but it’s also far from what its enemies and even some well meaning Jews portray it to be. What exactly is it, and does it really merit our strong support? With these questions in mind, I am devoting my course in the Rabbi Samuel Scolnic Adult Institute (formerly Saul Bendit) to “myths and facts about Israel.” I will be dealing with issues such as: Do Israelis really want peace? Are the settlements an obstacle to peace? Does Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens justify charges of apartheid? Why are the ultra Orthodox able to dictate so much policy that embarrasses Israel and many of its supporters? Does negative press coverage reflect bias or just reporters doing their jobs? There will be guest experts and yours truly. I believe that it’s important to get as close to true knowledge as we can on these vital questions. Classes meet 7:30PM over six Wednesday evenings, beginning presumably next week as the weather will likely necessitate that delay. You can register now or at the door, for this or one of the eight other great courses that the Scolnic Committee has put together. More information is available on our website, www.bethelmc.org.
Have a good and safe Wednesday. Think about Israel - our commitment to its security, making a visit, learning more about what is going on. Best, Bill Rudolph
P.S. Our search for a new Education Director continues. It’s an important hire for the congregation. The public session, open to all, is at 10:30 – 11:30 AM in the Swoff Chapel. This Sunday we will meet our second candidate, Rabbi Dan Aronson. Feedback will be welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 27, 2013
Both Purim and the Justice Breyer/ Kenneth Feinberg dialogue are behind us, very different kinds of events that highlight the breadth of what we do as a congregation and the talent that we have or have access to in our community. These few days were as stimulating and rewarding as almost any I can recall in recent years.
When I was national director of recruitment and placement for Hillel, I would listen to the skills and qualities that search committees were looking for in candidates who could lead their Hillels and realize that nothing less than Maimonides who also had mastered Lotus 1-2-3 (this was the last century) would be sufficient. As we embark on the final stage of our own search, for our new Education Director, I can’t help but marvel at the list of qualities that we want our finalists to exhibit. They include, but are not limited to:
Strong manager and communicator
Intellectual leader and visionary
Seven years minimum of experience in Jewish educational realms
Administrative skills – budgeting and planning, stakeholder communications
Develops curriculum for established program and educational pilots
Drives innovation in the adoption of new instructional methods
Develops programs and manages in areas of special needs
Supervises activities of Assistant Education Director and support staff
Hires and supervises staff of 40+ teachers, coordinates teacher mentor program
That is just the start. Can they teach a class when there is no time to get a sub? How are they in the carpool lane? Will they “get” Bethesda families? Do they see how the strengths of the Conservative movement outweigh its limitations? What kind of role model will they be for lifelong Jewish learning? Will they be able to cheerlead for our successes while pushing us to do even better? If they say we need smart boards for our classrooms and we say we can’t afford them, what will they say? And I could go on, even though neither Joshua Starr or Arne Duncan or Maimonides is among the finalists and it’s not realistic to think our candidates can do/be all of this.
So, we have a lot to figure out as this search process reaches its conclusion. We solicit your help in doing that. Please try to sit in on the open session for parents and other interested parties each of the next three Sundays, from 10:30AM – 11:30AM in the Swoff Chapel. Candidates will do many other things those days, but they will be in smaller settings with particular constituencies. We welcome not only your presence but your feedback, through a designated mailbox at email@example.com.
The three finalists come among several dozen applicants for our position. Their bio’s will be posted on the listserv each week. We are excited to have you get to know them better.
Do I need to tell you that this is an important hire for Beth El? We entrust our precious children, 539 of them at the moment, to our school. In a lot of ways what they learn in our school will determine what they do with their Jewishness for the rest of their lives. The kind of school we have for them, the way it runs, the way it recognizes different learning styles, the way the teachers do their jobs and model their love of Judaism –all that is very much the responsibility of the Education Director. We need to find a good one, and then convince him/her that Beth El is a great place to be that.
As we look forward to the Sundays to come, we wish you a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. This Friday I recommend two activities: A rally in support of Gov. O’Malley’s balanced approach to reducing gun violence, co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, at the State House at 10:30AM; note that there are free buses leaving from the JCC at 8:30. And for peace of a different kind, join our celebration of Shabbat Across America that will be paralleled in hundreds of synagogues across the land; the service at 6:30 PM includes Marak HaYom followed by a delicious Shabbat dinner (please rsvp for the dinner by noon to Hattie Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org).
February 20, 2013
We are gearing up for Purim, a most unusual holiday. Our observance begins on Saturday evening with the extravagant Megillah Madness and the time-tested traditional megillah reading, followed by Bit O’Megillah Sesame Street style and the Purim Carnival on Sunday. Our turnstile count for the 24 hours will be in the 1500 - 2000 range. That alone is worth seeing. It’s tempting to give every detail here but I refer you to yesterday’s listserv or to our website for all that – www.bethelmc.org.
The essentials of Purim are actually easy to remember if you can count to four– there are four mitzvot not more. First is hearing Megillat Esther, the scroll containing the Book of Esther. Traditionally you have to hear every word of it, even the ones you try to drown out. You can do that on Saturday night in the Chapel (8:30PM) or at the end of the 9AM minyan on Sunday. Megillah Madness includes only some of the verses, but they are good ones. The other three mitzvot are based on one verse in the Megillah, Esther 9:22: “They were to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and as a time for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” “Feasting and gladness” became the Purim meal (the seudah) eaten late in the afternoon (Sunday afternoon this year) and ranking officially as second only to the Passover Seder in importance as a special meal even though it has no rituals similar to Pesach. “Gifts to one another” is mishloach manot, gifts of food to friends. You can see the plates of mostly high glycemic index snacks being delivered to friends throughout the day. “Presents to the poor” is matanot le-evyonim, doing some form of charity, so that those less fortunate can enjoy the festival and/or, more broadly at least for the moment, their lives. We will do a collection for Manna Food Center on Saturday night; look at their website (www.mannafood.org) for their Wish List of Food Items. While Judaism is not tikkun olam, tikkun olam is an important value that can help guide our lives and that enhances our celebrations by keeping us mindful of those for whom celebrations are something quite rare.
Purim is also a time to let loose and feel good. We who live in a world where the news is instant and constant and often difficult deserve that once in a while. For Jews, though the tale of a group of Jews living in the Diaspora at the mercy of the whims of their rulers has often been repeated and rarely with the happy conclusion that we see in the Book of Esther, Purim affirms the bright moments of victory and denies the long years of persecution. We are even commanded to drink a lot, to increase our joy, and we will have some very special Scotch available on Sunday morning. So you can get into the spirit of the day, enjoy this story about two Talmud era rabbis keeping the “feasting and gladness” mitzvah. It’s a cute story, but also a warning against drunkenness:
Rabbah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim seudah. They became drunk and Rabbah arose and killed Rabbi Zera. On the next day, he prayed on Rabbi Zera’s behalf and brought him back to life. Next year, Rabbah said, “Will your honor come, and we will have the Purim seudah together?” Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle does not take place on every occasion.” (Tractate Megillah 7b)
Next Wednesday we pick up a new thread. On this Wednesday, think about the four Purim mitzvot, eat a little extra to prepare for the minor fast day tomorrow (Taanit Ester), and plan to join with us to celebrate the holiday.
P.S. Three evening programs that surround Purim are recommended. Thursday night at 7PM we pair with our friends at Saint Mark Presbyterian (10701 Old Georgetown Road) for a community forum on the prevention of gun violence. We can’t sit on our hands any longer. Sunday night at 7:15 is the next in our series of special services of healing and renewal. And Monday night at 7:30 we have the singular privilege of hosting a Supreme Court Associate Justice, as our own Kenneth R. Feinberg ( Special Master of the 9/11 Fund, the TARP Executive Compensation “pay czar, ” administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund, etc.) engages Justice Stephen G. Breyer on the topic, “Making our Democracy Work.”
February 13, 2013
There are many lessons in leadership that we can learn if we pay attention. Some are what not to do; I could fill a year’s worth of Wednesdays with those. But let me focus on how I see inventive creative leaders build institutions. Sometimes they have a detailed master plan. More often, they have a broad vision and try different pieces to make it work. Not all the pieces that they create have enduring value; they made sense in their time but didn’t have staying power.
Beth El the institution is very much the vision and handiwork of Rabbi Samuel Scolnic. After his death last spring I wrote about how he put us on the map and gave our shul its basic shape and culture – democratic, egalitarian, heimische, willing to experiment, and serious about education. In essence, when you think about those characteristics, they are pretty much what Beth El is today.
Today I focus on the last piece of what I saw as his vision. A little over 35 years ago the family of Beth El member Saul Bendit came to Rabbi Scolnic, wanting to make a gift that would create a program or activity in memory of their departed family patriarch. Sam loved teaching Torah in the widest sense and came up with the idea of concretizing and expanding the existing few adult ed classes into a real institute of adult learning. Thus was born the Saul Bendit Adult Institute. And it lasted. And it lasted. Fitting into Rabbi Scolnic’s master plan, and enduring. Every fall and every winter for 36 years now the Institute –funded almost entirely by course fees - has offered a variety of classes covering the rich panoply of Jewish life and learning. You have attended many of them, hundreds of you each year. The Institute has been a model for the whole D.C. community. I have taught many of the classes, as have all of our clergy over the decades. But nobody has taught anywhere near as much as Sam Scolnic did. We mostly teach a course a semester, he taught four, and at least two even after his retirement in 1988 and until just a half dozen years ago. Besides creating the Institute, then, Sam Scolnic did more than any single person to make the Institute a success.
When he died last spring, it was clear that there should be a tangible marker of his legacy. We couldn’t name the shul after him – the only names we use on shuls are those of God, as in Beth El. We couldn’t name one of the minyanim that he created after him – the Samuel Scolnic Early Shabbat Minyan has no resonance. And then it became obvious.
Last summer I contacted the family of Saul Bendit. None but distant relatives are living here anymore but I drove up I-95 to meet with his son Emile. After we finished talking about biking, I learned of his appreciation of the 36 years of kavod (honor) that the Institute had brought to his dad’s name and that of the family. He understood the wisdom of renaming the Institute in honor of the man whose vision and hard work had made those 36 years of honor possible. He hoped that his dad’s legacy would not be lost in the transition, and – working with Emile’s family and the Bendit Committee - we were able to remember him in the Institute’s new tagline, “Founded in 1977 in memory of Saul Bendit.”
At 7:30 tonight, with some of his family, and some of Sam’s family including his widow Judy, in attendance, with me saying a few words along with Emile Bendit, we will have the rededication ceremony and launch the Rabbi Samuel Scolnic Adult Institute. The keynote will be a talk by Sam’s son, Rabbi Ben Scolnic, Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Hamden CT. He is a wonderful speaker and will talk a little about how much the Institute meant to his dad and more about the topic, “Does My Father Still Live? Jewish Perspectives on the Afterlife.” This will be an historical event in the life of this congregation, honoring not one but two legacies that have meant so much to our community and will continue to benefit it in such an important way. Do try to join us.
Think about your legacy, and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. My legacy aspirations are more modest. On my short list of credits is the Israel Media Series. Saturday night at 7:30 we screen the final episodes of the first season of Serugim. We have found it quite addictive. I will catch up those who missed earlier episodes. $5 includes ample refreshments.
February 6, 2013
Last Wednesday I shared my consternation about the growing popularity of cremation, even among Jews, and asked that you help me understand it. I want to share one of the many responses and then talk about my personal practice.
Greetings, Rabbi. When families lived close to one another, and the family plots in nearby cemeteries were arranged, one's final resting place and subsequent visitations were assured. There was a sense of comfort and peace that we would all be together in the end. Our family plot is out on Long Island, my family now resides in NYC and Florida, and we're in Maryland. Visits to the L.I. cemetery have become difficult and rare, and alternative final resting places have been secured.
The cinematic glamorization of "spreading the ashes" in a meaningful place has made an impact, and I have to admit, I find the idea spiritual and appealing. Freeing one's remains to the winds, as opposed to rotting in a coffin, also frees the remaining family to connect with the departed's spirit at any time. If you can't visit a headstone in a cemetery, would you feel less connected and more guilty? Perhaps.
Add to that the costs of funerals and owning/maintaining cemetery plots and grounds. Being part of a geographically spread out family, I find I am less invested in the real estate value of that NY family plot, and more inclined to leave this world a free spirit, without burdening those that remain.
What is my personal practice with regard to cremation? I am not a big fan of it. From what I see, the economic argument that many of you raised is not what I see driving most of these decisions. And since Hollywood doesn't hold much by religious customs altogether, the ashes to the wind image doesn’t do much for me. Most important, cremation is not “Jewish” and violates Jewish law and after the Holocaust I cannot understand why we would choose to do to our bodies what Hitler thought they deserved.
So, I strongly discourage cremation when asked. My father thought it would be a good idea and I told him I didn’t, and he allowed that he wouldn’t know what was done anyway so I could do as I wished. When congregants tell me their loved one has made this preference known to them, I urge them to try to do as I did with my father. If their loved one is not going to budge, then do they have to honor the request? The Orthodox would say that the obligation to honor even our parents does not include the obligation to obey requests if they violate halachah. Maurice Lamm wrote the classic The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. There he tells us, “cremation is never permitted. It does violence to the spirit and letter of Jewish law. It is forbidden – in every and any circumstance – to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. Even if willed by the deceased, his/her wishes must be ignored in order to preserve the will of our Father in Heaven.” And he opines that there would be no mourning, no shivah, no kaddish. I am aware that the current Orthodox position is more nuanced. I am also aware that there are Conservative colleagues who believe that the family can and should ignore requests for cremation just as Rabbi Lamm suggests.
My position is on the center left of the spectrum of Conservative rabbis and rulings of our Law Committee. I think denying a funeral or shivah or kaddish to the next of kin is unfair - the cremation was not their decision, often they tried to convince their loved one to follow the traditional practice, and not doing the cremation would often contradict specific written instructions to that effect. So I conduct a “memorial service” which - like a funeral service - is mostly for the benefit of the next of kin; it looks like a funeral apart from the absence of the coffin. I do not permit the ashes to be present at the memorial service and I do not officiate at a cemetery if the ashes are being buried there. We help the mourners with the usual shivah and kaddish arrangements.
Our own Adjunct Rabbi, David Abramson, has written wisely on this exact subject. His piece in Conservative Judaism (Fall 1998) concludes by talking about the challenge that both rabbis and committed Jews have in “maintaining Jewish tradition at the same time that we seek to transmit it, to resist the winds of change at the same time that we strive to be creatively responsive to new circumstances and new questions.” It is, as he says, often a “maddeningly difficult balancing act.” Finding the balance between compassion and law has never been easy, and now is certainly as challenging a time to find this balance as there has ever been.
Ponder all this, and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Something we can influence is the U.S. – Israel relationship. So many of us are frustrated by the news coverage on Israel but may feel that there is little we can do from here. There is something we can do – join the Beth El delegation to the AIPAC Public Policy Conference March 3-5 here at the Washington Convention Center. The Conference has extraordinary content and does a great job of empowering us to help influence decisions made by our country’s leadership. Our delegation is already our largest ever, at 35, and includes our clergy. Click here to register <http://www.aipac.org/pc>
January 30, 2013
Periodically I devote one of these columns to issues around life and death, meaning the latter. There is never a good time for these matters, but avoiding them doesn’t work either. The previous column was about choosing a funeral director for a local burial. I urged you to talk to a clergy person before you spend $10k on a funeral when $2k will get you the same funeral. If you insist on spending $10k, please get the $2k funeral and give the rest to a worthy cause.
Today I want to talk about the burial part and share my consternation about the growing popularity of cremations. My great colleague, the pastor at nearby Saint Mark Presbyterian, tells me that in his ten years at that church he has done two traditional funerals, body in a coffin; every other time it was a cremation. Nationally, about 40% of “burials” are now cremations. Surprisingly, among Jews the custom is growing too, though both halachah and the experience of being gassed then incinerated by the Nazis would seem to argue against that.
I was studying my Biblical Archeology Review and saw an article called “Excarnation: Food for Vultures.” It’s a little too graphic for a Wednesday morning but does provides a little perspective on the growing cremation phenomenon. It seems that among the Jews of Judea in the first century C.E. it was customary to inter loved ones in 6 foot long cavities carved into the walls of what we would call burial caves. After about a year, when the flesh had desiccated and fallen away from the corpse, leaving only the bones, the bones would be buried in an ossuary, a stone box about 2 feet long by a foot high. Hundreds of these have been recovered. One of them is the disputed ossuary that may have contained the bones of one “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
What is most interesting is that there was one other period where ossuaries were used in the ancient Near East. About 4500-3500 BCE, during what we call the Chalcolithic Period, the peoples of the Levant (no Jews yet) also interred the bones of their deceased in ossuaries, these made of clay not stone and often fancifully decorated. But in that period the dead were evidently reduced to just dry bones in a different, terribly inelegant manner. Archeologists speculate from some structures dating to that period that people practiced excarnation, a ritual in which the bodies of the deceased were left exposed to vultures and scavengers. The bodies would be picked through quickly, the bones revealed and then buried in the boxes.
There is much speculation about the reasons for these ancient burial customs. To me they also point to changes in religious/ cultural customs over the ages. The two ossuary traditions, the later one far more “humane,” point to a more civilized practice. Developments since the first century were even more in that direction; witness Jewish traditions about immediate burial and no autopsy and avoidance of ostentatious displays of wealth in burial attire and coffin choice. But then how explain cremation, which seems to be moving us in the reverse direction? I really don't understand this trend. If you think you do, please write back. And if you have had experiences with cremation within your family that you wish to share, also write. As always, please be brief.
Whether you write or not, I hope these matters will not be ones that occupy you personally in the near future. File these thoughts away in the cloud somewhere. This particular Wednesday feels like spring and the rebirth of nature which, while temporary, speaks to us of life and hope. Let those be what we ponder today and most every day.
Best, Bill Rudolph
P.S. Two pre-game events this Sunday merit your attention. First is the annual World Wide Wrap at the 9AM minyan, a chance to get the feel of tefillin (phylacteries) and tefillah (prayer). Second is the community’s Super Sunday big push for the Federation annual campaign. Sign up at www.shalomdc.org to make calls, which I do almost every year, and be generous if a call comes your way.
January 23, 2013
Last week I shared the good news about our son’s engagement. Thanks for all the good wishes. It is nice to have community at a time like this, as it was at the very different time when Gail’s mom died. That announcement was followed by the Confirmation Class Trip to NY, the U.S. Inauguration, and yesterday the Israeli elections.
Of those four events, only the Israeli elections produced a big surprise. Despite leading from the start of the campaign to its finish, incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu bloc appears to have lost a lot of its allure and Bibi will be hard pressed to put together, at the most, a razor-thin majority in the next Knesset. The center/left parties have, according to the exit polls, garnered a lot more support than anticipated even though their standard bearers were not considered strong candidates. Netanyahu was essentially running against himself, and that didn’t work out as well as he had hoped. The analysis of the voting is that the Israeli electorate wants change, not so much in external relations as in internal social and economic policy. Strong showings by Yair Lapid, Shelly Yacimovich and Naftali Bennett were evidently due to their calls for domestic change. The common wisdom, which we heard during our recent Empty Nester mission, is that security concerns always trump any others in Israeli elections. Evidently not as much as usual this time - poor showings by Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz and even Tzipi Livni showed that.
Concerns many had that the most right-wing government in Israeli history would be voted in were not realized. I, for one, am pleased with the more centrist outcome, not because the media will have one less thing to hammer Israel about, but because of what it says about the Israeli people. As one commentator put it, the results bespeak a nation that has accepted the things it cannot change and is now focusing on what it believes it can. I hope this bodes well for a return to traditional Zionist values, to creating the kind of society that the dreamers who shaped the vision for Israel had in mind. The dreams have fallen too far into limbo of late.
But not totally. In the last week or two there has been a news story going around that reminds us, if we need a reminder, what makes Israel unique despite all that it must deal with. A new Israeli law prohibits the employment of underweight fashion models, with the aim of discouraging anorexia and bulimia. Israeli models must now by law produce a medical report no older than three months at every fashion shoot, stating that they are not malnourished by World Health Organization standards ( a body mass index below 18.5). Other countries have guidelines similar to this, including the U.S., but their fashion industries are self-policing. Israel is the first and only country to make this the law of the land. This kind of forward thinking, though modest in impact, speaks to the kind of society that we hope is now closer around the corner. If so, it will be a society also better able to stand up to its enemies.
Ponder all that and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. A big shul weekend lies ahead, compensation for the quiet of the past one. Check out all the Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shirah doings on our website (www.bethelmc.org), also Literary Luminaries Sunday morning. Reservations are required only for the Shabbat dinner – please contact Hattie right away at email@example.com.
January 16, 2013
When we name our baby or honor our child who has been called to the Torah as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we do a blessing called a Misheberach. In it we ask God to help us rear our kids to maturity, guiding them to a love of Torah, to the wedding chuppah, and to a life of good deeds. It’s not hard to envision our kids studying some Torah – hopefully interesting Torah that will make them want to study more. It’s not hard to envision them doing good deeds – between school and family they are offered many opportunities to do that. But the chuppah? Whether they are babies or have reached age 13, envisioning them standing under a chuppah is usually a big stretch, and we chuckle when we hear that part of the blessing. After all, they have very little interest in marriage, very few social skills – and I am talking about the 13 year olds - and there is no way they are getting married any time soon.
Life moves quickly - some of you know that and the rest of you will learn. Our kids grow up quickly, and for most of us there comes a day when the phone rings and we get the news that our kid is engaged. It is usually not a big surprise, but there is something about those words that strikes deep inside us. Our kid getting married? Wasn’t that misheberach recited just a few months ago? It’s an emotional experience, in the moment and because it will forever change the trajectory of their lives and ours.
On Sunday morning Gail and I got that phone call. Many of you know Marc. You helped raise him, from when he was the teddy bear bearing toddler rushing onto the bimah for Ein Keilohenu. He met Karen at a party when they were both freshmen at Haverford College, in February 2006. Apart from a semester abroad, he in Chile and she in India, and a few month stretch making sure this was indeed bashert, they have been together since. After Haverford they joined the scores of kids making their homes in New York City - Marc is finishing a Master’s in Elementary Education at Bank Street College, Karen is working at the Association for Jewish Studies before starting a graduate program in religion and conflict resolution. No wedding date has been set yet, but the rabbi has been booked.
Among the nicest aspects of this news is what good kids they are. Marc turned out OK. Karen is a metziah, as we say, a “keeper” as others would say within a few minutes of meeting her, a real treasure – bright, smart, cute, spiritual, loves learning, great values, in the shul choir, you name it. You can hope for the chuppah but a shidduch ( a marriage pair) like this one is a real bonus. We consider ourselves most fortunate.
Thanks for listening. I hope you can feel, and have or will feel, some of the joy that we are experiencing. And have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Speaking of education, I want you to know that our search for our next Education Director is right on schedule. There were more than two dozen applicants. We are holding preliminary interviews now among a much smaller pool and will bring two or three finalists to meet the Religious School community’s stakeholders in the next six weeks.
January 9, 2013
On the road again, this time for the Rabbinic Training Institute outside Baltimore. I am learning a lot. It will sooner or later trickle down to you, once I understand it myself.
This is part two of my two new year advice columns. Last week it was about excessive cell phone usage. My one takeaway from your feedback focuses on the dinner hour - curbing the use of cell phones at that time is very desirable. Today I want to talk about the surprising effect of worrying on living a long life.
There was a monumental eight decade study that followed over 1500 Americans from early childhood until their deaths. I love this study. It revealed that people who plan and worry tend to stay healthier and live longer than those who don't, and that hard work and the accompanying stress actually are good for you. People who are detail oriented, responsible and organized live longer than those who aren't.
The majority of the deaths in the sample group occurred among those with low conscientiousness scores. Conscientious people are more prudent in their personal habits. They are less likely to smoke or consume excessive amounts of alcohol. They have healthier, more stable relationships and better work lives. Scientists believe they have higher levels of serotonin and/or other neurotransmitters that curb impulsive, risk-taking behavior - and so they have a biological tendency toward being prudent and staying healthy. Not to worry, you can become more conscientious, and the study showed that it works.
How much worry is good? Children who were described by their parents as being unusually cheerful and worry free tended to die sooner then their less optimistic counterparts. It's a myth then that people who are really cheerful tend to be healthier and live longer. A better attitude is what the study calls "realistic optimism" - worry when you should, even be a little neurotic about your health, but too much pessimism ("the sky is falling") tends to shorten lives.
Two other interesting findings. Participants over 70 who stayed productive in some fashion lived much longer than those who took it easy. They tend to have healthier habits and things to look forward to. Beth El has a great range of activities for our more senior members, and now you know you don't have to come just to please me. Second, the more friends the better. Strikingly, steadily married men live longer than men who are not that, but women who are divorced or never married live as long as women who were steadily married. That is all about relationships - women find it easier to have fulfilling social relationships outside of marriage, and men are not so good at that.
Finally, the best social networks are those that involve helping others. Being loved makes people happy, but it does not prolong their lives. Those who help others are the ones who live longest.
Ponder all this, may it help you to have a good Wednesday and a good 2013. We will take up a new thread next week. Bill Rudolph
P.S. It's Sisterhood Shabbat. Come hear the women of Zhava and Sisterhood conduct all of the Shabbat morning service and honor Donna Vogel, and hear a talk by Rabbi Mindy Portnoy, one of the area's best rabbis for three decades now.
January 2, 2013
It’s a new secular year. The gym was pretty full yesterday. It is, after all, resolutions time. So let me devote the next two columns to some advice, in case you are planning on changing things up in 2013.
The first piece of advice comes from Google Exec Eric Schmidt’s Boston University graduation speech last May, reported on and discussed by Ruth Marcus in the Post a week later, and buttressed by what I saw in the theatre a few days ago. Intermission comes along, and in a millisecond a zillion little smartphone screens light up. Nobody is talking much to the people they came with; their fingers are doing the talking. Second intermission, same thing.
Schmidt said, “Take one hour a day and turn that thing off.” That is odd advice coming from a man whose career has been based on making it harder and harder to turn “that thing” off. As Ruth Marcus adds, the “thing” is really “things” – Iphone, IPad, laptop, desktop, Blackberry, Kindle, or their equivalents. We are wired and ensnared in a world of “ubiquitous technology.” Schmidt talked about what he assumes the graduates do first thing when they wake up – check the phone, the laptop, read some emails, comb through their social networks. “I’m awake, here I am!” he sees them announcing each morning because they are online, they are connected. His speech was not anti-technology, it was (Marcus thinks) anti-being-ruled-by-technology. He urged the grads, who had trouble believing what they were hearing, to shut the thing down a little every day.
How difficult would such advice be to follow? Unplugging for an hour a day doesn’t seem so difficult. But Ruth Marcus asks us to consider some statistics: 1) girls age 14 to 17 send an average of 187 text messages a day; 2) 12 percent of Millenial Moms (born between 1977 and 1994) have used their smartphones during sex; 3) more than half of children ages 5 to 8 have used an IPad IPhone or other touch-screen device to watch videos, play games or engage in other activities. Is there any reason to believe these figures will go down?
Schmidt sees all this connectedness as a blessing. Marcus sees it as a blessing and a curse. I tend to agree. The blessing is how easy it makes it to maintain friendships. I would add how easy it makes it to communicate with you each Wednesday. The curse is the addiction so many of us have developed to the world of instant updates and constant feedback. It is really an addiction. I am among the addicted. Try to have a meeting where people actually listen to what is being said instead of tapping out emails. Or look around almost anywhere you are these days and watch what people are doing.
The notion of unplugging for an hour a day seems so easy. It’s not. We are sure we will miss some important thing or some important connection if we are not always attached to “that thing.”
In 2013, see what you can do to make Eric Schmidt’s advice stick. At least some time each day, try to be in the actual place and moment, not the virtual place/moment. For people of our persuasion, Shabbat is an obvious time to do this. The rabbis knew about the value of being unplugged before there were plugs. One day a week is not enough though. Make it a habit. I can promise you that, if something important happens with the thing off, you will hear about it.
Next week I will do my second 2013 piece, about worrying and just how bad it is for our health. In the meantime, best wishes for a partially unplugged Wednesday and a good new year.
December 26, 2012
I write this in the afterglow of our inaugural Erev Christmas Movies/Chinese food extravaganza that drew close to 200 for a wonderful community building event.
Thanks to Christmas and Chanukah and – most pertinent right now - the end of year deadline for tax deductions for charitable contributions, this is the season of giving. So let me share with you a nice little story about giving.
The owner of a very fancy car had seen a little boy about ten years old staring intently through the windows of his car. Wondering what he was up to, the owner gently asked him what he was doing. The boy said he was interested in cars and had read a lot about different models. He proceeded to tell the owner many details about this particular year and body style. After a bit, the boy asked, “How much did you pay for this car?” The owner smiled and replied, “Nothing. My brother gave it to me.” The little boy responded, “I wish...” but stopped mid-sentence. The owner of the car laughed, “You were going to say you wished that you had a brother like that?” “No,” said the little boy, “I was going to say I wish I could be a brother like that.”
I hope you will consider, if you have not already done so, being a brother (or sister) like that with regard to Beth El. It is not a small proposition to build a community this large and vibrant, pay the teachers and keep the lights on. Though we have expanded what we do, and how we do it, we have not raised the dues in three years. We have, instead, gotten more serious about developing other kinds of fundraising. On the High Holidays, and in recent mailings and listserv announcements, you have heard about our efforts. They have resonated nicely, but we have still not reached the promised land. Contact Sheila Bellack if you want more information about end year giving – she can be reached at 301-652-2606/ extension 306 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks in advance for doing what you can. And have a great Wednesday, the last of 2012. How did 2013 get here so fast? Bill Rudolph
P.S. Getting a quorum for the daily minyan is not easy at the end of December when people are away and meetings are not being scheduled. Please help if you can – 7:30 AM and 8:00PM weekdays.
December 19, 2012
It is hard not to be preoccupied with the horrific events in Newtown CT. Imagining what the scene within that school must have been like, or imagining being in the place of the families who have lost a child or other loved one in the way they did, is more than enough to engender great angst, interrupted sleep and some sense of helplessness because we really don’t know how to prevent a tragedy like this one.
Still, being the people of hope, we have to hope that something at least a little positive will come out of a tragedy like this. Some will see that to be more security in our schools, even though it would probably not have helped in that situation and schools can only be as safe as their communities. In the USA, according to 2008 statistics, a child or teen is killed by guns every three hours; we have a Newtown every weekend. Which brings me to join with all those who see this tragedy as a catalyst for a move to tougher gun laws, to banning assault weapons (again) at the least. These are offensive weapons designed for war, not weapons of self-defense, and they do not belong in civilian hands. Look at Ezra Klein’s piece in Tuesday’s Post for a thorough review of the complexity of the gun issue and some worthwhile policy suggestions. Our nation’s leaders are saying the right things, but they need to act on this right now, otherwise it is guaranteed that nothing will happen and the gun lobby will win out again. Please please write to your representatives in the Congress and to the White House. More complicated is the issue of better services for the severely mentally ill. Specific to the latest tragedy, we see time and again that the shooter in horrors like this one is a troubled young man whose alienation was noticed by others but not adequately addressed. Can we at least develop a better protocol for mental health professionals who confront such challenges?
While we hope that the deaths in Newtown will provoke change, right now there is pervasive grief and sadness. We cannot wish those feelings away so fast, and part of us doesn’t want to. So let me conclude on that note. I leave you with the eulogy offered at the funeral of 6-year-old Noah Pozner by his mother, Veronique Pozner. People identifying themselves as reporters were not allowed into the service, but the family made the transcript available to The Associated Press. Here it is in its entirety:
“The sky is crying, and the flags are at half-mast. It is a sad, sad day. But it is also your day, Noah, my little man. I will miss your forceful and purposeful little steps stomping through our house. I will miss your perpetual smile, the twinkle in your dark blue eyes, framed by eyelashes that would be the envy of any lady in this room.
Most of all, I will miss your visions of your future. You wanted to be a doctor, a soldier, a taco factory manager. It was your favorite food, and no doubt you wanted to ensure that the world kept producing tacos.
You were a little boy whose life force had all the gravitational pull of a celestial body. You were light and love, mischief and pranks. You adored your family with every fiber of your 6-year-old being. We are all of us elevated in our humanity by having known you. A little maverick, who didn't always want to do his schoolwork or clean up his toys, when practicing his ninja moves or Super Mario on the Wii seemed far more important.
Noah, you will not pass through this way again. I can only believe that you were planted on Earth to bloom in heaven. Take flight, my boy. Soar. You now have the wings you always wanted. Go to that peaceful valley that we will all one day come to know. I will join you someday. Not today. I still have lots of mommy love to give to Danielle, Michael, Sophia and Arielle.
Until then, your melody will linger in our hearts forever. Momma loves you, little man.”
How incredibly sad! Try to have a good Wednesday, and do write to your elected officials. Bill Rudolph
P.S. I cannot end with just sadness, so here is a true end of year story about tzedakah. Last Monday (the second day of Chanukah) a couple walked into the shul office, took out a purse and placed $9,000 in cash on our bookkeeper’s desk. I called them right away. They are American citizens of South American origin, apostolic Christians who follow the laws of tithing. Each paycheck, each year, they both take 10% off of their checks and put it aside. At year’s end, they give it to a charity. This year they decided that Israel should have the money. Half the money will be sent to support the work of the Israel Trauma Coalition, the other half to the Ethiopian National Project for work in youth centers in our sister city Beit Shemesh. When we despair about Israel’s isolation or senseless deaths, we do well to remember that there are still plenty of ordinary people doing good things in the world.
December 12, 2012
Last week I teed up the Latke Hamantash Debate – another roaring success with even a jet flyover - with discussion of our new school focus on Jewish values as they apply to our kids’ everyday lives. To remind us that we are all teachers, not just those who lead in the classroom (live and virtual), let me share with you a favorite story. I offer it up as my Chanukah gift to you.
An 11-year-old boy and his father went fishing the day before bass season started. At first the boy caught sunfish and perch, which were fine to keep. When his pole bent and doubled over, he knew something huge was on the other end. His father watched with admiration as the boy skillfully worked the fish in and finally lifted it, exhausted, from the lake. It was the largest fish he had ever seen, a bass. In the moonlight, the boy and his father looked at the handsome fish. Then the father lit a match and looked at his watch. It was 10 PM - two hours before the bass season officially opened. He looked at the fish, then at the boy. "You'll have to put it back, son, "he said.
"Dad," the boy cried.
"There will be other fish," said his father.
"Not as big as this one," the boy protested.
The boy looked around the lake. He looked again at his father. Even though no one had seen them, nor could anyone ever know what time he caught the fish, the boy could tell by his father's voice that the decision was not negotiable. He slowly worked the hook out of the lip of the huge bass and lowered it into the water. The fish swished its powerful tail and disappeared. The boy suspected that he would never again see such a great fish.
Today the boy has become a successful architect in New York City. He finds time to take his children fishing on that same lake in New Hampshire where he fished with his father. He has never again caught such a magnificent fish. But he does see that same fish – again and again – every time he comes up against a question of ethics. For, as his father taught him, ethics are simple matters of right and wrong. It is only the practice of ethics that is difficult. Do we do right when no one is looking? Do we refuse to take advantage of someone because we have information he does not? We would, if we were taught to put the fish back when we were young. We would have learned the truth. The decision to do right lives fresh in our memory. It's a story we would probably tell our friends, our children and our grandchildren. Not about how he had the chance to beat the system and took it, but about how we did the right thing and were forever strengthened.
Think about what kind of teacher of ethics and values you are to those you love, and have a good Wednesday. There won’t be a date like it, 12/12/12, for a very long time. And, lest we forget, Chanukah Sameach. Bill Rudolph
P.S. We are coming to the last major programming weekend of 2012. Don’t miss the Israel Media Series (Saturday 7:30PM) with the popular TV drama Serugim. Sunday morning includes Consecration for all the new students in our Religious School and the first meeting for the many families with B’nai Mitzvah in 2015.
December 5, 2012
Well, I guess nobody from Beth El won the Powerball jackpot. But I was taken by how many of you, without my even asking, told me that if you won you would use some of the money to pay off the shul’s mortgage. I was touched because the leadership of our shul has to worry about the mortgage and its affect on our budget, and you don’t.
We are coming to one of my favorite events, the annual Latke Hamantash Debate, this Sunday 10 - 11AM. Debaters this year are a lobbyist, a prosecutor, a cardiologist, and our hazzan. Each has their own minyan (except the hazzan) and their own following (especially the hazzan), so come early for good seats. And stay late for good eats.
Last year, with the debate a few days away, I asked whether it’s OK for Judaism to be fun, and I quoted a rabbi who quoted a marketing expert who quoted himself. To the effect that from the time our children are very young, we teach them that doing anything well in life requires effort, that there is no substitute for hard work and sweat and practice. And then, said the rabbi, we send them to religious school and we tell the teachers to “make it fun.” Some wrote back then and I saved their comments. I save everything. My hard drive is very full. Let me share two comments and my take on this.
“My opinion is that the key to attracting young people to Judaism lies in convincing them that this religion/cultural institution holds the answer to one or more particularly meaningful (to them) puzzles or challenges or questions that they have felt frustrated in their efforts to solve or overcome or answer. It would follow that you would begin by asking them to describe those issues to you and then you would convene your learned Jews and ask them if Judaism offers any compelling answers. If it does, then you would offer them up to the kids and see if they agree. If they do, then you’ve “got them.” Congregant D (who used to write more often)
“I don't often comment on your blog, but I will on the ‘hard work’ vs. fun issue. It's well known to us psychologists that hard work in an area that isn't fun doesn't ‘stick.’ The person who studies law because it will lead to a good job but doesn't like law may finish law school, but s/he will never be a top lawyer; those folks love the law. Similarly the person who practices the piano or football will never be a top shot player unless they also love piano or football…. So, to put this into the Jewish education realm, we need to make Judaism fun in order that students will then be willing to put in the hard work to really learn what a Jew needs to know. That is why Camp Ramah, and good Jewish camps in general, are so helpful. They make serious learning about Judaism take place as an integral part of a fun atmosphere.” Congregant J
As we at Beth El are developing the L2G pilot program and refining our established religious school program, we are very conscious of the wisdom of D and J. Working from a curriculum produced by our partners, Shalom Learning, L2G focuses on teaching Jewish values and applying them to the real life issues that our kids face, or will face. At the same time, we believe that the variety of learning settings that L2G provides (online classroom, in person classroom, independent study and family experiential activity) can make learning more interesting and fun. Ultimately, I believe that the entire school program will move in some of these same directions.
The Hebrew word for education is Chinnuch. That word is from the same root as the word Chanukah, which means in its historical context “dedication” (of the defiled Temple). No coincidence I think - good education requires dedication. We are dedicating a lot of energy to making our educational programs even more successful. We are not “there” yet. But judging by the awesome numbers of your kids in our school, we think you have noticed that we are trying. And we will continue to so dedicate ourselves.
I don’t think I have to tell you when Chanukah begins. But I can offer my best wishes to you for a happy holiday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. For more on the holiday and a candle lighting refresher, check out our educator Elisha Frumkin’s handiwork on our website under Home Celebrations:
November 28, 2012
Boker Tov, this time from NYC where I am participating in some rabbi meetings.
Israel remains very much on our minds and in our hearts, but for these rare moments where there are no rockets falling let us veer a little in a somewhat related direction. Let’s talk about leadership. Very pertinent, with a newly re-elected President here, Israeli elections soon to come, and an Egyptian President trying to prove that Mubarak wasn’t such an autocrat.
Jonathan Sacks is the soon to retire Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. He wrote recently about Jewish leadership, which he takes to mean leadership in a Jewish way, according to Judaic principles and values. He lists seven axioms that define that kind of leadership. I will lay them out and talk about one.
One, leadership begins with taking responsibility. In biblical terms, compare Moses with Adam or Noah.
Two, no one can lead alone, leadership is teamsmanship.
Three, leadership is about the future, it is vision driven. Look at Moses’ last act, gathering the people to hear his vision of the good society that constitutes the Book of Deuteronomy.
Four, leaders learn. They study a lot. William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister, had a library of 30,000 books. Churchill wrote 50 books and won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Ben Gurion had his own library of 20,000 books in his Tel Aviv house.
Five, leadership means believing in the people you lead. More on this below.
Six, leadership involves a sense of timing and pace. A leader must lead from the front but not be so far out in front that when s/he turns around there is nobody following.
Seven, leadership is stressful. Leaders do it because they hear a call to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
Now back to number five, about leaders believing in the people they lead. There is a profound principle at stake here, says Sacks. Judaism prefers the leadership of influence to the leadership of power. Kings had power. Prophets had influence but no power at all. Power lifts the leader above the people. Influence lifts the people above their former selves. Influence respects people; power controls people. Judaism, which has a high view of human dignity compared to most other faiths, is deeply skeptical about power and deeply serious about influence.
So, maybe in the recent U.S. election where Obama overcame the economy and unemployment figures, maybe the majority thought he believed in them and the other guy didn't. In Egypt, it remains to be seen if Mosri's grab for power can raise the people out of their poverty and above their former selves. Israel elections are more about security than almost anywhere else, so maybe the axioms don’t all work, but think Yitzhak Rabin.
Let's apply this on a level I understand better, that of a congregation like ours. We kind of hit on this axiom on our own. Our leadership believes we are succeeding in the ways we are only because of the amazing human resources that we bring to the table, meaning you, and (secondarily) because we believe not in power but in empowerment.
Thanks to you, also, axiom seven isn't a major preoccupation.
Have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
November 21, 2012
I was all ready to take up a new thread, following my reportage on our terrific Israel Mission, when out of the blue came a war in that very place. Not really out of the blue. When we were there, the rockets from Gaza had increased in frequency and there were other provocations, but there wasn’t a hint that anything like we have been witnessing would transpire. Now many of us are glued to TV or online news outlets, hoping and praying that a way will be found to bring some peace and tranquility to the areas around Gaza in the very near future. Hopefully a way devoid of a ground offensive, which will be costly in lives and surely get Israel in trouble with the world once again as it did in 2008 (witness the Goldstone Report.)
I have opened up a new Word folder for this Israel crisis. I hope it will be a small one with not too many files. Regardless, it will take its place next to the folders and files for Intifada I and Intifada II and the second Lebanon war in 2006 and the Gaza offensive Cast Lead in late 2008, next to files for our $1 million rally for Israel in 2002 and our $1 million High Holiday Appeal in 2006. In a different medium on the same Mac are dozens of music files of Israeli songs of peace. The most poignant is the one that begins “Ani mavtiach lach, yaldah sheli ktanah/ I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war….” Even the greatest of optimists would have trouble believing, in the bleak landscape that is Israel’s neighborhood, that this is a possibility.
I must confess that I worry sometimes that I (and you?) will tire of the crises. Though they affect most of us here in very secondary ways, except for families with relatives in the rocket zones or children in Tzahal. still they are draining. Will we soon say “enough?” Will we let Israel take care of itself without our worries and support? Every time I think that, that I am not sure I can deal with another Israel crisis in such short order, I remind myself that Israel doesn’t deserve the struggles it has had to make for its survival. It has an historical and legal and moral right to the Land. The vast majority of its citizens would happily live side by side in peace and cooperation with the Palestinians if they would reciprocate. There is no reciprocity, just terror and rockets. Maybe it’s just that they have rotten leadership, but finding a real partner for peace among the Palestinians has been hard to do. But Israel has to keep looking, while defending its borders and citizens and keeping its chin up in a world full of cynical nations who could never themselves come close to passing the scrutiny that they focus on Israel. What Israel has had to face, from any political or security standpoint, is simply not fair. When I see unfairness it makes me even more determined to see the right prevail. I hope you feel the same way.
It is not clear what help American Jewry can offer at this time. Here at Beth El we will continue to monitor the situation and will soon suggest some action items. Yesterday’s special edition Religious School newsletter offers many helpful tips to parents who are not sure how to interpret what is going on to their children; it will be on our website also shortly. We will continue to present speakers like our own David Schenker of the Washington Institute who, coming with one day’s notice, spoke to a packed chapel Monday evening, And we will continue with special prayers at the daily minyan. We hope the ceasefire discussions will bear fruit, the kind of fruit that won’t rot in a few days or weeks.
I hope, as I know you do, that this Wednesday, just a week after the hostilities ramped up, will be a day of positive developments. And I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. As we reaffirmed last evening with our friends from Bethesda United Methodist Church, when we focus on what we have not what we lack, we realize how blessed almost all of us are. Bill Rudolph
November 14, 2012
Boker Tov from Bethesda. Last time it was from Kibbutz Ginossar, with our Empty Nester Mission, on the eve of the American election returns. In Israel, with a political system that makes more sense than we think, the election campaigns are brief and there are no TV ads, which seems very refreshing.
I could talk about our ten days in Israel for the next ten weeks, but I will spare you beyond today’s ruminations. First off, travel to Israel is too quick. We don’t really grasp the significance of being in The Land – something our ancestors couldn’t do for two thousand years - when it’s not a struggle to get there. It used to be that Israel felt so different that we knew we had travelled a long way, but now we arrive at a state-of-the-art airport and travel on very modern freeways with invisible E-ZPass and stay in plush hotels and eat at really good restaurants – even the bathrooms are nice nowadays. It doesn’t feel like such a big deal, but it is. For me at least, it’s always new and exciting and very special to be there, and never to be taken for granted.
At our final banquet, right before the awards ceremony about which I cannot report because we took an oath that we wouldn’t, we did a survey to see which of the places we visited had had the most impact. In a runaway finish, number one was the rabbinic tunnels, fully open to the public for about fifteen years and winding way below the Kotel/Western Wall and as close to the Holy of Holies in the Temple as we can get at this time. I am trying to figure why this site had the most impact - we saw lots of ancient things. Maybe it is the enormity and ingenuity in the masterworks of Herod the Great; getting massive stones that weigh hundreds of tons apiece into position for the retaining wall for the Temple Mount is powerfully impressive. Or maybe it’s being so close to the epicenter of Jewish life for most of a millennium. Or both, I don't know for sure.
Our people loved Jerusalem above any other Israeli city. I feel the same way, which is probably why we spent six days there and only two in Tel Aviv. For me, the thing about Jerusalem is the chance encounters. At Shirah Chadashah the second Shabbat, there was an aufruf and it turned out to be the son of my former Hillel colleague at Hebrew U; the groom to be just happens to be the nephew of Natalie Merkur Rose, one of our newest congregants, who was also there. At the Kotel earlier in the week, we walked by a group of soldiers doing a week’s education unit and one of them yelled out my name. It turned out to be the daughter of one of Ricardo Munster’s best friends for whom I wrote a letter attesting to her appropriateness for aliyah; now she patrols the Egyptian border. It always happens like that in Jerusalem – it’s like a perpetual family reunion. We don’t call it the holy city for nothing. Jerusalem is uniquely tuned to the Jewish people’s soul frequencies.
Last but hardly least, only in Israel would you find a theatre where most of the cast members are both blind and deaf, the remainder one or the other. And the cast serve as waiters at the restaurants attached to the theatre, which is known as Nalagaat. On one side is Café Kapish, where we ate; the waiters are deaf, orders are done by holding up fingers. On the other side is BlackOut, with a staff of blind waiters; the room is pitch black and apart from sighted people not being able to find where to put their forks and ending up using their hands, it works. The whole operation employs 70 people, most of whom would otherwise be sitting at home or in a factory making pencils. Nalagaat was founded on the basic belief that every human being has the right to contribute to the society in which s/he lives. That seems so elementary, but Israel actually does it and in the most unique ways.
Go there soon, and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. The ingenuity and creativity of Israel’s citizens have produced many great advances in science and technology, and also great media. We launched the Israel Media Series a few years back to share some of that creativity and help us remember that Israel’s story is not just the often-gruesome headlines on the front page of the Post. One Saturday night a month we screen an Israeli film or TV series. The first showing this year, The Matchmaker, drew our biggest crowd ever. This Saturday night we begin on the best of their high quality TV series, Srugim, season one. 7:30PM, $5 admission includes refreshments, what a deal!
November 7, 2012
Boker tov from Kibbutz Ginossar on the Kinneret.
It's day five of our Empty Nester Mission. Everybody here, meaning the Israelis, is talking about the election. We are seven hours ahead, so even though I write this late Tuesday night it is still 6-7 hours before all the polls close and the returns and analysis begin in earnest. We all voted absentee, so there was no reason to browbeat.
We have seen and heard a great deal here already, but it's a short column and there is time for one vignette. We were invited to a major powwow about our Jewish community's Jewish Federation Partnership city, Beit Shemesh. Most of you read about the tensions between the ultra -Orthodox and the more moderate elements, including the spitting on a little Orthodox girl on her way to school not dressed modestly enough by medieval standards. The Montgomery County Council tabled a county partnership arrangement when that incident was brought to its attention.
We learned about a variety of efforts to build bridges among the various Orthodox and secular segments of the population there. The efforts are impressive, bringing together people who never talked to each other before; I will talk more about them when back in town. We also learned that there are basically ten young men who are perpetrating the acts of hatred against other Jews. It's hardly "the ultra Orthodox" behind this and they are horrified by it too. So, it's never good to generalize. And we learned that those who went to our County Council are always looking for ways to stigmatize or boycott Israel, and we cannot let their distorted version of reality carry the day.
In Beit Shemesh itself, we saw the amazing work of the Partnership in an after-school program for Ethiopian kids, and dined with one of the ethnic cooks who got her start in business from Partnership start up assistance and encouragement including sponsoring her visit to our shul a few years back.
We start early each morning and fall into bed late in the evening. Is there any alternative when there is so much to see and do, and so little time? See for yourself sometime soon. And have a good Wednesday, one that hopefully ends with most or all of your candidates and initiatives achieving the outcomes you desire, and our mutual desire for the country to move forward in positive ways being advanced. Bill Rudolph
October 31, 2012
Boker Tov. We are breathing a sigh of relief about Sandy while thinking about those less lucky to the north.
Last time I talked about the recent Pew Research Center survey of religion in America which found that in the last five years alone the number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious community grew from 15% to just under 20%, the highest percentage ever. The percentage was 8% in 1990. Among those under thirty, fully a third are unaffiliated. I promised to discuss the theories for the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and to speculate on what this development means for a congregation like ours.
First the theories, none of which is very compelling. One is that it’s mostly generational replacement and the young will end up being like the older folk when they get older. That would be reassuring but the data don’t support that conclusion. Millenials, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers are all less affiliated than prior generations in those same age brackets.
Theory two is that the American public is growing less religious. Evidence is mixed on this. The number of Americans who say religion is important in their lives is about 60%, little changed from five years ago, and far higher than in Britain (17%) or France (13%) or Germany (21%). And the percentage of Americans who say that prayer is important in their daily lives (76%) is the same as it was 25 years ago. On the other hand, the numbers who seldom or never attend religious services have gone up from 25% to 29% in nine years; also, young adults are also less likely than older adults to report that, when they were growing up, their parents attended religious services regularly.
Maybe the ranks of the unaffiliated are predominantly composed of practitioners of New Age spirituality or alternative forms of religion? No, the unaffiliated are no more likely than members of the public as a whole to have such beliefs and practices.
The final theory is that the unaffiliated have more hostility toward religious institutions. They are much more likely than the public overall to say that churches and other religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. But at the same time, a majority of the religiously unaffiliated thinks that religion can be a force for good in society, with three-quarters saying religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78%) and a similar number saying religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77%).
So what does it all mean? Whatever the reason(s), the decline in affiliation is a concern. Since the research indicates that the religiously unaffiliated are less inclined than Americans overall to say they often think about the meaning and purpose of life (53% vs. 67%), or attach much importance to belonging to a community of people with shared values and beliefs (28% of the unaffiliated compared with 49% of all adults), faith communities like ours face a real challenge. Since Jews are over-represented in everything, our challenge may be larger than the norm. In fact, in our own D.C. community, the most recent demographic snapshot shows that almost 50% of the Jews fall in the unaffiliated category! In a selfish way, it’s not Beth El’s problem – we have plenty of people. But it behooves us to think seriously about how we present ourselves on issues of money, power, rules and politics. And it behooves us to look beyond our congregation and consider ways to engage the unaffiliated, for the sake of the larger interests of American Jewry. There aren’t many of us, and numbers do matter.
Ponder all this, have a good drying-out day, and make sure to vote next week. Bill Rudolph
P.S. This Shabbat is a special treat that I will miss if our Empty Nester Israel Mission takes off as scheduled. Joey Weisenberg is a gifted charismatic young Jewish musician, prayer leader and niggun master. I have been with him in a tiny room that he very quickly transformed into a spiritual mansion. Information about our Musician in Residence weekend, beginning with services and dinner Friday night, was on the Tuesday listserv and is on our website (www.bethelmc.org).
October 24, 2012
Gail is getting up from shivah this morning. We will walk around the block in the traditional way of returning to the world of the living. We so appreciate all that so many of you did for her/our family during the last week – the cards, contributions, countless cookies, constant company. All in all, community at its warmest and best.
Not everyone sees the value of this kind of community. The recent Pew Research Center’s survey of religion in America found that in the last five years alone the number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious community grew from 15% to just under 20%, the highest percentage ever. The percentage was 8% in 1990. Among those under thirty, fully a third are unaffiliated. The full study can be found at www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated.
Surprisingly, more than two thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God, more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual,” and one in five say they pray every day. Most of the 20% even think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor. Yet 88% of them are not at all looking to affiliate.
In this political season, it is interesting to note also that the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate. They voted as heavily for Obama in 2008 as white evangelical Protestants did for McCain. Almost two thirds are registered Democratic or lean toward that party; they are now 24% of all such registered voters and constitute the biggest block among Democratic or Democratic-leaning registered voters (Black Protestants are 16% and White mainline Protestants 14%). If they have a unique issue, it’s that they don’t believe religion and politics should mix. Only a third of them say it matters if the president is a believer while three-quarters of the affiliated – people like this column’s readers - think it does. Is this divide one of the defining ones for our culture?
The United States is still very traditional – 80 percent of Americans do identify with an established faith group. But we see that that number seems to be on a steady and accelerating decline, and two thirds of Americans say that religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life. Will we go the way of Europe, with an almost institutionalized secularism? Or will American ingenuity and creativity provide the resilience to keep spirituality and faith from slipping too much more?
Next time we will discuss the theories on the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and what implications this change has for a congregation like ours.
In the meantime, enjoy the spring weather and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Tonight we have the first Wednesday evening classes of our Saul Bendit Adult Institute. Check out the great lineup of courses on our website at www.bethelmc.org; you can register at the door and remember if you put off learning until you have time for it you may never have the time. This Sunday is Mitzvah Day. Do look at our website for information about the myriad of ways you can make a difference in this world.
October 17, 2012
There will be a temporary delay in the transition from Michele Bachmann to the Pew study on religion in America. Most people, if you are interested, thought the rabbi in the Bachman incident should have said one sentence about her or nothing at all on such a solemn evening. My thoughts are far from that, focused instead closer to home, on Leona Fribush, my wife Gail’s Mom, who died yesterday morning.
Leona and I shared a love of Florida, tennis, and Gail. I wasn’t exactly who she thought Gail would bring home to meet the parents – a lawyer or physician was more of what she had in mind. But she was always nice and most respectful, and when I would catch her accidently using the wrong knife or fork she wouldn’t aim it at me. She was playing tennis in her 80’s, with a busy social schedule interrupted only by a busy phone schedule. Then, as her husband Babe (Gail’s Dad) was getting weaker physically from heart problems, she began to lose her memory. She and Babe managed well enough for the few years before he died (also in October five years ago) – his mind and her body together were enough to make it work. He predicted she would not be able to live alone once he was gone. He was right. She moved up here about 3 ½ years ago and was living semi-independently but with a steadily decreasing quality of life in the last six months. She often would say, “Now I understand why those ladies jump off the balcony.” Ten days ago she was rushed to the hospital. She regrouped after a few days but got pneumonia and died about a week later with all the oxygen a torpedo sized tank could deliver not being enough.
Let me share two of many thoughts. The first is how incredibly uncomfortable it is to be watching a loved one struggle to regain her health when there is no prospect that a life of any quality would result if she did. I know many of you have faced this same dilemma. The hospital or nursing home staff announces that our loved one is having a better day and we don’t know if that is good. What are we wishing for, and dare we say it? We resonated with the recent New York Magazine feature article entitled, “Mom, I love you. I also wish you were dead, and I expect you do too.” Jewish values like “choose life” and “saving a single life is like saving the world”…they don’t work for this. As people live longer, I fear that more such situations will result. I wish it were otherwise.
My second thought is to praise the caregivers. Gail was the one I saw close up, many of you have also seen it or been it. Gail showed amazing strength and patience over a period of months and years. She was Leona’s Assisted Living arrangement, calling many times a day to make sure she did this or that, supervising the part-time aides, shopping for her and with her, getting her out of the gray chair that she would otherwise occupy from morning till night, answering the same question three times in five minutes without a sign of impatience. I always talk about our experiencing God through the people that God sends when we need them. I had that experience of God.
Wednesday was Gail’s regular weekday with her Mom. For me, Wednesday is a day to share with you what’s on my mind and in my heart. For Gail, Wednesday was a day to give everything a human soul could give to make another soul happy despite harsh reality. Producing these columns is easy in comparison. To others who have given care like this to a loved one, I tip my kippah with a sense of awe and reverence. Yours was/is the most holy work.
Our family appreciates the expressions of sympathy that have begun coming in.
On this Wednesday, think how you can be God’s people. Best, Bill Rudolph
October 10, 2012
The landscape is holiday free for a while, so I get to write about other pressing matters. A new thread, based on the Pew Study of Religion in America just released, will soon occupy us. But not today. Today’s column will be long by my usual standards. Take a few days to read it if you need to, but I think the suspense will be too great.
Last week as I began my discussion with our more senior members at what we call Roundtable with the Rabbi, I laid out my seasonally appropriate topic but before I got past the title, a new senior member asked, “Rabbi, you are not going to talk about politics?” To him, and you, let me say again that I don’t get into election talk in a public way unless I think a candidate is a danger to the American or Jewish way of life. That is not the case this time around, again, at least in my opinion. There are laws limiting what I can say, I have no particular expertise in these matters, and I have learned that whatever a rabbi says relating to politics will be offensive to somebody. As I will prove in a moment. But let me remind you that I am glad to talk about my views and votes off the bimah.
One of our large sister shuls is Anshe Emet in Chicago. Hazzan Lubin did a stint there; we are glad we were able to get him to come here instead. Anyway, just hours before Yom Kippur, the office of Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann called the synagogue asking that she be able to attend services there that evening. The congregation’s long-standing policy is to welcome public officials to its community and to acknowledge their presence from the Bimah. In so doing, they do not endorse the policies of those officials they recognize but the office they have attained.
During the Kol Nidre service, Congresswoman Bachmann’s presence was acknowledged from the Bimah.
Here is what Rabbi Michael Siegel said:
”I want to acknowledge the presence of Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. She was the first Republican woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota. Congresswoman Bachmann represents Minnesota's 6th district. We thank you for your support of Israel. Finally, I am sure that Congresswoman Bachmann will join all of us in a prayer for peace for our country the United States of America, the State of Israel, and for the entire world.”
Then the fun began. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, what the rabbi considered a formality enraged more than a few congregants, prompting some to walk out and one to start a campaign of his own in support of Bachmann's opponent in the race for her congressional seat, Jim Graves. "The holiness of the room and the holiness of the evening was greatly diminished for me, if not completely destroyed," said Gary Sircus, who stormed out of the synagogue where he has observed the High Holidays for 25 years. "Our congregation values and embodies tolerance, compassion, respect for individual rights, intelligence, science — all of the things that I think Michele Bachmann stands against." Later that night, Sircus composed an email to Graves' campaign and sent it to others, urging them to donate. "I felt that the best way to 'honor' Ms. Bachmann's visit was to make a contribution to your campaign," Sircus wrote. "Even though I do not vote in Minnesota, please do everything in your power to take away this evil woman's soapbox." The Graves campaign saw a 400 percent uptick in donations from the Chicago area that week.
In later interviews, Sircus said that he didn’t walk out because a conservative was there, nor because she is (in his words) “ignorant and intolerant,” but because she was treated like an honored guest. The rabbi, he said, should have told her she was sitting with a congregation that valued and celebrated diversity and tolerance and doesn’t tolerate hate and willful ignorance and persecution of the “other.”
There is no word on why Bachmann was in Chicago or why she chose to attend the service. She is an evangelical Christian and was a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. She has been a vocal supporter of Israel. She also has been an unabashed opponent of gay rights. Note that the service featured, instead of a sermon, a fictional father and son dialogue about Israel, including a piece celebrating Israel's openness to the gay and lesbian community.
The synagogue is now doing what some would call “damage control.” You can check out their website for the official response to the turmoil, along the policy lines I summarized above. Apologies are offered to those who were offended. And the leadership expresses the idea that the shul’s value of inclusion is “not compromised by recognizing an elected official who may not share those values.”
What do you think? Would there be a price to pay if the synagogue had said “no” to her? Ponder this. Don’t write to me unless you have something creative to suggest; my Inbox is out of control because of the holidays. But do discuss it with family and friends, or talk with me when you are at shul.
Have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. We are honoring Dr. Louis Nagel on Friday night , after services, for his 21 years of leadership of our Religious School. Many of us were beneficiaries of the school he shaped. Services (Kol Haneshama and traditional) at 6:30PM and honoring ca. 7:15PM followed by a Kiddush.
P.S. 'God Talk' with Rabbi Harris: Following up on his High Holiday sermons, join him at Cosi in Bethesda Tuesday Oct 16 (and every other Tuesday) from 8:30 - 9:30AM to explore ideas about God and spirituality.
October 3, 2012
Yom Kippur is now in the rear view mirror. We do a serious High Holiday debriefing, on many levels; if you have feedback you wish to share, do write to me at the address below. In case you were wondering, Yom Kippur is not my favorite holiday. Just the thought of a scratchy throat (or worse) is enough to cloud the days (and months) leading up to it. But the relief of making it through is great, especially when things go well as they seemed to, and then the joyous Sukkot holiday – one of my favorites - is always five days later. Sukkot is off to a good start - the rain is keeping the bees away and I won the Hiddur Mitzvah contest for my lulav carrier.
Sukkot actually revved up on Sunday when sukkah building took center stage, both in the shul’s back yard and in many of yours, and in the 25+ homes where sukkot were put up and decorated by Religious School families as part of our Build the Joy program. I got to three of those this year, two regular and one L2G. Sunday was a beautiful day, and watching the kids outside and inside, building and making decorations and using so many of their senses, and seeing the parental figures engaged with their kids in all this, reinforced what I talk about all the time and what Jewish education needs to be as much as possible = experiential, fun, involving families. Thanks to Rabbi Laura Rappaport, our Interim Family Education Director, for arranging all this and thanks to the host families.
This time of year rituals surround us. Rituals enrich our lives. I have been noticing that often they also provide an unexpected fringe benefit – they provide us with the opportunity to talk about things and do that in ways that are very different from our norm. Think about a shivah you have been to and the honesty we have in talking to people there and the patience we have for others then. Think about Thanksgiving dinner. Think about bedtime blessings. The Sukkah ritual gives us the gift of unrushed meals with family and friends, in close contact with Mother Nature; it makes it easy to share things we don’t normally stop to share.
Sukkot ends with three special days. Sunday 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. Sunday night/ Monday is Shemini Atzeret, a mysterious 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 (here and in Israel) and for the Yizkor memorial service that is included in the morning service (just at 9:30AM this year re: Columbus Day). Then Monday night is Simchat Torah with lots of Torah dancing and candy bars and schnapps. Tuesday morning is more of the same and aliyot for everyone and our honoring Rebecca Gross and Scott Glick for their service to the congregation. And then, because you shouldn’t have too much of a good thing, there are no holidays till Chanukah. In my line of work, a break from holidays is not unwelcome, and I notice that somehow you manage as well.
It has been a privilege to embark with you on a new year. I hope you have a good one, and a good Wednesday. Moadim L’Simchah, a happy Sukkot to you. Bill Rudolph
September 19, 2012
Rosh Hashanah 5773 is in the rear view mirror. I am sorry to see it go. Greeting so many of you, feeling the awesome power of your voices joined together in prayer, seeing how many of you led so many parts of the services so nicely – it was exhilarating. Exhausting too. I would probably be excused if I took a pass on this It’s Wednesday, but the adrenalin is flowing.
In my early days at Beth El, we had kid services and two main services, in the sanctuary and in the Whitman auditorium. We still have a multitude of kid services, but now we are up to four main services, the originals being joined by the sold-out volunteer-led Kol Haneshamah service in the Swoff Chapel/ Zahler Social Hall and now by the Family Service. The latter, in its second year, grew this year to fill 500 seats in the sanctuary and balcony of the Bethesda United Methodist Church across the street. We have grown too in the size of the bench of members of all ages who lead parts of the services and read Torah/Haftarah and do shofar blowing. We fit in a half dozen new leaders this year alone. Others have to take a year off so everyone can have a chance, but they understand. It’s empowerment at its finest, and it’s one reason why our congregation is doing OK.
On a personal level, seeing all this involvement is a far greater pleasure than you can imagine. On the first day at Whitman, where the Hazzan and I got to hear Skylar Gunty chant the whole Torah portion, and Noah Friedlander do the Haftarah, both beautifully and both so skillfully, both of them all of 13 years of age, in front of so many hundreds of people, we were both practically crying. That scene was replicated elsewhere.
I gave three Rosh Hashanah sermons. Do you really think I have anything left to say that is worth saying? Well, maybe. Let me share one little thought piece for this period of introspection that we call the Ten Day of Repentance. The 19th century Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Now is a good time to think about lessons learned in the past year and see how they can be applied to our lives in the year(s) to come. If some of the lessons relate to how we treat other people, now is the perfect time to make amends and seek forgiveness from others who – if we had understood the backwards – we would have treated differently.
I wish you a good Wednesday. For those who observe the minor fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, I hope Rosh Hashanah has given you enough food for thought to compensate.
Best wishes for a ketivah v’chatimah tovah, that you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. Bill Rudolph
September 12, 2012
One more time I will share some of what I came across in my hunting for things to say on the holidays, ideas maybe not good enough for the big time but shared with you to help get you in the mood. You will hear a lot about community building this year as we aim to strengthen the quality and quantity of connections among our members. Here are two perspectives on the wisdom of that goal. Both teach us, albeit in different ways, that knowing more people is good.
Perspective one is about morality. People seem to be born with a sense of obligation to treat other people kindly and fairly. Even little children know how to say “That’s not fair!” The only real question, a colleague wrote, is who do we consider to be “people.” It seems that our sense of moral obligation grows and changes, not on the basis of what we come to believe is right or wrong behavior, but on the basis of who we get to know better.
Examples of this include these three: 1) anti-semitism was a serious issue in the United States in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Today, at least in this country, it is confined largely to the fringe and is regarded with distaste by most people. What changed? It’s not that people came to the conclusion that it was wrong to think less of someone because of their religion. It happened because people got to know Jews better, in the Army, as neighbors in the suburbs they moved to after the war, and in the workplace, and realized that the stereotypes they had of us were simply not based in fact. 2) Racial discrimination diminished sharply in this country, not because of laws against it and not because of sermons about it, but because people who had never known an African-American as a person, only as maids, as bus drivers or as criminal suspects, now encountered them as neighbors, as colleagues at the office or professors in a classroom, as personalities on television. They realized the incongruity of admiring Martin Luther King Jr. or Michael Jordan while insisting that blacks were inferior to whites in all things. 3) Perhaps the most startling instance of this reality has been the speed with which public attitudes toward gay men and women have changed. In the span of a couple of decades, we have gone from near-universal rejection to near-universal acceptance. And it’s happened for the same reason that attitudes toward Jews and blacks have changed. People don’t feel differently toward homosexual behavior, but they have met enough openly gay men and women that they find it hard to think of them as different in any meaningful way. So, in these three ways and more, because we got to know people better, we were able to acknowledge the often flawed, imperfect humanity they share with our own. In the process, we became more moral and more authentic human beings ourselves.
And now a second perspective about the benefits of community. Over the past few years psychologists doing studies of happiness – how contented people are with their lives – discovered that at a given level of income, belonging to a group that meets at least once a month, whether it be a church or synagogue, a civic club, a book discussion group, and attending meetings of that group, leaves people as happy as people with twice the income but without the social contact. Having more people in your lives on a regular basis is as emotionally satisfying as a 100% raise. At Beth El we have lots of services and classes and more meetings than you could imagine. Enough to feel like a 200% raise. And our Treasurer doesn’t want all of that raise. And we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Remember the old joke about the man who asks his rabbi, “If I come to your services every Shabbat, will that help me live longer?” And the rabbi says to him, “No, but it will feel longer.” Joking aside, our community is a great example of the kind that can and does forge good connections and contributes to personal contentment. And we hope to do it even better.
So, because getting to know more people and hanging out with more people can bring personal happiness and even moral progress, community building makes a lot of sense. You will hear more about it from the bimah. Think on this and have a great day. And I look forward to wishing you, in person, a good sweet new year. Bill Rudolph
P.S. To get in the mood spiritually for the High Holidays, try listening to the melodies that Hazzan Klein has made available. Find them, and much more, on our website, www.bethelmc.org.
September 5, 2012
It’s high holiday sermon time. The dreams about showing up an hour late for Yom Kippur without a sermon and about the computer crashing are frequent around this time. For the latter, I do have a system of multiple backups that would impress you. Anyway, in my hunting for things to say, I come across ideas that are good but maybe not good enough for the big time. Let’s try this thread to help get you in the mood.
The Baal Shem Tov used to tell this story right before the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: Once there was a great king with magical powers. With his magic he created an illusion - a hologram of sorts that gave the appearance of a mighty palace fortress with high walls, large locked gates and a series of moats surrounding it. Then he invited his subjects to come visit him in the palace. The people came from far and wide, delighted that the king had invited them. When they approached the imposing walls of the palace, with its locked gates and elaborate moats, seeing no way to enter, they were dejected, because they had struggled so hard to get there and now entrance seemed impossible. So they turned back and returned home. Only one subject - the king's son - figured out that the obstacles before him were just an illusion. Taking a breath, he walked forward into the walls and found himself standing before his father, who embraced him.
That story follows an often-used paradigm in which God is portrayed as the King, humanity as His subjects, and the people of Israel as the King's beloved son. So too, here, the King is God. The subjects are all humanity yearning to draw close to God, to live holy lives infused with God's spirit and guided by God's will, a life that enables us to feel God's presence in our lives in a tangible way and to find comfort and inspiration, guidance and strength and a sense of harmony. But like the King's subjects in the story, too often we face obstacles in our path, barriers that seem to block our way to God, and we turn back. We give up. We stop trying. We retreat to who we are rather than continue to strive toward who we could become. We allow those obstacles to block our way to God.
But the message of the story is that those obstacles, those barriers are surmountable. The Baal Shem Tov is urging us to look beyond them, to move past them, to see - as the King's son saw - that in reality nothing stands in the way of our living holy lives, nothing stands between us and God. The problem is that what the Baal Shem Tov knew, as well as we know, is that returning is not so easy. Every time we seek to return, we run up against those fortress walls that seem to stand in our way, barriers that prevent us from doing what we know we should do, being who we should be, barriers that separate us from God, from Torah, from people we love, from our world, and from our truest selves.
Every year at Rosh Hashanah we start out with an ambitious set of goals. We say: This year, I'm going to treat my family and friends better. I am going to be a better listener. I am going to spend more time with my spouse and my children. I am going to gossip less, be more forgiving, more honest, more compassionate, less jealous... I will give more tzedakah, make time to study Torah, get more involved in the synagogue .... It’s a great list. The only thing is... it sounds a lot like last year's list. No matter how sincere we are when the year begins, no matter how hard we try to return, we end up right back where we were, making the same mistakes over and over again. Why? Because we come up against those fortress walls - those barriers. Unlike the King's walls, the barriers are real. But what is illusory is the conviction that we cannot do anything about them. The illusion is that we are stuck with who we are, that we cannot do real teshuvah (repentance/ change.) And caught up in that illusion, we turn back to our old ways.
Yet the reality is that though the barriers to teshuvah can seem daunting, we can push right past them. And on the other side of those barriers, God is waiting to receive us, like an anxious parent waiting for His wayward child to come home.
Think about what barriers you can pass through in the coming year, and make this Wednesday a day of resolve. Bill Rudolph
P.S. This Shabbat begins with our first Kol Haneshama service of the new season (and its traditional counterpart) followed by our first shul dinner. Reservations are required for the dinner, through Hattie at email@example.com by noon please. And this Shabbat ends with Selichot, which is a three part evening of special prayers and haunting melodies and this year an important discussion. There is no cost, come to as many parts as you can, the information is on our website (www.bethelmc.org). In between, our children’s services resume. Sunday features the first day of Religious School, both for the established program and for L2G. It looks like we will have more kids in our school then ever before. Sunday evening is our Age and Stage program for the Empty Nester cohort. The turnstiles will be whirling at Beth El once again.
August 29, 2012
It’s still August, so one more story.
It was a cool late summer day. Clouds overshadowed the canopy of blue, as if God wanted to hide the sun's great splendor. The winds whispered by as leaves rustled to the ground. A day to remember, that was. The day young women everywhere wait their whole lives for, and I knew in my heart I would treasure those moments forever .
Before me stood a young man with whom I had shared my vast secrets and enchanted moments. I had whispered promises in his ear and did my best to fulfill them. I had never trusted anyone with the key to my heart until he entered my life. Now, I knew the only safe place for this key to remain was with him. This was a first for both of us. We gazed nervously in each other's eyes, waiting for the other to make the first move. I was unsure if we were ready for this. Making a hasty decision like this could be so devastating to our lives. We stood there in silence for what seemed an eternity. Echoes from the past rang endlessly in my mind. The laughter and tears we had shared will forever be held in a special place in my heart. My emotions were so vulnerable at that point. Part of me wanted to run and hide, and the other said, "Go ahead. It's time."
Then just as if he were reading my mind, he gently grasped my hand, sending a cold chill up my spine and erasing all my doubt. With his soft voice, he whispered, "It's time." I stood back to take one last glance at him to remember how he looked before we took this major step. Never again would I look at him as I do now. Things would be different once we crossed over; we couldn't look back.
Once again our eyes met. If only we could cease time and steal those moments away in our hearts forever. Neither he nor I would ever feel as we did then. There's only one first time for everything, and this was it. I wrapped my arms around him and playfully kissed the tip of his nose, then I whispered softly in his ear, "1 love you. " Then it happened - the moment we both had been waiting for.
I'll never forget that day or the silly grin on his face afterward. Tears streamed down my face as he crossed the street to step onto the big yellow school bus. Then he turned to me and said, "Bye, Mommy. I love you. "
Watching similar scenes at the bus stop outside my front door on Monday, I knew where I had to go with this It’s Wednesday. The story is courtesy of Angela Martin, in A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul. There are many big steps in life. Some at the bus stop, some on the bimah. They don’t just happen. People cry. Tears of joy, tears of love.
Wishing you good memories and a good Wednesday. Next week, I will begin on some pre-holidays thoughts. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Remember Lighten Up, aka Rabbinic Allies, where congregants graciously host other congregants for Shabbat dinner? Last year it launched in earnest, 25 families hosted 40 dinners spread over the year, and they were good. Read all about it in the September Scroll. This time around, we ramp it up for a more concentrated impact and will do just one set of dinners - but 60 of them this time, on the four Friday nights beginning the end of October. I told the Lighten Up people that I would guarantee 60 hosts would volunteer to do the one dinner for one or two demographically matched families or couples (we provide the names.) Tell me I didn’t overestimate your willingness to open your homes for this mitzvah. Reply to the email address below. If we get 100 hosts, even better.
August 22, 2012
We are hardly done with the changing identity of American Jews and its implications, but we will put that aside for a bit to share some Torah about Deuteronomy and taking your kid to college. Not your usual combo, but both are features of this time of year and you will see how colleague Ed Feinstein brings the two together. Deuteronomy, in case you forgot, is the long farewell address of Moses to his people as they were about to enter the Promised Land (which he would not get to do.) He gives them 33 chapters of advice, encouragement, prodding, threats and more. Soon he and they will part company. Here is how Rabbi Feinstein found his Moses moment. It’s not 33 chapters but longer than my usual.
“We leave well before daybreak and as we speed toward dawn I keep asking myself how it is that I'm now the parent of a college student...I who can still remember vividly the details of my own freshman year so many years ago. Arriving at the college, we locate the information booth, obtain assignments, keys and instructions, and begin the ritual of moving in. Cardiac-challenged fathers carry heavy boxes up three flights of crowded stairs while nervous mothers carefully lay socks and underwear into dresser drawers. Kids roll their eyes but we persist. All the while, the roommate - whose appearance suggests either Charles Manson or Marilyn Manson - lolls unkempt on his messy bed, stroking a battered guitar and looking on scornfully.
When everything that can be done for the kid has been done - the bed made, electronics hooked up, textbooks laid out on shelves -- he's anxious to run off to his orientation meeting and to his life as a collegian, but we hold on tightly for one more moment. Moms' eyes fill with tears. Dads compulsively reach into a wallet for a few dollars to give the kid. Some words are called for. But what do you say? What final bit of wisdom before sending the kid into the world as an independent adult? What hopes, threats, advice, sermons, culled from eighteen years of living in my house should I bequeath to him as we stand together in the dormitory doorway?
This is the pathos of Deuteronomy. Moses raised this generation of young, free Israelites. He nurtured them, taught them, guided them through the wilderness. Now he must let go...but he is afraid of losing them as he lost their parents - losing them to their fears and baser instincts, losing them to the pernicious influences that will surround them, losing them to the accidents of history. Moses' parental anxiety is felt in every line of the book. He speaks to them, this one last time, pleading at every level. He appeals to their powers of moral reasoning and to their shared ideals and values. He reminds them of their past, the ordeals and dreams of ancestors, the covenant freely upheld by forefathers. And then, exhausting all other means of persuasion, he evokes primitive rewards and punishments: ‘See! This day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoy upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey...’(Deut 11:26-8)
I know this Moses. Every parent who has ever dropped a kid off at school knows this Moses. Bar and Bat Mitzvah may be the traditional moment our children are recognized as adults, but the moment it becomes real is this one, when our children move out of our homes, our communities, and into the universe via the university. There, they will be confronted with every manner of lifestyle, political opinion, personal values, and spirituality. The core experience of the university is ultimate freedom of choice. The university course catalog is megabytes in size. Campus bulletin boards are heavy with flyers, notices, posters, cajoling their participation, affiliation, support. Campus walkways are crowded with booths inviting their membership in every sort of society, project and cause. Chabad, Greenpeace, the Vegan Union, and the Young Republicans are curiously juxtaposed on one corner. Who they were when we bring them to the campus has absolutely no relationship to who they will become. By year's end, their ideas and ideals, their friendships, even their diet and appearance will be radically different. I know Moses' anxiety. ‘You are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land ... take care to observe all the laws and rules I have set before you this day.’ (Deut 11:31-2)
What shall we say to them at this moment? There are even rituals now for this, but what the moment demands is deeply personal - sharing my own wisdom, my own feelings, my Deuteronomy. Then let the child go. Remembering that I am commanded not to let my fears inhibit his freedom to explore and experience the universe. And to trust in the character and soul I've sown and nurtured these eighteen years. ‘Have a good year at school. Be good. And remember we love you.’”
This resonated with me – and you? - many years after taking my kids to college and surrounded by the words of Deuteronomy that we read these weeks in shul. If we open our minds to it, ultimately the Torah addresses almost everything we will experience. Conjure up your own memories – of taking or being taken - and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Gail Fribush is doing her eighth annual freshman Mom’s dinner on September 10th. Doesn’t matter if it’s your first or last kid, as long as it would benefit from some processing. Let me know if you need an official invitation.
August 15, 2012
I have been writing about big changes in Jewish identity. Some think it’s too serious for summertime reading, and they are probably right, so I will try to switch it up next week. For now, I promised a bit more on the topic from a specific Beth El standpoint.
As you recall, I wrote that we have so many choices in so many aspects of our lives that the assumptions of previous generations about lifelong, stable, monolithic identities are being replaced by a fluid sense of possibility and choice. Traditions, loyalties and precedents are less salient than what the individual considers her own truths and aspirations, what Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen call the “sovereign self.” And then I said these changes in identity and identification have implications that leadership of any organization like ours needs to confront. I pointed out four realities that leadership must recognize. If I repeat them now, even more briefly than I did last week, there will be no room for anything else, so look back in your notes as I look forward in mine.
The imperatives that come with the identity change and new fluidity require, according to Brandeis Prof. Susan Shevitz, seven kinds of responses from an organization like ours:
1.If loyalty to an institution is no longer a strong factor, we need to focus on our specific competencies and we need to make sure we implement them with consistently high quality.
2.Given that individuals construct their own approaches to Jewish life, we need to think flexibly about options rather than plug people into one-size-fits-all programs. Shevitz suggests that shuls might complement set programs or curricula with learning tailored to families using internet technologies or having “concierges” to help families explore their Jewish aspirations and access appropriate learning opportunities.
3.Relevance to life stages. We have to work with the needs of our members at key turning points in their personal and family lives and present a Jewish lens on the issues they face.
4.Choices. Families need different approaches so they can shape what we offer to their realities, not catering to every whim but offering appropriate choices. Could Hebrew, for example, be taught online for some, in classrooms for others, or in some combination of the two?
5.Collaboration. Given the range of individual expectations and needs, no one organization can do it all. We need to do what we do best and help members meet other needs from other organizations.
6.Diversity. The Jewish community is increasingly heterogeneous in terms of race and sexual identity and who we marry; internally our families have different identity components to be honored. We need to understand this and draw upon it.
7.Connections to others. With all the talk of the autonomous self, we are still looking for groups that can share the pressures, joys and uncertainties of life, empowering us to co-create our Jewish paths within a caring environment that connects us to each other as well as to the Jewish path and future.
How are we doing at Beth El in facing up to these challenges and providing needed responses? At the least, we are not behind the curve, especially re: #2 (e.g. L2G powered by Shalom Learning and our CE21 cohorts like the Gray Panthers) and #3 (see our programming for the complicated Empty Nester stage and now for our highly pressured high school juniors and seniors) and #4 (we have been doing that for a long time, knowing one size doesn’t fit all now if it ever did). We have hired a fulltime Director of Community Engagement and this year’s synagogue theme is community building, as we ramp up #7.
Your Board of Directors and professional staff are tackling the remaining challenges, not forgetting there is more to do in every one of the seven. This month’s Board meeting, for example, will be devoted in good part to studying and further exploring how to apply the recommendations of Prof. Shevitz, which I for one believe are very much on target.
I hope this “Torah” resonates. I find it a great challenge and especially love it when we anticipate changes like these and respond appropriately to them. That we can do that is mostly a tribute to your creativity and support. Keep those coming, and have a great Wednesday.
August 8, 2012
Last week, in my inaugural column of the post vacation, I wrote about chocolate and about Jewish identity. On the latter, I promised to say more. We are clearly pretty comfortable now identifying as Jews in America (witness Olympic Champion Aly Raisman with Hava Negilah) but how serious is the identification itself? Do we see Judaism as a resource or guide in making sense of our lives or merely as a feature operating in the background? Leonard Saxe, writing in the same issue of Contact, thinks he has the answer to that question: “To adapt a computer metaphor that reflects our technology-saturated culture, Jewish identity is a program that, for many, resides in memory. Jewish identity is accessed as needed, and only if it is compatible with other programs that are running. “
With or without the metaphor, I think in general we do see our identity in a different light. Susan Shevitz describes it in a way that resonates with reading I have been doing. Over the last decades, she writes, social scientists have described massive shifts in concepts of personal identity. Given the abundance of choices we have in so many aspects of our lives, the assumptions of previous generations about lifelong, stable, monolithic identities are being replaced by a fluid sense of possibility and choice. Jews are no different. Jewish identity exists now alongside other aspects of our identity with which it may or may not seem compatible. Traditions, loyalties and precedents are less salient than what the individual considers her own truths and aspirations, what Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen call the “sovereign self.” Gay and Orthodox? Temple leader and intermarried? Buddhist, Jew and atheist? These are entirely natural to today’s young Jews, just about unimaginable to earlier generations.
So, we get Generation Xers, parents of today’s young families, with an affinity for technology and entrepreneurship; they move easily among employers and groups that interest them. And we have their younger siblings, the Millenials, who grew up with instant access to information and each other and are the least religiously observant youth since the Pew Foundation began tracking this, though many describe themselves as “spiritual.”
These changes in identity and identification are just now beginning to be fully understood, and they have implications for our community that leadership of any organization like ours needs to confront. Leadership needs to recognize that we are in an open society with unfettered access to all sorts of activities and affiliations, so that we are all “Jews by Choice, ” always choosing whether what is offered warrants our engagement. Leadership needs to understand that families are prosumers who expect to tailor experiences to meet their needs. Leadership needs to put the learners rather than the content or the organization at the center of planning programming for families. Leadership, finally, needs to accept and honor and work with the particularities of individual identity formation as they exist in our time.
These changes are real and, if anything, they seem to be accelerating. The leadership of our synagogue is taking them on. Next week I will talk about that. In the meantime, do the pondering of all this and enjoy the day.
August 1, 2012
Like a well-oiled machine, here I am once again in your Inbox, on the first Wednesday of August, by 7:30AM, and then (hopefully) I show up each Wednesday thereafter till next summer. My extra vacation and regular vacation are now history. They were most pleasant. June, spent mostly at the beach, helped me to get back control of my life. July was for travel – 4-5 days apiece in Los Angeles, New York, and Pinehurst – and for puttering around the house and garden. No great bike adventure to report on this year either – the Colorado Rockies seemed too daunting and everything else that sounded good was sold out – but I did squeeze in more than 1100 miles in June and July despite the rather warm temperatures.
I agonize a lot over this first column of the new season. Not for lack of something to say, because I use the vacation time to read a lot – a half dozen books and about 20 inches of journals and newsletters this time around. They give me much food for thought about the macro and the micro of Judaism and of living in general at this juncture in history. You will hear more as the Wednesdays and Shabbatot go by and on the High Holidays. But to pick out THE most important issue or idea to inaugurate a new season of It’s Wednesday? That is way too daunting, though not as much as Independence Pass.
I will start slow, sharing one startling research finding and one quote. The research, just done in San Diego, studied 1018 healthy adults. Those who ate chocolate five times a week weighed five – to - seven pounds less than those who didn’t eat any. Do I bring you good news or what?
The quote comes from Bethamie Horowitz, writing about the subject that seems to dominate the literature these days, Jewish identity. In the winter 2012 issue of Contact, the journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, she says the following:
“The more interesting question [than whether American Jews are comfortable identifying as Jews, which we certainly seem to be] concerns how people come to consider their Jewishness as somehow helpfully guiding them as opposed to operating merely as a feature of their backgrounds. What circumstances lead people to view Judaism as a resource that they can actively draw upon in making sense of their lives and the world around them? What leads them to see it as a meaningful framework as they move forward in their lives?”
How, I think Prof. Horowitz is asking, does our Judaism fit with or speak to our particular concerns? That is a new kind of question for us. As I said, it and its ramifications pervaded my reading. Jews didn’t used to ask whether Judaism was relevant to our lives. What’s different now? In coming weeks I will offer some thoughts on this question and focus on ways that a synagogue like ours might offer up answers.
In the meantime, please know how much I look forward to talking with you each Wednesday, and other times too. And I hope that you too are having a great summer.