Sunday, July 30, 2006

Tisha B'Av

Right now, the Jewish world is in a period of time called the Three Weeks of Calamity (or Shalosh Shabbatot d'Puranuta), which is the span of time between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av. On the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a number of horrible events happened to the Jewish people, but most notable the walls of Jerusalem were breached in 586 leading up to the Ninth of Av which sees the Temple destroyed. All of the events that fall on these dates are ones that shake up the Jewish people, causing feelings of grief, terror and loss of focus.

And watching the news for the past two weeks has given most of the Jewish people around the world those same feelings, especially as we watch world opinion turn on Israel.

Yesterday was a special Shabbat called Shabbat Hazon, which is the final Shabbat before Tisha B'Av. On that Shabbat we read the first prophecy of the prophet Isaiah ben Amotz. I have read this before in synagogue for the past several years. Since this portion of the prophets is read with two different cantillation systems, I am usually worried about the transitions from one to the next and back.

This Shabbat Hazon was completely different. I began just fine, but when I came to the phrase "The cities are burning with fire" I began weeping and sobbing. I had never before lived though a Three Weeks where the emotions of the world I lived in were in line with the emotions in the synagogue ritual. All of my stress, worry and anxiety about what is happening in Israel came gushing out. It was almost impossible to continue, my voice kept breaking.

I just hope that the end result of what happened in Isaiah's day does not come to pass in ours.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Catching up

About a month ago, I was in Cincinnati as a chaperone with five members of my youth group on a trip to King's Island. While they were all at local host homes for the night, I was the guest of the synagogue and stayed overnight in their guest room (nicely appointed by IKEA). It's good to simply be there without having to be on for anyone, especially the night before a long day. Another benefit is that I get to be right on time for this congregation's morning minyan, which is quite good. Whenever I have stayed over at this synagogue, I have been at their morning minyan.

First of all, this synagogue just finished phase two of a major renovation, and the building is stunning, including the chapel where morning minyan is held. The chapel has beautiful padded wooden seats, contemporary cut glass windows (one for each Jewish holiday) and an ark of wood that covers the entire east wall. The minyan itself is well attended, participatory and has high standards for the quality of the davenning that goes on in there.

What caught my eye that particular morning was an elderly gentleman who was leading the morning service. His accent was Yiddish-esque, pronounced both Tav and Sav, and sounded like he learned to daven in the Old World. When it came time to repeat the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer, he began to chant: "...Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzchak, Elohei Yaakov..." No surprises yet. This is how every Amidah has begun for about two thousand years with each Patriarch being listed out separately. For two thousand years, the prayer continues on "Ha'el Hagadol Hagibor El Elyon...", but in many modern prayer books, a historical, theological and gender gap has been filled in with a similar list of the Four Matriarchs. He continued, "Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivka, Elohei Leah, vElohei Rachel."

This gentleman, who sounded and look Old World, was davenning the central Jewish prayer with a modern addition! The idea in my mind is that most people his age simply won't do that because it is not how it has been done...ever. I admit, I did not have the chance to ask him about how he came to say this version of the Amidah. It may simply be that this is how the synagogue does it all the time and he does as his rabbi requires. But then he does not have to lead services! So on some level, he accepts the change. Perhaps, he understands the importance of the change. The need to include women's voices both in our past and in our present. True that this is also a large egalitarian synagogue in Cincinnati, which is a center of liberal Jewish thought for over one hundred and fifty years. But he probably came to America in one of the early 20th Century waves of immigration that found Conservative Judaism a good religious fit.

Whatever the reason, I have seen that some people of his generation are catching up to mine. And it gives me confidence that innovation is sometimes coupled with reason that transcends generation.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Going Back (My Way)

For some reason, my family and I are driving from Louisville, KY to Edison, NJ and beyond over the next two days. So being a child of the Information Age, I use Google Maps to find my way across America. Just so happens that we have decided to stop in Bedford, PA for tomorrow night's lodging. Google Maps, in an apparent fit of concealed wisdom, has added a one hour detour to its route for us. MapQuest seems to have no problem sending me through what may be dangerous territory. So against better judgment, I will use MapQuest for part of my journey tomorrow.

But here is the thing - I pick and choose based on what I wish to believe. What strikes me about this is how this simply choice mirrors the way the American Jews pick and choose today. In Steve Cohen and Arnold Eisen's book "The Jew Within", they identify a trend in the way that moderately affiliated Jews behave, namely that the self is the Sovereign that guides them as they live their Jewish lives. The choose what they do today for personal reasons, and may choose tomorrow to do the same or to do differently, based on changing circumstances or moods.

Recently, I was visited by an acquaintance from another Midwestern city. He was debating on coming to Louisville for Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) for the all night learning session or coming the next day before Shabbat (which would make him fly on a Yom Tov, a day when observant Jews do not normally fly). In addition, this person who was into the all night learning that night, and keeps Shabbat, was picked up for a pre-wedding gathering on Shabbat afternoon. He admitted to us that he keeps Shabbat, but weddings are a time when he finds himself breaking Shabbat.

I mention this not to criticize but to illustrate the point that this individual, who is a serious and committed Jewish by many standards, still does as he pleases. I think that Cohen and Eisen's idea of the Sovereign Self goes beyond the moderately affiliated. In American, all Jews are in some sense Jews by choice. What we do, we do because we choose to do so, not because we are commanded. Perhaps, even those who feel commanded, choose to feel commanded.

The Rabbis debate which is better: to do when commanded or to do when not commanded. In American thinking, where individual freedom is valued very highly, people would probably say that it is better to do when not commanded. But the Rabbis see it another way: To do something when asked by someone else is a higher level of doing. In other words, doing the commandments for the Rabbis is all about being in relationship with God and acting out of loyalty to that relationship, which is called "commandedness." I wonder for how many Jews today their "doing of the commandments" stems from their relationship with God? Perhaps it does not matter. in the doing, for whatever reason, people catch a glimpse of the divine, a spark of holiness in their lives. Perhaps they will catch on fire (in a metaphorical sense) and their relationship to the Divine will grow, increasing their sense of commandedness as they seek out that feeling, that sense of the Holy once again.

That would be a real going back to the beginning, where everything began. Not the East Coast, but to the Root of All, the One.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Sukkah Project

The Sukkah Project

Four years ago, I learned about this company from my synagogue. They provide easy-to-use materials for building quality, durable sukkot. They can provide directions, materials and a lumber list for wooden sukkot, PVC sukkah kits, bamboo mats for skhakh, great tarp walls, beautiful contemporary decorations, and even plastic fruits and vegetables. You can even order your lulav and etrog from them. So next year, build a sukkah!

Interfaith Dialogue in Home Depot (Erev Sukkot)

Tonight begins the festival of Sukkot, during which many Jews spend as much time as possible (mainly meals) in a sukkah, a small wooden hut that they build in their yard. Not that I want to promote stereotypes, but Sukkot is one of the few times a year that I use powertools. In fact all of my serious tools have been purchases related to building our sukkah. So yesterday, it was natural that I made a short trip to our local Home Depot for a couple of sukkot related purchases: some dowels for a sukkah banner, a new light buld for our deck to provide light for the sukkah and screening material so that someone in the kitchen can hear someone in the sukkah.

I secured the bulb and dowels easily without any help from the staff. The screen had me a little lost. The first person I turn to is happy to walk me to the screen area to find the screen guy. Surely he noticed by light grey leather kippah with two shiny silver clips keeping it one my head. And the knit purple and white kippah with pink clips on my daughter's head. As we are walking, he quietly says to me, "It's nice to see a person of faith in the store."

In my head, all kinds of alarms go off, possible responses, the myriad ways that my faith and his differ on so many points. And I nod my head and say, "Thank you." Not worth getting into any deeper discussion than that. This is after all Home Depot, not an interfaith dialogue. But how interesting this man's view of his work life might be. Does it seem to him that so much of the world is secular? Do his customers seem particularly profane? Do few overtly devout people fix up their homes with help from Home Depot. I'm not sure, but I am sure that the kippot were the big give away. The comforting thing is that the remark was positive in that we both share a strong connection to our respective religion. Maybe we could have had a dialog on some religious values that we both hold dear.

So he walks me to the screen guy, who shows me (to my chagrin) how to fix the screen with some screen materials and a nifty new tools called a spliner or something like that. As we are walking away together, my fix-it materials in hand, he asks me (again the kippah must be the tip off), "I see you are wearing one of those things on your head. I have seen a lot of people wearing those today. Why today?"

After my short explanation about sukkot, its agricultural and historical significance, I explain that one of the main things on Sukkot is to build a "sukkah." The thing that I realized is that he had seen several people yesterday purchasing various supplies for a mysterious light building project, but had not gone up to them to ask. Maybe I was the guy with the thing on his head that was the tipping point for his curiosity. Part of me thinks that it may be that I was the most "normal" looking person with the thing on his head. Some of the other people he saw no doubt were from our local Lubavitch/Orthodox community. Maybe he found them a tad intimidating. Maybe I was the only one that was looking for some screen material.

But it just goes to show you: wearing that thing, that kippah on my head brings people to talk to me about myself, Judaism, to share with me matters of faith, even if just to share that we each have a strong connection to one. And since Sukkot is a festival with universalist themes, it is appropriate that preparing for it made the world a little smaller and a little closer together.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


This is my week to cover evening minyans at our synagogue. There are several regulars, who usually come on Sunday evenings to help make sure that we have ten people, enough for a full prayer service and so that mourners have a chance to say Kaddish, a prayer that proclaims God's holiness (despite the recent death of a member of the family). Tonight I saw a congregation whose husband has just died, along with her daughter, son-in-law and their two daughters. They are not part of the regular crowd. So together, we have four adults. Nowhere near ten. Then a regular arrives. Then two more. Now we are at seven. I begin to make calls. I call one and then another person who has offered their time to come almost no matter what. They don't even miss a beat. Once off the phone, they must grab the keys and go. There is no other way to explain how fast they arrive. Two other arrive, and we have ten. Once again, God's holy name is glorified, and it took some doing, but we did it. Such is the life of a minyan in Kentucky.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Can a leopard change his spots? Does he have to?!

About two months ago, I received a phone call at the JCC. I push the button that lights up when my line gets a call: "Melton Mini-School, how may I help you?" And the voice on the other end is not the typical voice that I hear on the other end of a call to the JCC. This young man was calling me from jail with a bible in his hand, reading various passages from the Prophets, especially Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel. I can't give a verbatim of our conversation, but in short it contained all of the following information.

1. Dareen had been in jail for a week because of an assault and battery charge. He implied that this was his first offense and would probably be home in a week or so.
2. He had just found out a few weeks before that that his maternal grandfather was Jewish.
3. He knows certain passages of the Hebrew Bible really well, and tends to think of them literally.
4. He is African-American and is considering converting to Judaism.

The question of his that lingers with me every day is based on a passage in Jeremiah where the prophet asks if an Ethiopian can change his skin or a leopard his spots. Dareen asked me if he had to change the color of his skin in order to become Jewish. Saddened and angered I insisted that in no way did anyone need to change their skin color in order to join the Jewish people. Did he know that over 90,000 Ethiopian Jews are living in Israel and Ethiopia today? Did he have any idea that there is no such thing as a Jewish skin tone! The subtle innocent racism struck a chord: he must be only one of many people who still think as all Jewish as a white subgroup tracing back to the ancient middle east. Dareen naive eugenics threw me back to World War II Germany as I considered what kind of a process he was thinking of.

But next is Dareen obsession with acquiring wisdom. Passage after passage about wisdom and fearing God and loving God and on and on. But only a small set of texts. Dareen seemed intent on pursuing wisdom and submitting to God. He was fixated on one passage that talks about eating butter and honey as a way to acquire wisdom. What I heard as allegory and metaphor he saw as a recipe for wisdom.

In the following weeks, Dareen has called me three or four times, still in jail. Our last conversation on Tuesday began right where our last one had left off. Since we had last spoken, I called Jewish Family and Vocational Services to get a handle on how to approach his should he get out of jail and pay me a visit. They gave me some great advice on working with Dareen.

He still wants to convert. So I gave him some homework. I told him that he needs to read more of the Hebrew Bible. I asked Dareen to reread from Genesis through II Kings and to be aware that he descends from the stock of Abraham, that this is his story. And that when he gets out of jail and is in an apartment that he can see himself in for a year or more, he can call me and we can talk about where he might go to work on conversion.

Would any of my colleagues work with him? Will he ever get to this place? Is he serious or stuck in jail with too much time on his hands, trying to figure out what it means to have one Jewish grandparent? I'll let you know later when he calls.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Cathedral Heritage Foundation

Cathedral Heritage Foundation

One of the shining gems in Louisville's faith communities is the Cathedral Heritage Foundation. There are few organizations that can truly claim to be "interfaith" and CHF does it, almost to the point of being criticized for going too far. They push the envelope of interfaith dialogue. Check out their Festival of Faiths! Stunning. This morning I spent two hours talking to Landon from CHF, and we learned that we have much in common, much to teach each other and more to learn from one another. I hope that this is the beginning of a long lasting friendship, and that it can be a bridge between our two faith communities.

As the new year approaches...

Now is the time after summer has ended and before the year gets underway. Like a huge intake of breath before the exhale, which will not come for two months, after Sukkot. I thought that I got rid of some of the hats I wear, but it seems I was unsuccessful. It seems that I wear as many hats as ever. And some of these hats get in each other's way.

As I settle into this community, I realize how entangled things are and see how innocent words or gestures set people off. This is a small Jewish community, and every piece of it is connected. When one piece moves, all the others feel it. Some more than others. I can appreciate why some groups in town prefer to do their own thing. Fewer repercussions to handle. Being part of the more intertwined community simple brings more players to bear on any given project. Working for one organization can subtly and significantly disturb other pieces.

I walk some precarious lines in this town, and this past summer has taught me that fact more than anything else. But this is also the beginning of my fourth year here. People are getting to know me. I have some successes in my past, and I am ready to face tomorrow. I know who are my allies, who is willing to stand with me and work with me. And sadly, I know better now who will not. Some things are bigger than me, which is as it should be.

It is not about me. It's about the kids, the Hebrew language, the synagogue, the culture around me, the families and their needs. The trick is not to lose myself. And that really is the rub in all this. Some time it feels like people expect you to take care of themselves to the exclusion of yourself and your own family. What they do not realize is that this expectation is destructive. It diminishes everyone involved. And feeling that need from others is seductive, and can even make you turn your mind from your own family, your own needs for a while. And no matter which choice you make, the other pieces of the community feel the choice, feel the change in the system. It is more a matter of how much dissonance the system can handle before breaking or replacing the piece that causes the dissonance.

Sometimes it is exciting to do something that makes the community move and dance. Think of a windchime, and how a gentle breeze pushes the pieces so that they come make music. Disturbances to the system actually make the system seem beautiful. Too much wind and the whole thing come crashing down.

So this year, I will try to be a gentle breeze. Wish me luck.