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This sermon was delivered at the Family Promise interfaith service on October 15, 2017.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.”  Some 500 years later, Pliny the Elder – a Roman philosopher said, “Home is where the heart is.” Benjamin Franklin, the well-known 18th Century American statesman said, “A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.”  Robert Frost, the great 20th Century American poet, wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

In truth, I could present many more quotes about the home because the concept of home is so central to the human condition.  Home-cooking evokes feelings of comfort and contentment.  Home-grown and home-made items are assumed to be of higher quality.  The goal of our national pastime is to get back home – and, of course, all sports teams enjoy a home-field advantage.  On the internet, the screen which introduces us to the world and puts forth our core message is a home page.  Home is so much more than just a place, but it all starts with the physical space.  In fact, I woke up at 5:00am this morning to worship with you today so that I could sleep at home last night instead of a hotel.

To this day, I still remember my childhood room, my assigned place at the dinner table, my preferred corner of the couch for TV watching, the secret hiding places and so much more.  What I really remember is the sense of security and comfort that those physical spaces conveyed to me as a young child.  I knew that I belonged there and those spaces belonged to me. After all, I was fortunate enough to live in the same house from the moment I came home from the hospital as a newborn until I left for college.

It’s pretty amazing.  I don’t think I realized how amazing that was until I became a parent myself.  In the 20 years that my wife Jodi and I have been parents, we have moved twice – completely by choice.  The first time, Gabi – our oldest – was too young to really know the difference.  The people and things that were most important to her moved with her.  The second time, however, we moved with three kids and a dog.  Fortunately, we had enough time to do some advance planning with our kids to minimize the stress.

Not everyone is so lucky.

In today’s world, the economic situation of a family can change overnight – the loss of a job, an illness without good insurance, the loss of a pension, a bad investment, a divorce, an addiction or some combination of these experiences can all contribute to a financial crisis for a family. That doesn’t even begin to take into account the hurricanes and wildfires that we have seen in recent weeks.  And before you know it, a family not so different from yours or mine is out of their home.

Maybe they can stay with a relative or a friend for a short period of time while they try to figure out what happened and what to do next, but no one likes to be an imposition.  Maybe they can borrow some money to keep them going, but eventually that runs out.  Maybe they sleep in their car for a few nights, but that’s no way to live.

I’m preaching to the choir, as they say.  You wouldn’t be here at the Family Promise conference if you didn’t already know this.  But, sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves why we do the things we do.

This past week, Jews around the world celebrated the Festival of Sukkot.  The word “Sukkot” means Tabernacles or Booths or Huts.  Some of you may have participated in this holiday or seen a neighbor with a strange structure in the backyard.  Perhaps you drove by a synagogue with something that looked like a tent on the front lawn.  The festival  is based on Biblical holiday which is described in several places in the Five Books of Moses.

There are two basic explanations:

In Leviticus 22:33-36, 39-44, we read: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.”  The festival celebrated the harvest and, some scholars believe, that ancient Israelites built temporary shelters in their fields during the harvest.  This way, the farmers could sleep in their fields and not waste time walking back and forth to their houses.  The structures also protected the produce from the elements.  So, the Sukkah was a temporary shelter while waiting for a successful harvest.

In Numbers 33:3-5, we read: “They [the Israelites] set out from Rameses in the first month on the fifteenth day of the first month…. The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Sukkot.” It was, perhaps, in this place called Sukkot that the Israelites constructed the temporary shelters in which they would dwell during the forty years of wandering in wilderness.  In other words, the Sukkah was a temporary shelter while waiting to settle permanently in the Promised Land.

Either way it’s a temporary shelter on the way to the Promised Land, on the way to a successful harvest, on the way to a more permanent home.

Family Promise is the Sukkah – the booth, the hut, the tabernacle – on the way to a better and more permanent home.  And when I say “Family Promise,” I mean every affiliate, every host congregation, every support congregation and every volunteer.

My congregation started hosting about five years ago when we expanded our building.  We tried to think about how we could subdivide our social hall and make it possible for five families to temporarily dwell in our building.  It took a lot of back and forth, but we eventually figured it out.  We did it by constructing five Sukkot – five temporary shelters – just like the ones we build on the Festival of Sukkot.  And it has worked.

Every Friday night, when Jews welcome in the Sabbath, we recite a prayer called the “Hashkiveinu” which we will recite in English in just a few minutes.   When I teach this prayer to kids, I like to call it the “tucking in” prayer.  The word “Hashkiveinu” means “lay us down to sleep.”  In this prayer, we praise God as “Ha-po-ress sukkat shalom aleinu – the One who spreads a shelter of peace over us.”  May we all continue to spread a Sukkah of peace over the heads of those who are in need.

Shalom,
RAF.

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Let’s Dance!

As we complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah tonight at 5pm, and begin with Genesis all over again, here are some facts about the Torah Scroll which is so central to this festival and to our people:

  • A Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) is written on parchment which is manufactured from specified sections of the hide of any kosher animal.
  • The hide is cleaned by soaking it in water for 2 days, and then in limewater for 9 days.
  • The Sofer or Soferet (scribe) may write with a reed, but today most use a quill made from a turkey feather.
  • The ink is made by boiling gallnuts, gum arabic and copper sulfate crystals.  Some scribes add alcohol or vinegar.  The ink must must be durable, but not indelible.
  • Since the 19th Century, a standard Sefer Torah has 248 columns with 42 lines of text in each column. There is no law requiring this particular alignment, but Sofrim (scribes) tend to use an existing scroll as a model.
  • 4-5 columns are written on a single sheet of parchment.  The sheets of parchment are then sewn and glued together.
  • A Sofer must be in a state of ritual purity before writing even one word.
    There are no vowels, commas, periods or musical notes.  There are only letters and spaces.  The vowels, punctuation and cantillation were added much later by the Masoretes.

Don’t believe me?  Come see for yourself tonight when we unroll the Torah!  Chag Same’ach!

Shalom,
RAF.

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Help! We Need a Doctor!

In 1981, there were a handful of cases of a strange flu and several dozen cases of an unknown skin cancer that hit members of the gay communities in San Francisco and New York City.  From this somewhat “modest” beginning, this disease – eventually given the name AIDS – would take about 30,000 lives over the next decade.  For a variety of reasons, though, back in 1981-82, people resisted calling it an epidemic and very little was done to stop its spread.

Part of the problem was that the gay community was reluctant to admit that any of their habits or behaviors could be contributing to the spread of the disease.  Part of the problem was that there was no blood test for AIDS until 1983 so people could not verify the number of deaths attributable to the disease.  Part of the problem was that the people most affected by the disease were gay men and drug users – who had little political capital.  Part of the problem was that blood donation and supply system did not believe that the disease was being spread by blood.  But, the biggest problem was that people in power did not recognize that there was a problem.

Eventually, with funding from the US Congress, the CDC in partnership with other health organizations began researching and treating AIDS.  While AIDS has not been eradicated completely, the prognosis for individuals with HIV has improved by leaps and bounds due to advances in AIDS research.  Although the first few years were a little sketchy, the response to the AIDS epidemic is ultimately a success story.

Our country is facing another epidemic and we are once again reluctant to identify it as an epidemic.  This epidemic is gun violence.  Many of the victims are people with little political capital – minorities in the poor neighborhoods of big cities.  In fact, it’s only when this disease strikes cute white kids or country music fans (i.e., Sandy Hook or Las Vegas) that there is enough outrage to even begin a conversation about the topic.  But, make no mistake – it’s an epidemic.

I could list a whole lot of statistics about how many people kill others or kill themselves.  That would invite someone else send me some other statistics trying to mitigate my statistics.  But, just as the 120 deaths in 1981 didn’t tell the whole story of AIDS, the number of gun deaths does not tell the whole story of our gun violence disease.  How many people need to be killed by guns before we decide that we should do something?  Is there a magic number?  It’s only when we acknowledge that this is an epidemic that we will allocate the resources necessary to find a treatment.

Now, I know that some people are saying that individual gun ownership is a Constitutional right and, therefore, there is nothing to be done.  As someone who has spent some time studying legal texts, I find that reading of the Second Amendment dubious at best.  But let’s say it is the correct interpretation.  All of our Constitutional rights are subject to reasonable restrictions.  If I choose to offer a human sacrifice tomorrow morning in honor of the festival of Sukkot, I cannot hide behind my First Amendment rights.  There are limits to the First Amendment – as there should be!   Gun owners need to recognize that the right to bear arms is not absolute and their behavior is contributing to the epidemic.

In Judaism, we have a principle based on the Biblical phrase “Rapo Yirapeh – Heal, he shall surely be healed (Exodus 21:19).”  We have an obligation to use all the means at our disposal to bring healing.  We don’t simply pray.  We pray AND seek out the best medical care.

We have an obligation to treat our society for this illness called gun violence.  We may not be able to eradicate it, but surely we can make it better if we put our minds to it and allocate our resources to it.  And that would be another American success story.

Shalom,
RAF.

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Let’s Go For A Drive

Yom Kippur Day 5778.   

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from driving my daughter Gabi to Chicago for the start of her academic year at about 2:30am.  I had ingested so much coffee during the drive and was so focused on staying awake and alert that I could not shut my brain down and go to sleep immediately despite being exhausted.

So, I did what any self-respecting, 21st century citizen of the developed world would do:  I logged into Facebook and posted some thoughts about my hours on the road.  My little rant must have struck a chord with some other travelers because I got a lot of Facebook love in the form of likes and comments.  And it got me to thinking.

We can learn a lot from a journey.  An entire book of the Torah, Bemidbar – which we call Numbers in English, but really means “In the wilderness” – is all about our ancestors’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  And in case we weren’t paying attention, the next book of the Torah, Devarim or Deuteronomy retells the story.  Some of the best jokes, stories, movies and TV shows are based around a journey or a traveler.

Further, Judaism – like other faith traditions – likes to compare life to a journey.  We call it the “derech” – the road or path.  When a traditional Jew chooses to stop observing Jewish law, the expression used to describe that person is “off the derech,” off the road or path.  Jewish law is called Halachah, which is another word for path, or the way to go.

This reminded me of a teaching from Pirkei Avot, that great collection of Jewish Wisdom from over 2,000 years ago.  A sage by the name of Rabbi Yaakov taught: “One who walks down the path and stops his studies in order to say, “What a lovely tree,” or “What a lovely field,” is considered as having committed a capital offense (Avot 3:9).” It’s kinda like the “No texting and driving” of the first century BCE.

Now, the general interpretation of that teaching is that the student was being disrespectful to the text he was studying by looking up at the trees and fields.  However, I would like to suggest that he was also preventing himself from fully appreciating the world around him and learning from it.  And although we all feel compelled to multi-task when we can, Rabbi Yaakov is telling us that sometimes we need to give our full attention to a task that needs to be completed and at other times we need to give our full attention to the beauty of the world around us.  After all, as much as we value our sacred texts, we can also learn a lot from a journey.

And in today’s world, driving is more than simply maneuvering a vehicle to a desired destination.  Driving represents freedom, responsibility, power and so much more.  I know that I still remember the day I got my license.  I remember watching my first child get hers.  But if we needed more proof that driving is more than it seems, all we needed to do was look at the news this past week.

When it was announced that the women of Saudi Arabia would finally be able to drive starting next June (I’m not sure why it will take eight months to make this change either), Saudi women did not say, “Oh good, I can go to the grocery store or hair salon.”  They did not say how excited they would be to go from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds or less.  One after the other, Saudi women wrote, blogged and spoke about independence, equality and social change.  There’s more to driving than meets the eye.

 

So, I actually had the good fortune to go on three little journeys this past summer including that drive with Gabi that I will come back to in a few moments.  They were each different and they each taught me something different.

The first little trip that I went on this summer was to Scotland.  And we rented a car.  Jodi refused to even try driving it.  That means for the first time in my life, I was driving on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car.

Now, I don’t know about any of you, but after more than three decades behind the wheel, driving has become second nature.  I take it for granted that I can maneuver the care into a parking space.  If another driver does something dangerous around me, I am confident that I know where to steer my vehicle in order to avoid making the situation worse.  I can pull up to a toll booth in such a way that I can easily reach the ticket.

Further, like for many of you, driving is so hardwired into my brain, that I can also adjust the radio or the temperature, check the navigation system, talk to my passengers, drink a cup of coffee or any of a bunch of other things and still safely maintain control of the vehicle.  You will all be relieved to know that I do NOT do my hair behind the wheel.  You have to draw the line somewhere.

In any event, when we crossed the ocean, the steering wheel changed sides and the vehicle was on the wrong side of the road.  All bets were off.  It was like I was driving for the first time.  I had to force myself to concentrate on details of driving that I haven’t had to consciously think about for many years.  When I’m driving here in the US, I don’t worry whether or not I am centered in the lane.  I just am.  In the UK, I had to think about it every second the car was in gear.

I drove through the Loch Lomond National Park which is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous and I can’t tell you one thing about it other than the color of the pavement on the road that runs through it.  Even though I would have liked to take in the sights of the park, I could only focus on getting from Point A to Point B.  It made me realize how much I take driving for granted.

So, it got me wondering, are there other things that we do, that we’ve done for years, that we do without thinking about?  And if so, when we do those other things effortlessly and thoughtlessly, have we forgotten the significance of what it is we are doing?

I think this happens a lot.  For example, do we take it for granted that we can speak to a person halfway around the world – with both video and audio – and then access just about any piece of information ever printed – using a five-ounce gadget that we carry around with us all the time?  Do we even think about how it works?

I know this phenomenon occurs in our religious lives as well.  Since we are here on Yom Kippur, I’ll give you a Yom Kippur example.  Some of you may have seen members of the Jewish community wear sneakers or tennis shoes to services on Yom Kippur.  Perhaps, you yourself uphold this tradition.  The origin of this custom comes from the vague commandment regarding the observance of this day: “V’initem et nafshoteichem – you are to afflict your souls.”  It appears three different places in the Bible.  Since it’s not obvious how to afflict one’s soul, the rabbis came up with five ways to observe this mitzvah.

The first two are well-known and may be afflicting you as I speak – no eating and no drinking.  In addition, no anointing oneself with oil (which was a luxury in the ancient near east); no sexual relations (for obvious reasons); and, last but not least, no leather shoes.

Why no leather shoes?  They were more comfortable than going around barefoot which was pretty much the only other option 2,000 years ago in the Land of Israel – no Toms, no Crocs, no Keds back then.  The rabbis were banning the most comfortable option.  Today, when we set aside leather dress shoes that may not be so comfortable in favor of cloth shoes that may be more comfortable we are complying with the letter of the law, but we have lost touch with the spirit of the law.

In other words, we are so focused on driving the vehicle and staying on the road that we may miss the beauty on either side of the road.  When you get more practice driving on the wrong side of the road and when you study more about our tradition, you can lift your eyes up from the pavement and you have the potential to see more beauty around you.

The second trip that I had the good fortune to take this summer was a driving trip through five national parks out west.  Let me just say, THANK GOD I got to drive on the right side of the road again.  I was able to get us from Point A to Point B, but I was also able to appreciate the beauty around me.  On top of all that, we (and by “we” I mean Jodi) did research and built in many stops along the way for us to get out and appreciate the many sights on our journey.  From a prairie dog village to bison taking over the road, from Old Faithful to Mt. Rushmore, from a hike up a mountain to a swim in a stream, we were able to look around like Rabbi Yaakov’s student all those years ago and say, “What a lovely tree!” or “What a lovely field!”

But, there was intentionality.  We drove slowly through the national parks.  We stopped along the way.  We got ourselves out of the vehicle and interacted with nature.  There is beauty in the world if we are willing to take the time to look for it and appreciate it.

In my life, this past Thursday night was Back To School Night at Summit High School, one of my kids had a sporting event and, oh yeah, it was the night before Yom Kippur and this sermon was not quite done.  I could have kept on driving straight to Yom Kippur, but I would have missed some important and beautiful stuff.  So, I stopped what I was doing.  I went to go meet my kids’ teachers.  I went to go watch some softball.  And you know what?  The sermon somehow got done.

The Cantor and I have tried to apply this to our prayer experience.  I understand that many people want to get to the destination (i.e., the end of the service) as quickly as possible.  But take a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful music.  Read some of the guideposts and commentaries in our new prayer books.  Stop and focus on a single prayer that maybe you’ve heard over and over, but you’ve never really understood.

There’s a reason that this thing we call Judaism has persisted into the 21st century – there’s beauty and wisdom and meaning if we’re willing to pull over and take a look.

The third of my three little journeys this summer was the one I alluded to earlier.  I drove to Chicago, helped get Gabi settled in her new dorm room and drove back home in the span of 36 hours.  There were was one stop for sleep and several stops for food, gas and restrooms.  But other than that, there was no messing around.

As tempting as it was to stop at the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana (yes, it’s a thing.  It’s right off Exit 96 on I-80 for those who are interested), we did not have time to look around and say, “What a lovely tree!”  “What a lovely field!” or “What a lovely RV!”  Gabi needed to get to campus and I needed to get back to work in anticipation of the High Holidays.  And this is sometimes true of our journey called life.  There are moments when we simply need to get it done and we don’t have time to enjoy our surroundings.

 

When we are facing a deadline or a crisis, we may have to put on blinders, ignore the scenery around us and focus on reaching our destination.  And it’s not because we are unsure of ourselves and it’s not due to a lack of beauty in the world.  It’s because sometimes, we just need to get stuff done.

It’s important to remember, though, that we can’t go through all of life that way.  We can’t keep up that pace on a long journey or we’ll burn out.  We won’t be able to go on.  Or, worse, we’ll find ourselves jittery from caffeine sitting in front of a computer screen at 2:30 in the morning.  In truth, we need all three kinds of journeys at different moments.

In order to keep ourselves moving on the path of life, we need to remember the lessons of all these journeys.  We need to re-examine those tasks that we do over and over again without thinking so that we never forget how or why we do the things we do.  In doing so, the seemingly rote tasks that fill our daily lives continue to have meaning.  And we need to stop the vehicle on a regular basis, get out and look around in order to appreciate the beauty around us.  After all, there’s more to life than the small patch of road lying ahead of our vehicles.  But sometimes, we just need to get there and get back home.

When you’re about to start a journey, there’s a prayer that we say called Tefillat Ha-Derech – the Prayer for the Road.  It includes the words:

“May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace.”

And those words apply when you’re driving on the right side of the road or the left, they apply when you’re driving slowly through a beautiful national park AND when you’re driving directly to an important destination then right back home.

They also apply to the derech or path of life.  And so as we all rev our engines and set off into this new year, I wish you all “N’si’ah Tovah – safe travels.”

 

L’shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Avi Friedman

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Wilt, MLK & Kaepernick: Wishes & Regrets

Kol Nidrei 5778.

55 years ago, a third-year professional basketball player laced up his sneakers and took the court at the Hershey Sports Arena in Hershey, PA before an announced crowd of 4,124 people.  That player was Wilt Chamberlain and he proceeded to score 100 points against the New York Knicks – a single-game record which stands to this day.

Today, it is considered one of the great, possibly-unbreakable sports records – no one has gotten closer than 81 points.  But at the time, it was NOT considered such a big deal.  The game was not televised so there is no video of the game.  Although the game was broadcast on radio, the radio station recorded over the master tape.  Only the fourth quarter play by play and the post-game show have been recovered.  It was not until the 25th anniversary of that amazing feat that the National Basketball Association honored Chamberlain for this achievement.

As the NBA became more and more popular thanks to later stars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, people started to re-visit Wilt’s incredible game.  And even though only 4,124 people were in attendance, it started to feel as though many more people than that claimed to have been there.  Still others claimed to have watched it on TV – though it was never even filmed.  And countless others claimed to have been glued to the radio.  Magazine features, newspaper articles and whole books were written about that one sparsely attended basketball game so that people like me, who were not even born when the game took place could feel as though we were there.

It turns out that, in retrospect, a lot of people WISHED that they had caught on to the NBA sooner.  A lot of people REGRETTED that they were not a part of something special.  But, when you’re in the moment, it’s often hard to tell whether or not that particular moment will be considered historically significant.  Who knew that Wilt had that 100-point game in him?

On Yom Kippur, we spend a lot of time contemplating our actions from the past year and our intentions for the coming year.  However, perhaps, we should also be devoting some time to our IN-action.  What do WISH that we had done? What have we failed to do that we will REGRET?

Consider the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and 60’s.  We Jews take a lot of pride in the roles Jews played in advancing civil rights for all Americans during that time.  And rightly so.  Jews were disproportionately represented among the white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement.  We see the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and we can feel as though the entire Jewish community was there with him.  We listen to the speech of Rabbi Joachim Prinz at the March on Washington and we can envision a huge Jewish delegation on the Mall.  We recall the horrible murders of Andrew Goodman and “Mickey” Schwerner – both Jewish – together with their fellow activist James Chaney and we imagine that the south was flooded with Jewish freedom riders.

But just like Wilt Chamberlain’s record-setting game was seen by only 4,000 people or so, the actual number of Jews who marched with African Americans and went South as Freedom Riders is probably much smaller than we imagine.  Now that MLK has been accepted as an American hero – and not just a radical Civil Rights activist as he was perceived when he was alive – more people WISH that they had been there from the start.  Many people REGRET that they did not appreciate Dr. King and his message sooner.  But the truth is a lot more complicated.

While there were certainly enthusiastic supporters of the Civil Rights movement in the Jewish Community of the 1950’s and 60’s, there were also those who were not so sure.  For example, the national Reform Movement was unequivocal in its support of Civil Rights.  However, three of the largest Reform congregations in the country – including Temple Emanuel of NYC – temporarily withdrew from the movement because of this support (Read more here).  Some of the rabbis who marched with Dr. King at Selma and other places were threatened with dismissal by their congregations if they persisted in their political activism.  Only the intervention of the national umbrella organization saved some of their positions.  And as proud as we should be of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement, we need to remember that not everyone in the Jewish community was on board from the start.

In 1956, the Hebrew Union Congregation of Greenville, MS, started corresponding with Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who was president of the UAHC in NYC about the Reform Movement’s support of desegregation in Southern schools.  The officers of the congregation argued that public support for desegregation by national Jewish organizations would put Southern Jews at risk for physical harm, social exclusion and financial loss.  Those were certainly reasonable and understandable concerns at that time.

However, they went on to write: “In communities such as Greenville, if integration is had at this time it would mean 60% of our grammar schools would be negro students.  A large per cent of those negro children come from homes with no social background or environment and a large percent of them are the result of illegitimacy.  It would only retard the white Jewish children as well as the white Gentiles to have their children placed under this integration and environment.”

Funny…. We don’t put up any posters with THAT quote in our synagogues, do we??

And they were not alone.  Rabbi Milton Grafman was born in Washington, DC, ordained by the Hebrew Union College and became the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Birmingham Alabama, where he spent most of his career.  Rabbi Grafman was in favor of integration and civil rights.  He was a good man.  However, he favored a more cautious pace to change.

In April, 1963, he joined together with seven Christian Clergyman to pen a public letter to Dr. King which was published in all the major Birmingham newspapers.  The title of their letter was “A Call for Unity.”  These eight religious leaders wrote: “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”  They further wrote: “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

Dr. King chose to ignore the well-meaning advice of those eight religious leaders and the same day that their letter appeared in the newspapers, he led over 1,000 protesters to the central business district of Birmingham.  He and Rev. Ralph Abernathy were promptly arrested.  During his week in prison, Dr. King wrote his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” directed to the eight religious leaders who had implored him to wait and be patient – including Rabbi Grafman.

Dr. King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  He went on to say to his fellow clergymen, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”

We know that thanks to Dr. King’s personal charisma and his support for the State of Israel, he was able to knit together a coalition of Jews and African Americans who fought side by side in the courtrooms, in the legislatures and in the streets of this country for civil rights.  The mid-1950’s to mid-1960’s are often considered the Golden Age of Black Jewish relations.  Even before Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, however, the partnership was beginning to unravel.

One of the most important organizations of the civil rights era was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was founded in 1960 and organized Freedom Rides, Voter Registration Drives and Sit-Ins across the South.  In 1967, they started publishing a newsletter.  After the Six Day War of 1967, which Israel won decisively, the SNCC Newsletter published an article about Israel with accompanying cartoons implying that wealthy Jews bribed the British to create a Jewish state and then comparing that state to Nazi Germany.  It was blatantly anti-Semitic and offensive.  Virtually every Jewish organization involved in the Civil Rights Movement condemned the newsletter.  Jewish financial support for the SNCC dried up.  Within a year, the SNCC was no longer a functional organization.

Fifty years later, it’s easy to see that the SNCC saw the Arab Israeli conflict through a Black and White lens.  In other words, the Israelis were white and the Palestinians were black.  So, they took the side of their Black brothers and sisters.  We know that it’s much more nuanced and complicated than that, but instead of trying to explain, we allowed the pain and insult to get the better of us.  We severed the relationship.

This exact same misunderstanding played out again last year when the Movement for Black Lives put forth their platform which included accusations of genocide and apartheid leveled against Israel.  It’s fifty years later and we still have not been able to explain to the African American community the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because we are not really talking to one another.  So, they’re only hearing one side of the story (and it ain’t ours!).

But for me, the real question is:  Do other groups have to be right in order for us to fight for their rights?  Put another way: Do we have to agree with a group before we acknowledge that they are entitled to the same rights that we enjoy?  Is it acceptable for me to be less outraged over the shooting death of Tamir Rice – a 12 year old Cleveland boy who was playing with a toy gun on a playground – just because some political activists who attended a conference in Cleveland were able to get some anti-Israel language into their Platform?

The truth is that I have resisted using the words “Black Lives Matter” because of those two words in their platform – genocide and apartheid.  And even though my heart aches every time I read a story about a young African American boy or man being killed simply for being Black in the wrong place, I have remained largely silent for fear of being associated with anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activists who also want to see these killings stop.

I don’t know the answer, but I know what my first step has been.  I have reached out to one of our local African American pastors and I have invited him to join me in a program sponsored by our Federation called Interfaith Partners for Peace.  Together, we are going to study the Israeli Palestinian conflict with other clergy partners from other communities in Greater MetroWest.  It is my hope that we will find a way to support one another going forward.

You see – not only do I want him to hear and understand my truth and my narrative.  I want to hear and to understand his truth and his narrative.  Because it seems to me that there is far too little hearing and understanding going on between our two communities.

Consider the case of Colin Kaepernick – the currently unemployed quarterback who started protesting during the national anthem before NFL games last season when he still had a job in the NFL in order to draw attention to the issue of African Americans being killed by law enforcement at a disproportionate rate.  Critics have said that he may have a valid point, but he has chosen the wrong way to protest.  That sounds a lot like the advice Dr. King received from the Birmingham clergy.  Others have said that he is being disrespectful to our military and so we must dismiss his argument without addressing the merits.  That sounds a lot like the way that Jewish community withdrew support for African Americans in this country because of their views on Israel even if we still believed in principles of the Civil Rights movement.

Besides, he got the idea to kneel from a member of the military community.  Shortly after starting his protest by SITTING during the national anthem (NOT kneeling), he met with a man named Nate Boyer.  Nate Boyer is a former Green Beret and a former NFL long snapper (preseason only).  He is the one who suggested to Kaepernick that kneeling might be a better way to protest than sitting on the bench.  Boyer explained to Kaepernick that soldiers take a knee at the grave of a fallen fellow soldier.  The origin of this may be that soldiers take a knee when they are out on patrol for what’s called a security halt.  By taking a knee at a soldier’s grave, his or her fellow soldiers are ensuring his safe passage.

Kaepernick was receptive to changing the method of his protest from sitting during the anthem to kneeling during the anthem.  Boyer then stood next to Kaepernick during the anthem when he switched to the kneel.  Boyer was not willing to kneel himself, but he supported Kaepernick’s right to protest peacefully.

Now, I know that there is not 100% agreement in the military community – just as there will never be 100% agreement in, say, the Jewish community.  But there are certainly enough members of that community – active military and veterans, officers and enlisted – who support the kneeling protest that we should be able to agree that it is NOT anti-military.  We may not like it as a form of protest, but there is no reason to think that kneeling during the national anthem is anti-military.

Besides, when we spend our time talking about when and where African American men should protest, we fall into the same trap as the Birmingham clergy who expressed outrage at the protests without expressing  “a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” – as Dr. King pointed out.

As I mentioned earlier, the BLM platform bothered me and it bothers me still, but the kneeling of NFL players has not had the same effect on me.  I’m not ready to take a knee, but I see it as an effective method of protest.  And so I’ve been wondering why it doesn’t seem to bother me the same way.  And then, my brother sent me a photo of Ivanka Trump whispering in the ear of her father.  The words jokingly attributed to her were: “Dad, Jared’s just bowing for the Musaf Aleinu.  He’s not taking a knee.”

As many of you have heard me say before, the Aleinu was originally recited exclusively on the High Holidays, and only later was it introduced into the daily worship.  Now, instead of reciting it three times a year, traditional Jews recite it three times a day – sometimes more.  We’ve got one coming up shortly.  Perhaps the best known line of the Aleinu is [singing]: “Vaanachnu korim umishtachavim umodim lifnei melech malchei hamlachim…. We bend our knees and prostrate ourselves and acknowledge the Ruler of Rulers.”  And our ancestors did exactly that.  Just as you have seen the Cantor do on our behalf, in previous generations, everyone threw themselves on the floor and showed humility before God.

 

At some point, perhaps when we started reciting the Aleinu three times a day, our ancestors decided that a little bow at the waist was sufficient.  But that’s a far cry from prostrating oneself on the floor. Are we disrespecting God by NOT prostrating ourselves?  I sure hope not.

And then I got to thinking about the American pledge of allegiance.  When Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, he introduced gestures to go with it.  You were supposed to snap your heels together and extend your right hand to the flag.  Shortly thereafter it was slightly amended – hand on heart and THEN point to the flag (palm up).  You can imagine that in the 1930’s some Americans objected to standing with their right hands extended given what was going on in Europe.  By 1941, the practice of extending the right hand was dropped and the hand was supposed to remain on the heart for the entire pledge as is our current practice.  You should know, though, that the Daughters of the American Revolution protested this change as unpatriotic.

In both the religious world and the secular world, customs and traditions change over time.  I am not suggesting that kneeling during the national anthem will become the prevailing custom.  I am simply suggesting that we should spend more time discussing the conditions that prompted the protest rather than simply debating the method of protest.

Further, we should be asking ourselves, do we have to agree with the method of protest in order to agree with the point that the protesters are trying to make? Or do we dismiss valid concerns because we don’t like the way they’ve chosen to express their frustration.

I would like to suggest that it’s time we stop telling African Americans how best to protest and instead support their struggle for justice so that they don’t HAVE to protest anymore.

I would further like to suggest that we stop using the views of some African Americans about Israel as an excuse for withholding support from all African Americans and instead begin a process of educating the African American community about what Israel really is and why she’s so important to us – a challenge that we have failed to meet over the past fifty years.

So, now, I feel a little bit like a basketball fan in a small gym.  I don’t know if tonight is the night that a rising star will score 100 points or if my favorite player will instead shoot 3-25. I don’t know if the decade of the 2010’s is going to be remembered as the continuation of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s or just another decade.   But it doesn’t matter whether we think this is a historically significant moment or not. It doesn’t matter whether this story is going to be on TV or published in a book.  It only matters that we do what’s right.

As the great sage Hillel taught us in Pirkei Avot – “When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14).”

After all, we don’t want to find ourselves decades from now WISHING that we had caught on to this movement sooner.  We don’t want to find ourselves REGRETTING that we were not a part of something special and something just.

L’shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Avi Friedman.

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Puerto Rico, Israel & V’zot HaBrachah

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t find a comfortable position?  Or maybe you were at a social event and you couldn’t find the group of people with whom you could chat?  This week’s Torah portion knows how you feel.  You see – the Torah portion that we chanted in the synagogue this morning exists in a kind of limbo.  It can’t get comfortable.  It’s not like the other Torah portions.
The Torah portion of V’Zot Habrachah is unique in that it doesn’t get chanted on a Shabbat morning like all the other portions.  The opening verses are chanted at Shabbat Minchah as well as on Monday and Thursday mornings, but no Shabbat.  Because it is the very end of the Torah, we only chant it on Simchat Torah as we complete the cycle of Torah reading and start over with the beginning of Genesis.
I was thinking about how this Torah portion is treated differently than all the others as I thought back to our time together on Rosh Hashanah when I talked about how the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is trying to make non-Orthodox Jews feel less legitimate and more uncomfortable in Israel.
Further, I couldn’t help but think about it as I considered the situation in Puerto Rico.  The residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens, but they are clearly treated differently than the rest of us.  Since Puerto Rico is not a state, the citizens of Puerto Rico are not adequately represented in our federal government.  And when Puerto Rico got slammed by Hurricane Maria, we saw the results.  Puerto Rico has not gotten the same kind of emergency response that Texas and Florida received after getting hit by hurricanes.

Sometimes, it’s nice to be singled out and treated as special.  However, in this instance, I think we all agree that Puerto Ricans simply want to be treated like all other American citizens.  I know that as a non-Orthodox Jew, I simply want Israel to treat the people and the institutions of our movement the same way that they treat Orthodox people and institutions.

So, as American citizens, let’s do all we can to encourage our government to help Puerto Rico the same way that we helped Texas and Florida in recent weeks.  Let’s also support those organizations that are doing good work on the ground to help Puerto Ricans recover from this disaster (I donated directly to the Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico).

Wishing everyone an easy and meaningful fast on Yom Kippur,

Shalom,
RAF.

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Teach Them Well

On Monday morning, our Early Learning Center opened its doors for the first day of school. On Wednesday afternoon, our Jewish Learning Center did the same.  Thank God!  It had been way too quiet around here without the kids.  It’s great having them back around.  Our tradition has always appreciated the presence of kids in communal life.

In this week’s portion, we read about the “Hak-hel” ceremony in which the whole Torah was read in one sitting (which makes High Holiday services seem downright brief!!).

The generation that left Egypt was gone and the next generation was now preparing to enter the Promised Land.  God instructed Moses: “Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere Adonai your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 31:12-13).”

The children are mentioned twice.  Including the children and telling them the story was central to the Israelites’ preparation for settling in the Land of Israel.

This is reinforced in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:5-9) which we recite in our daily liturgy.  “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”  In other words, we should walk away from our prayer experience thinking about how we can pass the tradition down to the next generation of our community.

In fact, the rabbis wrote a prayer which is part of the preliminary service that makes this even clearer.  The prayer is called “V’ha-arev Na” and it says: “May the words of Torah, Adonai our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel may come to love You and to study Your Torah on its own merit.  Praised are You Adonai, who teaches Torah to Your people Israel.”

This is why I am so looking forward to spending time with the children of our community during our Family Service and Community Service over the course of the High Holidays.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with the grown-ups.  As the youngest child in my family, I had to scratch and claw to get to the “grown up” table at family functions.  However, I think that George Benson (first) and Whitney Houston (later) had it right when they sang, “I believe the children are the future; teach them well and let them lead the way.”

Looking forward to worshiping with our community – regardless of age! – next week.

Shalom,
RAF.

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