Archive | December, 2013

The Jewish Voice of Celebration

24 Dec

Kvetch, defined by the OED as:
to complain habitually, gripe; as a noun, a person who always complains,
describes our people from the start. After our liberation from slavery in Egypt we complain:
“Freedom is nice. Where’s the water? Where’s the meat? Slavery had better accommodations.”

As we read Exodus this month and next, I am newly inspired to leave the kvetch behind and embrace instead our expressions of enthusiasm, our words of welcome, our voices of celebration.

This past summer Rabbi David Wolpe offered a giant complaint about a Bar Mitzvah celebration that went way over the top. Rabbi Wolpe called the celebration, in which young Sam Horowitz descended on stage amid Las Vegas style showgirls and danced in front of all the guests at his reception: “egregious, licentious, and thoroughly awful.” He then ranted for multiple paragraphs about the great tragedy this was for contemporary Judaism.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson publicly disagreed with Rabbi Wolpe in an open conversation before Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation. Rabbi Artson reminded us that it is a good thing that Judaism doesn’t demonize materialism. And then he asked us to imagine ways to teach the Jewish message of an over the top celebration.
He concluded that as this kid’s rabbi he would offer:
“Remember that when your parents chose to do this over the top celebration, they did it for your Bar Mitzvah, not your twelfth birthday, not your fourteenth birthday. They did it because however far people drift from piety and religion, saying ‘Our kid is connected to Torah’, is even for ostentatious Jews, still important.
“Now let’s build on that. Why is it that specifically your ‘Torah birthday’ is the one when people go over the top? Then we could segue into: Are there other ways that we could celebrate that in ways that might be more compatible with standard and traditional Jewish values?”

Rabbi Wolpe’s kvetch feels a lot like many Jewish reactions to the latest Pew survey.

Or like calls from Jews worried about the Jewish identity of kids and grandkids because the kids don’t observe Judaism like their grandparents. They fell in love with and married Jews and non-Jews and almost all of them have vibrant Jewish homes where they raise their kids as Jews. They don’t keep kosher the same way though.

In response to these concerns and others, I would like to follow Rabbi Artson’s example – let us offer some reasons to celebrate.

In the wake of the last century, that Jews have become desirable spouses for non-Jews is a victory. That Judaism has become a desirable path for non-Jews, even those not married to Jews, is also a victory.

When we find creative and new ways to support each other with our Judaism – through our synagogues and communities – we succeed.

Our Judaism thrives and grows and evolves when we open doors.

Our ancestors took risks – they braved the desert, they entered into a contract with the universe to pursue life, and they built a Judaism that survived exile. In the last hundred years we have built a new nation and multiple enthusiastic reactions to a changing world.

In this season of celebration, let us liberate our voices of celebration.


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Stubbornness and Listening in this Week’s Torah Reading

24 Dec

Stubborn Pharaoh, stiff-necked Israelites – our time as slaves in Egypt ended over the objections of our oppressor and even the Israelites resisted liberation by Moses. Moses was a stranger who emerged from the desert speaking the words of our God who had abandoned us to oppression for centuries.

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), describes all of this drama. The Israelites ignore Moses:
“But they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit and out of hard servitude.” (Exodus 6:9)
Between God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh being stubborn on his own, the story of the Exodus from Egypt seems focused on basic failures to communicate.

No one escapes these difficulties – to work together is to often face difficulties in understanding and persuading.

I believe that often we lack sympathy because we hesitate to share each other’s stories. When we speak from the heart, we can hear more profoundly. When our hearts are hardened, just as Pharaoh’s was, no amount of persuasion and well-reasoned argument can sway us.

As we approach this new calendar year of 2014, let us aim to share from the stories which form our true fabric, and pause to listen for those stories from each other.


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Audacious Hospitality and Broad Engagement

17 Dec


Ten of us from Temple Beth El journeyed to San Diego to connect with 4775 Reform Jews, to learn from best practices, to be enlightened by great scholars, to be inspired by the latest Jewish music and expressions of Jewish spirituality, and to be guided by the vision presented.  Audacious hospitality and broad engagement were two central themes of last week’s Union for Reform Judiasm’s Biennial.

Audacious hospitality.  In Rabbi Jacob’s keynote address and vision for our movement, he called for the tents of our congregations to be open, inclusive, and welcoming. Like Abraham and Sarah, we need to run out and greet those are seeking community whether it’s the intermarried, the GLBTQ community, those with disabilities, those who are walking through our doors for the very first time, or those who are not Jewish but spiritual seekers who might find and make their home within our midst and join our people. 

Meaningful Engagement.  Rabbi Jacobs, through his address, and the entire biennial, through its programming, laid out a vision for broad engagement.

We need to engage our youth. At present, youth engagement is a primary and critical goal of our national movement. At Beth El, we have more than one hundred madrichim (teenage assistants) in our Religious School and more than fifty madrichim in our Bnei Mitzvah program.  We need continually invest in our youth with time, talent and resources so that our congregation is an exciting place where our kids love to be.

We need to engage our young adults. In his address, Rabbi Jacobs lifted up the work that Cantor Thomas is leading with The Porch, our Beth El program for your families and young adults. He noted that The Porch is creating “programs in three distinct spheres: events geared toward kids; events geared toward adults; and hybrids with everyone together. Friendships are formed, families and individuals connect, and lives beat to the rhythm of Jewish time. And yes, there is a new doorway in for dozens of future members who are forming bonds that will pay spiritual dividends for all. As the ancient rabbis taught, “What is learned in early childhood is absorbed in the blood.” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 24)”

We need to engage with Israel.  Rabbi Jacobs taught that from our very beginning as a people, there has been an interdependence between the Diaspora and Israel. We need to be concerned with Israel’s security, but beyond that, we need to be concerned with peace and with pluralism. Our three Beth El trips to Israel in 2013 speak to our intense commitment.  Still, we need to continue to struggle with the identity of our Jewish State and explore how our homeland can be both Jewish and democratic. We need to be unafraid to share our views with those who can create change.

Finally, we need to engage with social justice and we need to use our voice to make a difference. Whether it is in the areas of responding to gun violence, immigration reform, or the environment, our Biennial revealed that our movement is working on dozens of social justice issues and is there to support us on our journey of Tikkun Olam.

Our Reform Movement is moving forward in an exciting direction, and we, at Beth El are moving with it.

To read Rabbi Jacobs’ Biennial Keynote Address go to: