Sababa B’Ra’anana – Awesome in Ra’anana

As I sit to write this message, we are halfway through our first-ever teen mission to Israel, which we have called “Sababa B’Ra’anana.”  (That means “Awesome in Ra’anana.”) And although our expectations were through the roof before we boarded the plane, I think it’s safe to say that this trip has exceeded all of them.  Let me explain why.

We have had  three full days here in Israel and this is what we’ve done:

Day 1: Our students attended classes at MetroWest Ra’anana (MOR) High School with their hosts.  They got to see how their Israeli peers learn (Stacey, Cantor and I even attended a math class).  The best part of the day was watching the passing time between classes.  The center of the school building is an area called the “Amphi.”  It is shaped like an amphitheater with a snack bar where the stage would be if it were actually a theater.  It’s where all the students hang out before, between and after classes.  Our students were completely in the thick of things in the “Amphi” during our day at MOR.  If you didn’t know who was whom, it would have been impossible to tell the American students from the Israeli ones.  It was great.

Day 2: We left early in the morning for Jerusalem.  We spent the first part of our day on Mt. Herzl discussing many of the people responsible for the establishment and survival of the State of Israel.  From political leaders to young soldiers, we talked about how Israel came to be and how it has managed to grow and evolve since its establishment.  We proceeded to Jerusalem where we experienced Machane Yehudah — a classic Middle Eastern  market with a modern twist — then the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter culminating with the Western Wall.  We talked about the Wall’s historical significance, its spiritual draw and the modern controversy surrounding it.

Day 3: We headed south where we saw Kibbutz Erez, which is one of our Greater MetroWest partners — and Moshav Netiv Ha-Asarah, home of the Peace Wall.  These are two places that have had to deal directly with the violence unleashed by Hamas upon the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.  Then we went to Sde Boker, the home of David Ben Gurion as well as his burial place.  We got to see what has made the Israeli experience so different from the American experience.

While everything we have done so far has been educational and important, as far as I’m concerned the most important day of the trip was Day 1.  Establishing relationships between everyday Israelis and everyday Americans is the most important thing we can do.  In order to move forward together, we need to understand one another better.

The seventeen students in our delegation and their seventeen hosts may seem like a small number, but it’s a start.  When you consider the four delegations of MOR students who have visited us in Summit and stayed in our homes, it’s a slightly larger group.  If we can keep this amazing relationship going, perhaps we can have an impact on the way that American Jews and Israeli Jews view one another.

And that would really be sababa — not only in Ra’anana, but all over.


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Do You See What I See?

For all intents and purposes, Joseph was the first “Diaspora Jew.”  Never mind that there was no diaspora and there was no such thing as Judaism during his lifetime.  We shouldn’t let an anachronism get in the way of a good argument!

All of Joseph’s brothers grew up in the Land of Canaan, living together as a large clan, worshiping God in the same way and speaking the same language.  In contrast, Joseph was forced to leave that place as a young man and make his way in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language and encountering a foreign way of worship — all under the very worst of circumstances.

It’s no surprise that Joseph would see the world differently than his brothers.  In preparing his brothers to meet the Pharaoh for the first time, Joseph said the following:

“When Pharaoh asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen.  For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians (Genesis 46:31-34).”

Joseph had lived and succeeded in the Land of Egypt for quite a few years.  He knew the Land of Egypt in a way that his brothers did not.  He also was accustomed to hiding his true identity.  So, his advice was rooted in his life experiences.  He wanted the brothers to present themselves as breeders – which would mean higher status than simply being herders.

A few verses later, we read the actual interchange between the brothers and the Pharaoh:

Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?”  They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers….” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “As regards your father and brothers who have come to see you, the land of Egypt is open before you… and if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock (Genesis 47:3-6).” 

They completely ignored his advice.  They made a decision about how to interact with the Pharaoh based on their own life experiences.  They were not going to hide who they were.  Despite Joseph’s fears, it turned out okay.  Pharaoh accepted them and, in fact, offered them an economic opportunity.

It’s no surprise that the brothers who grew up in what we now call the Land of Israel would see things differently from the brother who came of age in a foreign land.  We see the same thing happening today.  Our Israeli brothers and sisters see the world a little differently than we Diaspora Jews do.  And that’s okay.  I’m looking forward to leaving for Israel just after Shabbat in order to hear what Israelis are thinking these days and so I can share with them how we view the world from our perch.

Hopefully, just like the meeting described above, it will have a happy ending.


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Now THAT’S a Gift!

In anticipation of Hanukkah, I asked some of my pre-teen students to tell me what the holiday means to them. Although I knew the answer was coming, I was hoping that it wouldn’t be the first answer. But, there it was: presents. I got some great answers from them, but something about that being the first answer hit me in the gut.

Then, in one of my adult ed classes, one of the participants asked me if I could suggest a way to move our celebration of Hanukkah away from the gifts which we know is a custom that we imported from our Christian neighbors.

And then I realized that the antidote for that feeling in my gut as well as the answer to that question was right under my nose the whole time.

Tuesday night, as we were welcoming in the festival of Hanukkah, ten of our high school and middle school students together with about the same number of adults gave over an hour of their time to visit Jewish patients at Overlook Medical Center who would be stuck in the hospital during the holiday.

One of the patients who received a visit made a point of telling her daughter about the young people who came with an electric Menorah and sang the Hanukkah blessings with her. That daughter – who lives in San Diego – found our web site and sent an email to our general mailbox. It eventually got forwarded to me.

Here is what that daughter wrote:

I am writing from San Diego where I live. My mother is in Overlook Hospital and today she told me how a group stopped by her room last night to light the menorah with her. She said it was the bright part of her day. This was so heart-warming to me and I just wanted to thank you for this thoughtfulness. Please share with these wonderful volunteers too!! Happy Chanukah.

If Hanukkah is about bringing light to the darkness and about restoring that which has been damaged, then there are members of our community who already know how to make the holiday meaningful and how to make it about more than the kinds of gifts that fit in a box and get wrapped.

We’re barely a quarter of the way through Hanukkah. If you haven’t had the opportunity to give that kind gift yet, there’s still plenty of time. It will brighten and sanctify your holiday in ways you don’t expect.

Have a happy and meaningful Hanukkah!


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Message -v- Messenger

This week, we get to know Joseph, one of the most complicated characters in the Torah.  Joseph had a difficult relationship with his brothers.  His method of communicating with them caused them to lash out at him.  Even when he had something of value to say, he could not tell them in such a way that they could hear his message.  His dreams about them bowing to him may have been accurate, but his delivery left something to be desired.

Many of us can relate to Joseph’s brothers today.  Frustration with messenger is preventing us from appreciating the message.

As far as I’m concerned, acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a lot like acknowledging that the sky is up, the ground is down and the ocean is salty.  These things are so obvious that they should not need to be confirmed or acknowledged.  Yet, we know that there are individuals, governments and organizations that deny Israel’s and Judaism’s relationship to Jerusalem.

So, you’d think that all of us who love Israel would be thrilled that the U.S. government has now formally acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Yet, we know that things are not so simple in our divided, partisan world.  Just as the brothers could not accept Joseph’s predictions of future greatness, critics of President Trump are loath to acknowledge that they agree with something that he has done.  I get it.

My initial response to this news was – on the one hand – joy that my government was acknowledging something that I’ve known to be true for a long time, and – on the other hand – fear that this declaration would be used as a justification for violence against Israel and Jews.

Now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it and part of another day to consider it, my joy has increased and my fear has decreased.

My joy has increased because I see this US acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the perfect countermeasure to the UNESCO resolution which claimed that Jews and Israel had no historical connection to the Temple Mount.  If the Palestinians could celebrate the passage of that nonsensical resolution, then I feel good celebrating this moment.

My fear has decreased because I realize that Israel’s enemies are not necessarily rational actors.  When Israel left Gaza, Hamas responded with rocket fire into Israel.  So, if we can’t predict when there will be violence, let’s enjoy this moment and support Israel in her vigilance regarding security and defense.

In just 16 days, Cantor Roth, Stacey David and I will be taking a group of teens – including my own son Jonah – to Israel as we strengthen our friendship with the students, teachers and administrators of the MetroWest High School in Ra’aanana.  The threat to Israel today is not significantly different than it was yesterday or the day before.

We will be smart and we will be in consultation with the government so that we don’t get too close to any possible protests (who knows what will be happening on the ground in two weeks?!).  But, we would have done that anyway.  Just as we would not allow Israel’s critics to determine whether or not Jerusalem is her capital, we will not allow them to prevent us from visiting the Land of Israel.

Could the US acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have been handled more artfully?  Sure.  Am I confident that this is one part of a comprehensive plan for peace in the Middle East?  Not really.  But, am I happy that my country has formally acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state?  Yes, I am.

And I can’t wait to express my joy IN ISRAEL in just a matter of days.



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How to Treat Our Sister

Can we even keep track anymore?  Matt Lauer has joined Charlie Rose and Bill O’Reilly among disgraced TV personalities.  Russell Simmons has joined Harvey Weinstein among entertainment executives accused of sexual improprieties.  More accusations are coming out in connection with politicians of both major parties.

What are we to do?

Not coincidentally, in this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of the assault on Dinah – the daughter of Jacob – by a man named Shechem.  It is no surprise that the Torah does not share with us Dinah’s response to this event in her life.  First of all, the voices of women were not well-preserved in the Torah.  More than that, though, even today, the victims of abuse are made to feel ashamed or dirty – even though the fault lies entirely with the perpetrator.  One can only imagine how much greater the sense of shame must have been in the ancient world.

Instead, the Biblical narrative focuses on the response of Dinah’s brothers – the men.  First of all, even though we readers don’t get to hear it, her brothers believed her story.  Then, Simon and Levi concocted a plan in which they convinced the assailant and his clan to become circumcised in order to be able to marry Dinah and other women from Jacob’s family.  While they were recovering from the painful procedure, Jacob’s sons attacked and killed all the males of the clan.  Simon and Levi were satisfied at that point and took Dinah home.  The other brothers seized all the wealth and property of the clan.

Sitting here in the State of New Jersey all these centuries later, it’s hard to say whether the punishment fit the crime.  However, when Jacob heard what his sons had done, he was not so pleased.  He said to Simon and Levi: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.”  Simon and Levi did not back down, however, the story ends with them saying to their father:  “Should our sister be treated like a sexual object?”

Even if Simon and Levi overreacted, their question is the right question.  How can any of us sit back and do nothing while women are being treated this way by men in power?  We all know that we would not our own female relatives to be treated like Dinah or like the victims of Lauer, Rose, O’Reilly and the rest.  Yet, when the victims are not our relatives or famous people with whom we feel a connection, we turn a blind eye.

I feel like it may be starting to change, but only because courageous women – unlike the silent Dinah – finally feel that their stories might be believed instead of dismissed.  But, before we hurt ourselves patting ourselves on the back, let’s remember that this new attitude has not yet reached all the corners of our society.  There are still powerful men preying on vulnerable women.  There are still women going to work and school in fear.

I hope that more brave women will step forward and tell their stories so that the next generation may not have to experience the same sort of abuse.  But, really, it’s up to all of us to examine closely the schools, offices and institutions of which we are a part and ask the same question that Simon and Levi asked all those years ago:  “Should our sister be treated like a sexual object?”


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Happy Thanksgiving!

My remarks at the New Providence – Berkeley Heights Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Monday evening at Faith Lutheran Church.

As I was preparing for this moment in this place, I have to admit that I was feeling a little….. ambidextrous.  What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that I feel like speaking with both of my hands.

On the one hand, it is very strange to be standing here in the pulpit of Faith Lutheran Church without Pastor Mac here.  But, on the other hand, it is the most logical, natural thing in the world for us to come together this evening in song, in prayer, in laughter and in community, as we all prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday.  After all, this Interfaith Thanksgiving service is yet one more piece of the legacy that Pastor Mac left behind for all of us – regardless of our faith tradition.

Along those lines…. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that this is our 11th annual Thanksgiving Service.  On the other hand, it seems so natural.  Haven’t we always come together for Thanksgiving?  I’m not sure what took us all so long to figure out that we could celebrate Thanksgiving together.  The truth is that being thankful is central to every religious system I’ve come across.

We are grateful to some higher power or powers.  We are grateful to our fellow human beings. We are grateful for all that the bounty and beauty of the earth.  The language of our prayers and the images that we create either through words or art might be different, but the basic concept is the same.  And for those of us who find ourselves in this country – either because we ourselves made the journey or some ancestor had the foresight to do so – we certainly have a lot for which to be thankful.  This country – despite any of the imperfections that we could all identify – is a source of tremendous blessing to those of us who live here.

In one of the two primary sources about what we call the first Thanksgiving in 1621, Edward Winslow wrote: “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”  That is still true today.  Perhaps, things could be a little better, but we should always be thankful for what we have.

Over two centuries later, in designating (at that time) the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Who among us doesn’t need a reminder every once in a while to be grateful for things that we take for granted?  Which parent, grandparent, aunt, uncles or teacher has not had to say to a child “what did you forget to say?” in order to elicit a “Thank you.”  So, we join together to tonight – on the one hand – because all of our faith traditions implore us to be grateful and – on the other hand – because it’s human nature to forget to offer thanks.

Any of you who have seen Fiddler on the Roof probably know that when we Jews start talking with our hands, we pretty quickly run out of hands.

So, on the one hand, it’s so easy and wonderful to come together tonight for thanksgiving – As the Psalmist wrote so many years ago, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters sit together.”  On the other hand, it’s much harder next month, when our practices diverge and contrasts come into focus instead of our similarities.

Those of you who are NOT Jewish – and I am assuming that some of you here tonight are not, in fact, Jewish – may not know this, but over the years, there has been a conversation – a debate, really – about what to say when someone you don’t know – like a cashier or a waitress – says “Merry Christmas” to you.

Now, I’m going to have to use my fingers.  There’s one school of thought that says it’s okay to let them know that you don’t celebrate Christmas and, therefore, they shouldn’t assume that everyone does.  When I was young, I was inclined to be in that first school.  After all, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in – as Evan Hansen would say, waving through the window and tap, tap tapping on the glass.  No one likes the feeling of knowing that there’s something great and exciting going on, but it’s not for you.

There’s a second school of thought that says you should respond with something more neutral like “Happy Holidays” in order to show them that there is an alternative to Merry Christmas.  As I got older, I moved firmly into that second school.  I had grown to love my tradition.  I didn’t feel that I was missing anything, but I wanted others to think about the possibility that we’re not all the same.  And what gives the world meaning and structure for one person may NOT be what gives the world meaning and structure to another.

Then there’s a third school of thought that says the appropriate response to someone wishing you a Merry Christmas is: “Thanks.  You too!”  In order for me to fully understand this last possibility, I actually had to leave this country.  I had to go to Israel, where I spent a year as student living in Jerusalem.

On my first Friday, living in Jerusalem, I went to the bank to get some money and then I went to a series of stores and shops in order to buy the things I would need to celebrate the Sabbath.  Candles, wine, bread, meat, vegetables, flowers for the table.  And an amazing thing happened.  Every teller, cashier and vendor wished me a “Shabbat Shalom” —  the traditional Sabbath greeting exchanged by Jews.

No one asked me if I was Jewish.  No one asked me if I would be using any of the items I bought to observe the Sabbath.  They just assumed I was Jewish and wished me a Shabbat Shalom.  And you know what?  It felt pretty good.  I didn’t feel compelled to tell them that not everyone in Jerusalem is Jewish.  I didn’t simply reply, “Good day” or some other neutral greeting.  I said, “Shabbat Shalom” right back.

So, on the one hand, I know the feeling of exclusion when someone I don’t know assumes that everyone in the room or community is a part of the same group and I am not.  On the other hand, I also know that feeling of inclusion when someone I don’t know assumes that everyone in the room or community is a part of the same group and I really am a part of that group.

They are two very different experiences.  But, if we’ve only had one of them, it behooves us to try to understand what it’s like on the other side of the glass.

I have talked a great deal about hands this evening.  So, I’d like to ask everyone to take the hands of the people next to you.  Let’s remember how this feels.  Let’s enjoy the somewhat easier task of using our hands to reach out to one another during this Thanksgiving season when we all seem to agree.

However, as we flip the calendar from November to December, let us try to remember the feel of one another’s hands as we clasp them together tonight.  And then, let’s all reach out again, with both hands, with understanding and with inclusion.  Then, we’ll all be talking with our hands ambidextrously.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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Toss Your Hat

In his very last public speech, JFK chose to refer to a book entitled “An Only Child” which had been published just two years earlier. It is the memoir of an author by the name of Frank O’Connor who was best known for his short stories. President Kennedy said: “Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them.”


Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center, November 21, 1963

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