One Night, One Light for Syrian Refugees

When you light your Chanukah candles this coming week – in addition to using that flame to bring light to this dark time of year – I ask you to use those same flames to ignite another kind of fire.

In recent weeks, especially since the bombings in Paris, many people in the Micah community have reached out to me about the crisis of the Syrian refugees. Driven by concern, compassion and justice people have asked me, “Can we do something?”

While these families are not the only families in the world seeking safety and security, the plight of these Syrian families seemed to have struck at something deep and significant for many of us.

In the next week we will gather in various settings and gatherings to light the Chanukah menorah. We will enjoy latkes, exchange gifts and most importantly bask in the glow of love, security and peace. Among these physical, emotional and spiritual blessings of Chanukah, I ask you to make some room in your hearts and in your minds for these families fleeing or seeking to flee Syria.

In our Chanukah story it is the Syrian Greeks who violently confront the Maccabees. Some 2200 years later, let’s change the narrative. In pursuing their highest values our ancestors turned against the Syrians of their age. Let us pursue our highest values and turn our hearts towards these Syrians of our day and age.

I ask you to take One Night and kindle One Light for the Syrian Refugees this Chanukah. Use that light to ignite the fire of compassion, justice and peace. And then, let us see where this ignited fire will take us in the coming weeks and months.

Here is what I propose that our community begins this Chanukah…

1) One Night, One Light for Syrian Refugees … Take one night this Chanukah and dedicate it to the plight of the Syrian Refugees. What would this dedication look like? Here are some ideas, but use your own creativity:

  • Dedicate the Chanukah menorah lighting to these families for that night
  • Light an extra candle or entire Chanukah menorah for one of these families
  • Collect and share some stories from your own family of people leaving their home (by choice or force) to make a better life
  • Contact one of your congressional representatives telling them that you want the US to welcome these families.
  • Make a donation as a family to one of these organizations who is working on these families’ behalf: Multifaith AllianceHebrew Immigration Aid Society; Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief

2) Ask the Questions: What is the REAL Story? … We are in communication with a few people in the Denver community who can teach us about the political, social and historical context for these families. Look for an upcoming opportunity to learn more with us about the experience of these families who are to be so prevalent in our hearts and minds.

3) Help Get Us Ready … Our community wants to be involved in helping families who eventually do make their way to the US and Denver. We need a few people to help figure out what this can look like for our community and how we can make this happen. Please let me know if you want to help us in the coming weeks to accomplish this task.

4) Do Something … Once we understand how we may help these families, join us and do something for them. Please let me know if you want to help these Syrian families in the coming months.

May the Chanukah lights we ignite this year inspire us to try and bring light to where there may be darkness.

The Voice of Mrs. Gold

Mrs. Gold was my 5th grade Religious School teacher … and I remember her well – but not fondly. She left an indelible mark on me. The school year under her tutelage seemed filled with drama. Perhaps, we were an unruly bunch who responded poorly to her limited classroom management skills. The drama, however, mostly resulted from the nature of the ideas she presented to us.

Mrs. Gold told us some pretty outrageous things that year. One of the more memorable ones was when she inferred (it might have been stronger than an inference, but I am giving her the benefit of the doubt) that Jews were more intelligent that other people. When we told our parents about these lessons, Mrs. Gold found herself in some hot water. I vaguely remember she was away for a week or two after that particular lesson.

That canard is not the most memorable idea I remember learning from Mrs. Gold. What I most remember is what she told us about being Jews in the world … that ultimately, inevitably antisemetism would rear its ugly head. She told us that ultimately, inevitably we Jews are on our own because when push comes to shove the world does care about us. She told us that no matter how safe, secure and free we felt living as American Jews in this latter part of the 20th century that ultimately, inevitably the perpetual waves of history would come crashing down on us — just like it did for the German Jews in the middle of the century.

What happened, you ask, when we went to our parents to inform them of these weighty, fear-mongering lessons we were receiving from Mrs. Gold? Well, when we shared with our parents or whoever would listen about this lesson of history and our inevitable fate – unlike with her other ‘lessons’ – there was no hot water to be had for Mrs. Gold. We received the concerned nod and then the weighty acknowledgement of the truth of our situation.

Mrs. Gold is on my mind this morning – and has been prominent over the past several weeks – because I feel as if she is speaking with this same message once again. I hear, see and feel her voice and its message as I have read, listened and observed our Jewish community react to the proposed nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

I asked you a few weeks ago if you wanted me to address the deal in our time together. I am heartened by both the number and the nature of the responses I received electronically and in person. The general tenor of what I heard from you was – “Not so much.” You told me that you really do not need me to tell you if I think the proposed deal with Iran is a good one or a bad. Some of your reasoning derived from your skepticism of my political, nuclear and diplomatic expertise. Most of you told me that you do not come to share this space and this time for that kind of discussion, but wanted to engage in matters of spirit and soul. Most of you also told me – in different ways, but with a similar message – that if I thought I needed to address this issue and/or there was a matter of spirit or soul I felt warranting our consideration – you supported me in doing so.

And in this spirit, I say to you that the matter of spirit and soul that concerns me is not related to the merits of the deal or Iran as a trustworthy partner OR whether the deal will help or hurt Israel or the dozens of other nations who legitimately worry what Iran might do with nuclear weapons OR even the way this proposed deal has starkly accentuated some every growing fault lines within the Jewish community – between liberals and conservatives; secular Jews and observant Jews; Boomers and Millennials. The matter of spirit and soul is the resounding boom of Mrs. Gold’s message that seems to permeate our Jewish psyche. What Mrs. Gold has to say to my class almost 40 years ago is still the same anxious, reactive and fearful message. We as a Jewish people continue to let this worldview dominate our thinking and actions. The matter of spirit and soul is how this deeply ingrained outlook continues to marginalize us as Jews and inhibit us from what our tradition commands us to do.

Iran is a serious threat. The proposed deal is not perfect. Israel should be concerned about the nuclear capacity and ideological capriciousness of Iran and its leaders. These widely agreed upon statements, do not explain why we respond the way that we do. Why has this proposed deal consumed board rooms and meeting rooms of Jewish organizations around the world as they craft statements and circulate petitions to motivate and manipulate our elected representatives to act accordingly? Why have the efforts to motivate our elected officials become personal, petty and even mean? What is up with ‘us’ that we have so dramatically placed ourselves in the middle of this debate?

I do remember the lessons that history teaches us about the precarious nature of being a Jew or part of a Jewish community. I would not dare to naively ignore that history or to show any disrespect to those who have suffered as a result of that history. I do believe that there is more than one way to react to those lessons. There are many voices of understanding -not only Mrs. Gold’s – that we must listen to as we seek to create our future.

In seeking to analyze the competing voices and their messages, I am reminded of an not so traditional interpretation of this morning’s Torah portion that we have studied together in years past.

In the portion from Genesis, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham responds by taking Isaac to Mt. Mariah, binding him on the altar and goes as far as raising the ritual knife to kill him … when God’s (via an angel) demands that Abraham stop the sacrifice and offer something else in Isaac’s place.

We moderns often react to this story with outrage and disgust – at a God who would ask such a thing and a father who would acquiesce. We must remember, that there is a larger tradition than this modern one – that does not question God’s violent request and celebrates Abraham’s faithful response. Rabbi Michael Lerner turns both responses to the Torah portion on their respective heads, by naming the competing voices he hears/sees in the narrative.

In Rabbi Lerner’s careful reading of the text, he points out that there are two separate ‘voices’ that Abraham hears as commands from God. Each is named something different in the Torah. The voice that commands the brutal sacrifice is called ‘Elohim’. The voice that demands Abraham abandon the sacrifice is called ‘YHVH.’ Noting this distinction, Lerner suggests a deeper meaning for this difference. The first voice, ‘Elohim’, (literally gods) is not God at all … but the accepted pain and cruelty of contemporary moral standards (which at that time accepted the violence of human sacrifice as a norm.) The second voice, YHVH, (actually the name of God as understood by our tradition) is a messenger of the true God. This God, one of compassion and justice, does not command the sacrifice of the innocent. Abraham hears two powerful influential voices, voices that seem God-like. One promotes and protects the current status quo, no matter what that status quo might be. One that that promotes and champions a higher ideal of justice and mercy.

Lerner champions Abraham’s ultimate ability to listen to the voice that reflects our highest values, not the voice that perpetuates our pain and suffering.

“The greatness of Abraham is that he doesn’t go through with it. As he looks into the eyes of the son he has bound for slaughter, he can now overcome the emotional deadness that allowed him to cast Ishmael off into the desert. At the very last moment, Abraham hears the true voice of God, the voice that says, ‘Don’t do it Abraham’, says God. ‘You can break the pattern of passing on to the next generation the pain and cruelty that you have suffered.’”

The voice that sees the world through the lens of pain and suffering and that commands us to act accordingly still speaks to us. Abraham heard this voice, too. He passed his test because he was able to pay heed to another voice. We still tell ourselves this story, because we face this test, as well … we need to listen to other voices, other messages.

And what would acknowledging, listening to and responding to another voice look like for us today? It would never mean abandoning rigorous debate about the issues of the day. It would never mean tolerating abuse or violence against our community. It would mean doing so and being able to embrace other paradigms and opportunities for growth, change and peace. Ones that – on the surface – would probably feel uncomfortable and even wrong.

I spoke to you last night about the death of Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish actor who was renowned worldwide for his role playing the Vulcan, Spock, in the Star Trek universe. In his eulogy at Nimoy’s funeral, Rabbi John Rossove tells this story about Mr. Nimoy doing just that …

One year Leonard asked me what I thought of his accepting an invitation from Germany to speak before thousands of Star Trek fans. He told me that he’d been asked before but always turned the invitation down due to his own discomfort about setting in a country that had murdered six million Jews. I told him that I thought it was time that he went, and that he take the opportunity to inform a new generation of Germans about who he was as a Jew and about the Jewish dimension of Spock’s personality and outlook. He liked the idea, and so on that basis accepted the invitation.

When he returned he told me that he had shared with the audience his own Jewish story and that Spock’s hand gesture was that of the Jewish High Priest blessing the Jewish community, an image he remembered from his early childhood attending shul with his grandfather in West Boston on Shabbes morning and peeking out from under his grandfather’s tallis at the Kohanim-priests as they raised their hands in blessing over the congregation.

He (Leonard) told me that when he finished his talk he received a sustained standing ovation, an experience that was one of the most moving in his public life.

The most frightening thing about the Iran deal – for me – was hearing Mrs. Gold’s message so boldly in our community’s response. More frightening is worrying about what direction such messages take us … towards safety and security or towards marginality and insularity? We must be open to paying attention to other ways of understanding our place in the world engaging with those whom we share it. May we begin like Abraham and hearing God’s true voice … and continue like Spock, and be willing to share our stories and blessings – even with those who have cursed us.

Bemidbar 5775 – Being Counted

The news of President Obama’s new Twitter feed was not much of a news flash to me (Didn’t he already have one?).

The news of the rapid response of the racists to President Obama’s new Twitter feed made me sad, angry and dispirited.

I know that we are probably speaking of such a small percentage of people who actually would post such nasty, mean-spirited and hateful things. In our day and age, it is does not take many people to stir it up. We live in a world in which the more outrageous or extreme voices gets attention – and, usually, the extremity of those voices are inversely proportional to the amount of people with those views and perspectives.

I want to be counted – along with what I suspect are the plurality of voices – who are outraged that any person – yet less the President of our county – is treated in such a manner. I want to be counted and have the world hear — MOST of us do not feel this way.

I have the same reaction when I pay attention to other ways that racism and prejudice rear their ugly heads in our world. Last summer it was in Ferguson, MO. Just recently it was in Baltimore. I believe that most people in our world want safety, security and opportunity for everyone — regardless of race or socioeconomic status. It seems that we do not have an effective way to say so. I feel strongly about these very fundamental justice issues, but I do not know quite what to do with my convictions.

Can we get our voices heard? Can we be counted?

In our weekly Torah portion, Bemidbar, our spiritual ancestors are, quite literally, being counted as they begin their trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land. In an interesting use of language the command to ‘take the count’ by God, translates literally to “‘Raise the heads’” of all of the people of Israel.’ Rabbi Abraham Twerski suggests that this ‘counting’ is more than a simple act of logistics, but an act of empowerment:

“The Divine words were therefore carefully chosen to avoid misrepresentation of the symbolism of the desert: ‘Elevate the heads of the entire congregation.’ Every individual should know that he or she is capable of being elevated, of achieving the greatest heights.”

When we raise our heads (and probably our hearts and our souls, too) – it is then we are counted. When we raise our heads, we remember that we can elevate ourselves and the world around us to heights we envision.

Perhaps, we can start being counted in this way in regard to these issues in our own backyard – which for our Micah community is Park Hill. Park Hill is a very diverse community – and in many ways it is a microcosm of our larger society. I know we live all over the Denver Metro Area. I realize, too, that our reach to the Oval Office or to Ferguson or to Baltimore is limited at best. By being a part of Temple Micah we are all deeply connected to a neighborhood where we can be counted. When we stand and be counted anywhere, we are taking the steps toward everyone being counted, everywhere. Come let’s begin being counted together …

REAL Park Hill – a burgeoning grassroots coalition of religious institutions and communal support organizations – is coordinating a Community Walk through ‘our’ neighborhood. We will walk together – Black and White (and all the ‘colors’ of the rainbow that make up Park Hill); Jew and Christian (and all of the religious expressions and non-expressions that make-up Park Hill); ‘Middle’ Class and ‘Lower’ Class (and all of the various distinctions we put on one another). We’ll sing, maybe tell a few stories and get to know the Other – whoever the Other may be. As we walk together we intend to let those with whom we share all of our neighborhoods know that we value justice, compassion and peace. And, that we are willing to stand, walk and be counted in order to make our values energize, enliven and encompass our world. We will gather on Friday, May 29th at 7:00pm at 3333 Holly St (the Vicker’s Boys and Girls Club).

Pesach 5775 – It’s Not About The Matzah

Eating matzah is not really about eating matzah. You want to get a good discussion going? Ask a few Jews about what they do or do not eat at Passover … you will find proof of the adage: two Jews, three opinions (at least) … and probably heatedly-expressed ones, as well.

What is it about religion that so polarizes people? Sometimes it is people empowered by their faith to impose rigid and judgmental beliefs on those around them – like legislators in Indiana who recently empowered their citizens to express their religious beliefs at the liberty and expense of others? Sometimes it is people impassioned by a fear or hatred of a religious communities values, history or standing – like the individual(s) who sought to unsettle the folks in Boulder by sending envelopes with harmless white powder and accompanying it with (poorly written) threatening messages.

Religion gets – and sometimes deserves – a bad rap. And sometimes, it is quite difficult to face and take that rap. Difficult and challenging because ‘good’ religion ain’t easy. Good religion is the kind that honestly acknowledges the mystery and complexity of the world and the universe – one that does not commonly offer easy black and white responses to the rainbow of living that goes on in our world. Good religion is the kids that when confronted with that mystery and complexity aids us in finding comfort and meaning.  Good religion is the kind that challenges even the most agreed upon sacred cows – especially when those ‘cows’ embody or employ ideas that encourage rigidity, stagnation or oppression. Good religion – while rooted and living at the pure core of the religious traditions we know – cannot help but to be related to, intertwined with and inhabiting the same space as bad religion, too.

Good religion reminds us that eating matzah is really not about eating matzah. It is not really about changing dishes or avoiding corn or rice or tortillas. It is about reminding us (i.e. putting it back into our minds) of our obligation to participate in the ongoing process of liberating ourselves from Egypt, or as it known in Hebrew: Mitzrayim: The Narrow Place.

Vayikra 5775 – The Levitical Lens

I am sad. I am disillusioned. I am angry. It is not that the recent Israeli election changed the status quo. There will be a similar ratio of a ruling ‘conservative’ block and an opposing ‘liberal’ one. It is not even that there were any true surprises coming from Prime Minister Netanyahu — he was manipulative, combative, parochial and … consistent. My sadness, disillusion and anger result from how his efforts were rewarded by the electorate. This response gave him – at least in the context of Israeli politics – a landslide victory. It is a harsh reminder of the kind of rigidity, chauvinism and myopia that has Israel’s present and future in what is akin to a death grip.

How fitting for me that the mysterious machinations of our spiritual tradition would present the beginning of the book of Leviticus as the Torah lens for me to reflect on these feelings. Each year as we are confronted by Leviticus’ antiquated and anachronistic notions and practices: ardous sacrificial offerings; an officious and domineering priestly caste and all the graphic descriptions of how’s, what’s, when’s and who’s involved. Yes, we endeavor (with moderate success) to translate the sacrificial system into some mythic and metaphorical meaning. At the end of the day – no matter the eloquence of our transformative tale – we have no problem rejecting the relevance of these obligations and relegating them to their appropriate place in our past. I became a Reform Jew – because I was drawn to this willingness to unashamedly, unabashedly and respectfully leave such attitudes and practices where they belong – in our past.

Using this levitical lens, I examine these elections and the things that are said, done or promised to be done in the name of Judaism. With the same vehemence with which I reject the relevance of sacrifices in our present and future view of the world, I am compelled to reject these narrow (Mitzrayim like?) attitudes toward other human beings — no matter how one may label these human beings: Arabs, Israeli Arab Citizens or Palestinians. I am compelled to reject such attitudes that embrace a supposed divine promise for a swath of land while negating the actual divine gifts of compassion, justice and peace.

No, the election has not changed the status quo in the Knesset, the Israeli electorate or even Prime Minister Netanyahu. The election, however, has changed me.

Beshalach 5775 – Beginning to Reflect on Israel

It was my intention to blog while we travelled in Israel … I had done it before when I co-chaperoned the Student Interfaith Peace Project trip in the summer of 2008. Perhaps I had more energy then or I underestimated the energy needed in leading a trip, but I found myself at the end of each day physically and emotionally spent — with the idea of writing as difficult as contemplating running 10 miles, too.

A few have asked for my impressions and reflections from the trip and I have been endeavoring to place those in a sharable construct … and even though I am past my jet lag and have the time and energy to write – the sharable construct has not yet been constructed. Our group will reconvene soon and discuss the ways in which we all might share what we saw, felt, thought and experienced. I trust there will be some in person and some virtual opportunities for us to share with our community what we did.

Perhaps my writer’s block – if I can call it that – is this sense and need to honor the group-ness of this experience. In all of my travels to Israel, this trip was the first time that I have led a group from my community. I have formed community while in Israel, but I have never traveled with, shared and guided the experience of Israel with a previous existing community. The sense of Micah – Park-Hill-residing, Colorado-mountain-loving – being in Israel became a prominent element of the experience of the trip for me. I found myself eager and anxious about the prospect of introducing Micah to Israel and Israel to Micah. I watched and wondered about the interaction and exchange of these two distinctive and significant entities. I embodied the role of of mediator and counselor as I facilitated this increasingly reverberating encounter between the two.

And so my first reflections on our trip begin with this observation of the sense of ‘us’ being ‘there’. This thing we call ‘community’ is the combination and permutation of so many varied kinds of relationships. It is an unruly mess to categorize and quantify (and organize, too!). No matter how we understand it and try to contain or cultivate it, I can say with confidence that ‘community’ is something that transcends time and place – because that is exactly what we did.  And the the way in which we did so – to encounter Israel together – enhanced not only the trip we took, but provocatively impacts the way I understand the community to which we return.

Vayechi 5775 – Farewell, Joseph

(A digest of my D’var Torah from Kabbalat Shabbat services on 1.2.15)

Rabbi Joe Goldman died just more than a week ago … and he added something to your life.

‘What?!” you say, ‘I never knew Rabbi Joe Goldman!’ You may have never met Rabbi Joe Goldman, but if you are reading this email and you have a connection to me or to Temple Micah or to someone else who values Temple Micah … then you owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Joe Goldman.

Rabbi Joe Goldman was Temple Micah’s first rabbi in the 1960’s. It was his spirit, character and vision that set the tone for our community, our values and how a rabbi and congregation partner to create a kehilah kedosha — a sacred community.

There are few narrative moments from Rabbi Joe’s tenure that show us who he was and how that spirit still abides among us today. 
  • Rabbi Joe taught about the trust that is an essential part of a successful partnership between rabbi and congregation when he insisted (and the community responded positively) that the community introduce the teaching Hebrew to its students. (Micah – as a congregation who identified with Classical Reform ideals – did not have a Hebrew component in its education curriculum.)  This decision took two partners to make and successfully integrate.
  • Rabbi Joe taught about the important balance for a religious organization to apply its values to operate both as a community and as a business. Complete with business degree and sales experience, Rabbi Joe understood that it was essential for a congregation to be able to talk about money and conduct its business in a way that reflected Jewish values and the best practices of our contemporary society. He would later use this experience and outlook, to help shape the pension plan and retirement for hundreds of rabbis and Reform professionals.  
  • Rabbi Joe taught about the ideal of radical welcomeness, as he would have no problem speaking about his lack of faith in God – from the bimah or in his office. He set the tone for a Micah community that still prides itself on inclusivity regardless of ideology, theology, socioeconomics, sexual orientation or family construct.

The Hebrew version of the name, Joseph – who we read about in the last portion of the end of Genesis – is Yosayf. It means: To add, to increase, to enhance. Rabbi Joe Goldman added something, increased and enhanced the lives of any of us who value Temple Micah.

Thank you, Rabbi Joe. May your memory continue to be a blessing.