UJF-GMW Teen Rally for Common Sense Gun Legislation

These are my remarks from last night’s rally.  Stacey David posted a video, but I always prefer to read words.  So, for those of you who are like me, here you go….

When I heard that the venue for this event had been changed, I was thrilled — for TWO reasons.  First of all, of course, it meant that the expected attendance had grown.  But, second, it meant that we were coming to Temple B’nai Abraham – which was the community served by Joachim Prinz as rabbi.

Some of you clearly recognize that name.  For those of you who don’t, Rabbi Prinz came to this country after escaping the Nazis in Germany.  He look at his new country and he saw African Americans being treated unjustly with white people hiding behind biased laws and arguing that change should come gradually, incrementally.  But he knew that our tradition demanded more of us than simply hiding behind the letter of the law and doing things the way that they have always been done.  He became one of the loudest Jewish voices in the Civil Rights movement.

Just a few minutes before Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, Rabbi Prinz spoke from the same lectern.  He said: “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence…. America must not become a nation of onlookers.  America must not remain silent.”

We are here today because if we look at our country the way that Rabbi Prinz did, we cannot help but notice that something just isn’t right.  Children should not have to worry about being shot down in schools.  Club-goers should not have to worry about being shot down on the dance floor.  Music fans should not have to worry about being shot down at concerts.

And we can’t allow people to hide behind inadequate laws.  And we can’t simply do things the way we’ve always done it.  And we can’t say that change should come gradually or incrementally — because when something is broken, we have an obligation to fix it.

Some will tell you that Judaism has nothing to say on the issue of guns or gun violence because our legal texts were written before the advent of the gun.  But that’s not the way Judaism works.  We take the ancient wisdom and values of our tradition and we apply to them to new situations.  And as we face this epidemic of school shootings — and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was the 18th school shooting of 2018 — our tradition has quite a bit to say.

While I could stand here all day and share with you teachings that I believe are relevant to this conversation I know that’s NOT why you’re here.  So, I will share with you only two.

The first is from the Bible – Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ“

The students of Stoneman Douglas High School are leading the way.  They have seen the blood of their classmates and friends.  Think about that for a moment — they have seen the blood of their classmates and friends.  And yet, they are NOT standing still.  How can we do any less??  We can no longer afford to be what Rabbi Prinz would call “onlookers.”  It is time to speak.  It is time to act.

The second text I want to share comes from the Talmud, Yoma 82a: “No word — no law, no teaching – stands in the way of saving a life – אין לך דבר שעומד בפני פקוח נפש.”

In order to save a life, we are instructed by the ancient rabbis to set aside virtually all of Jewish law — which they believed to be God-given — because they understood that whole point of a legal system to is to enable its adherents to LIVE according to the laws and not die because of them.  As Jews, we must bring this principle to the American conversation about guns:  no single law is more important than the lives of our children.

And so, as we come together in his House of God, I hope and pray that the time of being silent on-lookers is now over for our community. I hope and pray that we will not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors and children.  I hope and pray that we will remember that no law should stand in the way of saving lives.

And then, we will take our places as heirs of the great sage Hillel who said in Pirkei Avot 1:14If not now, when? – אִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי.” 

 

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Don’t You Dare Forget!

I often joke around with my family, saying that if I could only purge my brain of sports trivia and TV show theme song lyrics, I could make room for some useful and important information.

I don’t know exactly how human memory works, but I do know that I can’t just will myself to forget certain things.  However, I also know that sometimes we allow ourselves to forget painful experiences to protect ourselves so that we don’t have to live through them over and over.

Sadly, there are individuals and organizations that rely upon this human response to tragedy to make a profit and to make our world a more dangerous place.  In particular, I am thinking of gun manufacturers and their apologists in government.  So far, they have been remarkably successful.  They have continued to prevent a meaningful conversation on gun safety as American children have been murdered in schools in places like Jefferson County (Colorado), Newtown and Parkland (just to name three – a complete list would be far too long).

Legislation takes so long.  Elections are so far away.  Some other issue arises that grabs our attention.  And we forget.

It’s easier to forget than to think about one student killed while blocking the door so that other students might live.  It’s easier to forget than to think about a father and son text messaging about how to play dead while still blocking one’s head with a textbook.  It’s easier to forget than to think about the surviving student who saw her best friend riddled with bullets standing just feet apart.

But our responsibility is to remember – no matter how painful it might be.  Our challenge is to remember no matter how long it takes to bring about the change that our nation is calling for.  Our obligation to the dead is to remember that no child should die this way again.

In anticipation of next week’s celebration of Purim, this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Zechor” – the Sabbath during which you should remember.  We will take out a second Torah scroll and read the following words from the end of the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”

There is an ‘Amalek’ in this country – people who place the manufacture, distribution and ownership of killing machines above the lives of our children.  They assume that we will forget before we have an opportunity to make necessary changes.  I pray that this time, finally, they are wrong.

In the final verse that we will read this Saturday, the Torah tells us, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

Please join me in remembering – and NOT forgetting – the victims of Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School even though it might be easier to try and forget.  And may their memories inspire us to make our society better – and SAFER – for the next generation.

Shalom,
RAF.

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If Not Now….

A story has been passed around the internet for years about a young girl named Shannon in North Carolina.  She was on-line after school, chatting with a friend whom she believed to be a 14-year-old boy in Michigan, with the screen name ‘goto123.’  She talked about the softball game that she had just played in, and that no one was home to tell them about it.  He asked her the name of her team, who she played against and what position she played.  Together with the information that she had provided in her profile, he was now able to track her down.

One week later after her softball game, a man approached her, and identified himself as a police officer, who used the screen name ‘goto123’ to go after on-line predators.  He explained to her the mistakes that she had made by providing too much information on-line.  This story is NOT true, but it proves a point about our obligation to protect our children – even when we presume that they are in a safe place.

In this week’s Parashah, God asks all of the Israelites for a gift – a terumah – for the construction of the Tabernacle.  The plan for the Tabernacle, as described in great detail in our Parashah, is a model for protecting something sacred.  At the center were the Two Tablets of God.  They were placed in the Ark, which was within the Holy of Holies.  The Holy of Holies was in the Holy Space, which was buffered by the Outer Court.  Then, the entire Tabernacle was surrounded by the Enclosure, which was comprised of beams and tapestries.  God was essentially telling us that we cannot be too careful when it comes safeguarding that which we consider most valuable.  Today, in a modern incarnation of this principle, our synagogue has an alarm with a motion detector on our bimah safeguarding our Torah scrolls.

If we take these related concepts of protecting our values and protecting our children seriously, then how can we be anything other than outraged over yet another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida?!

We know, for example, that our homes are never perfectly safe – if someone wants to get it in, they’ll find a way in.  Nonetheless, we don’t leave our doors and windows open.  We don’t write our security codes in marker on the front door.  We take reasonable precautions.

Similarly, we know that a school can never be 100% safe.  But surely, EIGHTEEN school shootings in the first six weeks of 2018 cannot simply be tolerated.

I’ve followed the “conversations” on social media last night and this morning.  I’ve heard people say that we must change our laws to make it harder for mentally ill people to get guns.  Then, I’ve heard people counter that the teachers, administrators and peers of the mentally ill individual should have prevented this tragedy.

The truth is that they are both right.  There is no one single solution to this horrible problem we have.  The Two Tablets of God were not protected by one single layer of defense.  There were multiple layers of protection.  Our children can be safely locked up in our homes with alarms, but if we don’t coach them on how to conduct themselves on-line, they are still at risk.

Similarly, we need better laws AND heightened awareness about mental illness to protect our children and ourselves from this senseless plague of gun violence.

We would not stand idly by if an infectious disease, a pack of wild animals or a lethal poison were killing our children.  We should not have to tolerate gun violence either.  No one solution will address this issue sufficiently.  We must act on multiple levels to protect our children.  As the sage Hillel wrote centuries ago, “If not now, when?”

Shalom,
RAF.

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There There

“There’s no there there.”

Gertrude Stein wrote those words in 1937 after returning to her hometown of Oakland to find that her childhood home no longer existed.  The place – as she knew it – no longer existed.  It’s a particularly striking phrase because the words, “There, there,” are typically used to comfort someone.  In this case, the experience was just the opposite.

What a marvelous use of language!

Today, many of us employ this phrase to describe persons or objects that seem substantial at first, but turn out to be hollow or vacuous.  These people or objects are physically present, but not really present.

In today’s world, this phenomenon has been exacerbated by the smart phone.  I need not tell anyone how common it is to see people show up to meetings, shows, services, classes, meals or social occasions with their electronic devices in hand.  They then proceed to spend more time with their gadgets than with the people in their company.  They are present in body, but they are miles away in spirit.  They are both there and not-there at the same time.  (I wish I could say that I have never been guilty of this, but….)

Although Gertrude Stein can take full credit for coining the phrase, “There’s no there there,” the concept goes back much further.  The smart phone may make it easier today, but this phenomenon has been going on since the beginning of time.

Our tradition suggests that, perhaps, this is not the best way to approach life.  In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, God commanded Moshe, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there (emphasis added), and I will give you the stone tablets… (Ex. 24:12).”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk – a 19th century Hasidic master – asked the following question:  “If Moshe had to go up the mountain, wouldn’t he necessarily be there?  Aren’t the words ‘and be there’ redundant?”

The answer – according to Reb Menachem – is that “many people exert themselves to reach a goal, and when they reach it, they are not really there.  Their minds and souls are elsewhere.  It is not enough to reach the mountain peak; one must be there, and not be below at the same time.”

Yes, it is true – we get “credit” for showing up.  But, there is more to life than just showing up.

When we make our time with our families interesting and fun, when we make our time at the office productive, when we make our time with friends a time of sharing and caring, we bring meaning to our lives that would not exist if we just showed up.

As we go forward in our personal lives and in our professional lives, may we have the ability not only to arrive at the right places at the right times, but also to share the moment those around us.  May we all climb the mountain AND be there.  And then, perhaps, someone will take note of the fact that there was a there there.

Shalom,
RAF.

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More Jethro, Please!

Jethro is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible.  Although he was not officially a member of our team, we learn about him and he does some really admirable things.

When we first met him at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the first thing we learn about him is that he had seven daughters and he gave them full responsibility for the family’s flock.  We can tell from the way that the other shepherds treated them, that this was not standard operating procedure at that time.  Perhaps if he had had a son, Jethro would not have empowered his daughters in this way.  But, he didn’t have a son and he was empowering.  So, let’s give him some credit.

Next, we learn that he took Moses in.  Moses showed up under some dubious circumstances, having fled Egypt after the death of an Egyptian overseer.  Yet, Jethro gave Moses a fresh start and, eventually, Moses married one of the aforementioned seven daughters.

Fast forward to this week’s portion, which just so happens to be named after the very same Jethro, and he continues his surprisingly modern behavior.  First of all, he brings Moses’ wife Tzipporah and their two sons – Gershom and Eliezer – the Israelites’ camp in the Sinai Desert.  You see – Moses’ work life had been getting in the way of his family life and Jethro came to remind him that he was still a husband and father.  Going even further, Jethro made some recommendations to Moses as to how he could better organize the Israelite legal system in order to make sure that Moses did not wear himself out doing everything by himself.

On top of all that, after listening to Moses tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, he did not respond with jealousy or doubt.  He did not insist on telling a story of his own successes.  Instead, the Torah tells us, “Jethro was jubilant because of all the good that God had done for Israel, that God had rescued him from the Land of Egypt (Exodus 18:9).”  He was simply happy because his son-in-law was happy.  And even though he himself was the Priest of Midian, he offered up a prayer of thanksgiving to God for all the good that God had done for his daughter’s family.

We could all use a little more Jethro in our lives.

Although Jethro did not become a part of the covenant of Abraham, he contributed to the success of the freed Israelite slaves.  Further, we could all learn from his example.

When given the opportunity, let’s empower the young women in our lives – especially in areas of society where women have previously been excluded.  Let’s give people a second chance even when others around us are less forgiving.  Let’s find ways to be more efficient at work so that we have more time for our families.  And let’s find joy in the joy of others.

Moses was smart enough to listen to Jethro and it worked out well for him.  Maybe it will work out well for us also.

Shalom,
RAF.

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See Something?

I did not know this, but apparently the phrase, “If you see something, say something,” is trademarked by the Department of Homeland Security.  I’m not quite sure what it means to trademark a saying like that.  Can anyone say it?  Do we have to acknowledge the DHS in some way when we invoke it?  I simply don’t know.

In truth, I prefer Israel’s general response to a suspicious object.  Whenever a bag or package is left unattended, people start asking, “Shel mi zeh? – ? של מי זה” which means, “Whose is this?”  This question calls upon someone to take ownership or responsibility for the situation.  Saying something is good, but taking ownership and acting are better.

Like many other people, I’m sure, I can’t stop thinking about the bizarre – and unbelievably horrible – story coming out of Perris, California.  The parents of thirteen children – ages 2 to 29 – kept their kids as prisoners in their house – near starvation, in filth and in shackles.

Apparently, some neighbors saw things.  They may have even said some things – amongst themselves perhaps but not to authorities.  Relatives and government agencies are distancing themselves from the gruesome situation.  No one is willing to take any kind of responsibility.  No one picked up on the suffering of these kids.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we come to the final confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh.  Despite the fact that the Egyptian people had endured nine plagues, Pharaoh was still unwilling to relent and release the Hebrew slaves.  He turned a blind eye to the suffering of the people around him.  However, we – the readers – know exactly why Pharaoh was able to ignore the pain of others.  We are told that God had hardened his heart.  It was not until he was directly affected by the final plague that Pharaoh’s heart was softened and he allowed the Hebrews to leave.

What excuse do we have for not noticing the suffering of others? Has God somehow reached into our hearts and hardened them?

It is simply unbelievable to me that in the case of this California family, no one saw anything, no one said anything and, for sure, no one took responsibility.  Really?!

It begs the question:  what are the rest of us missing??

These past two weeks, our congregation has hosted five families that have been going through a rough time.  We have helped them out with food, shelter and other necessities while they strive to get back on their feet economically.  I’m extremely proud of our participation in Family Promise.  We do this for four weeks every year and I think it’s one of the best things we do as a community.

However, it’s not enough.

In the Book of Genesis, when God famously asked Kane about Abel’s whereabouts, Kane asked in return, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God never directly answered the question.  Instead, God said, “The blood of your brother cries out to me from the soil.”

Why didn’t God answer the question directly?  Because the answer is so painfully obviously.  Of course we are responsible for our fellow human beings.  Of course, we are their keepers, their guardians, their protectors.  How can we not be?

So, even though we might be tempted to keep our noses out of other people’s business, the truth is that the health and safety of our neighbors, friends and relatives are OUR business too.  Without question, we are their keepers.  The only question is what exactly will we do when we see something?

Shalom,
RAF.

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Solidarity

On my recent trip to Israel with teens from our congregation, we (of course!) visited the Western Wall.  First, we stood all together on the plaza looking at the Wall from a distance.  Then, the males went to males’ section and the females went to the females’ section.  We met up again as a group on the plaza where the Cantor sang the words of the Priestly Benediction.  We were all a little nervous that the “wrong” ears might hear her and respond badly, but we did not let that stop us.

Finally, we came back together again and went to Robinson’s Arch – an area adjacent to the Western Wall where all genders can gather together.  It was in this final spot that we had a conversation about why we can’t simply pray the way we want to pray when we come to The Wall.  Needless to say, it’s a complicated conversation.

However, it’s really not that complicated for our kids.  They have grown up in a Jewish community where we set aside our differences with other Jews in order to be able to come together at sacred moments.  Here in Summit, the three Jewish congregations (one Conservative, one Reform and one Reconstructionist) have a history of being able to come together for Holocaust Memorial Day, for the Eve of Shavuot, for public Menorah lightings and for something called Solidarity Shabbat.

You might be asking yourself, “What is Solidarity Shabbat?”  So, please allow me to explain.

Many years ago before I arrived in New Jersey, our local Federation started a program that brought together congregations in a single community in order to remind them that they were all part of the same larger Jewish community under the umbrella of Federation.  It had a few different names over the years, but it was eventually called “Solidarity Shabbat.”

Our Federation – which has also gone through a name change – no longer sponsors such a program.  But, a funny thing happened here in Summit.  The two congregations which existed at that time decided to keep it going.  They took turns hosting the annual joint Friday Night service until a third congregation was established in Summit and now all three congregations participate.  Now, there are typically two communal Friday Night Services each year rotating among the three synagogues.

The style of worship always reflects the host congregation’s preferred manner of praying, but we all find a way to make it work even if it’s not what we would choose on a weekly basis.  The benefit of being all together outweighs any unease one might feel in any particular service.

By coincidence, it just so happens that our next Solidarity Shabbat is TOMORROW NIGHT, 7:30pm at Temple Sinai.  Just sayin’.

But, back to The Wall for a moment.  Our kids came to The Wall having experienced different kinds of Jews coming together in sacred space to worship together despite those differences.  We need to give more and more kids these kinds of experiences.  Then, perhaps, the next generation will be able to find a way to worship together at The Wall and other sacred places without having to subdivide our community.

Shalom,
RAF.

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