Fearlessly Spreading Light

As we celebrate the final nights of Chanukah, we remember the miracle that the little bit ofimgp8008
oil kept spreading light, against all odds, even as the days passed.  But I often think that the greater miracle is the courage it must have taken to have lit the oil in the first place.  What kind of person would light the flame, needed for 8 days, with the almost certain knowledge that the oil they had wouldn’t be enough?  What kind of person would commit to kindling light when darkness seemed certain to swallow up the light?  But just as they had refused to give into the enemy that seemed impossible to defeat, the Maccabees also refused to give into hopelessness, and so they kindled the flame that we now commemorate every year.

Like the Maccabees, we also live in a world where the threats against us can seem overwhelming.  My prayer for this sixth night of Chanukah is that we might have the courage not to give into our fears, and commit ourselves instead to spreading light despite that fear.

Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates religious freedom.  It should remind us how much of our history as Jews is tied up with the rights of minorities.  Jewish life in America has flourished because our country was built on a commitment to religious freedom.  Sadly, though, some of the loudest voices in our society today would have us see our nation’s diversity as a threat, not a blessing. In particular, I’m proud that so many voices in our Jewish community – from the Reform Movement to organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have condemned Donald Trump’s offensive and hateful remarks about Muslims.  Tomorrow, Shabbat morning at Beth David, I hope you’ll join us to learn more about the refugee crisis with a special presentation from HIAS Pennsylvania at 9:30 am.

There is a recent tradition that dubs this evening, the 6th night of Chanukah, as Ner Shel Tzedakah, “the candle of righteousness” or “the candle of charity,” on which Jews are asked to give “gelt” – real money, not the chocolate kind! – to charity in place of or in addition to giving gifts to children or loved ones.  Before Shabbat starts this evening, I’ll be donating tzedakah to some of my favorite organizations that help spread light and hope in this world, and when I light the menorah at services this evening, I’ll be dedicating this evening’s lighting to spreading light in the face of hate.  Whether you’ll be lighting the menorah together with us at Beth David or in your home, I hope you’ll join me.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!


On a Shabbat When Shalom Seems Elusive

This week marked the beginning of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, nicknamed Mar Heshvan, or “Bitter Heshvan,” because there are no Jewish holidays this month.  As we watch the violent attacks against our people in Israel in recent days, it does indeed feel like a bitter time.

Like many of you, I have been reading the news with a mix of fear, anger, and sadness.  But being one Jewish people means that we cannot turn away from Israel at this difficult time.  Yesterday, in response to the heartache of everything I was reading, I booked my next flight to Israel, a few months from now.  Libi b’mizrach – “My heart is in the East,” as Jews living far away from Israel have affirmed for centuries.

Tonight, together with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist synagogues around the country, Beth David will observe a Shabbat of Solidarity with Israel.  I hope you can join us for services tonight.  If not, I hope you’ll consider taking a few minutes to join in Week 2 of our Shabbat candlelighting experiment, focusing on the Shabbat goal of “Illuminating what matters” in connection to Israel this week.  Here’s my suggestion for this week’s meditation for Shabbat candlelighting:IlluminateSavorSweeten

  1. Light two candles
  2. Say the blessing:
    Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
  3. Close your eyes and ask yourself:
    In a week when Jews in Israel are under attack, but I am far away in safety, what have I done to fulfill the value of Klal Yisrael, connection with Jews around the world?  Over the next 25 hours, what one thing can I do to deepen my understanding and strengthen my connection to Israel, and to lift up hope rather than despair?

While we observe the Solidarity Shabbat here in the US, a group of 56 American Reform Jews are gathering in Jerusalem for the World Zionist Congress, pressing forward on the work of building a peaceful, secure, and just future for Israel.  A few months ago, I asked you to support ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, in the WZC elections, and thanks in part to your votes, ARZA won nearly 40% of the vote, making it the largest American delegation at the WZC.  You can read about our 40 American Reform Jewish delegates to the Congress on ARZA’s Facebook page.  You can become an ARZA member on their website.

Shaalu Shalom Yerushalayim – as the psalmist taught us so many centuries ago, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.

From the October Monthly: Shabbat Candles

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I offered my vision for what a Reform Shabbat might look like.  And now that it’s acherei he-chagim  – “after the holidays” – I hope that many of you will join me in exploring more deeply how a Reform Shabbat practice might enrich our lives.  If you weren’t at services on Rosh Hashanah morning, I hope you’ll read my sermon when you have a chance.

One of the ideas I presented were three goals for a Reform Shabbat, with each part inspired by one of the symbols at Shabbat dinner:IlluminateSavorSweeten

  1. Illuminate what really matters (Shabbat candles)
  2. Stop and Savor (Wine)
  3. Sweeten the everyday (challah)

Over the course of the year, I hope to explore each of these Shabbat goals in more depth.
For the next six weeks, we’ll begin with the first goal, using Shabbat to illuminate what really matters in our lives – to rebalance our priorities, to focus our time and energy on what is lasting, rather than on the many urgent tasks that demand our attention, but don’t reflect our deepest priorities.

Ritually, I hope to explore how lighting Shabbat candles might help focus us on this goal.  Here’s the first experiment we’ll be trying out.  Over the next six weeks, you’ll notice a change when you come into the building on Shabbat: there will be a big table where you can light your own Shabbat candles when you enter the lobby.  While we will still light Shabbat candles on the bima, I want more people to have the opportunity to participate actively in this fundamental Jewish ritual that has been passed down through so many generations – even if you can’t light candles at home because you are running out the door to services.  So when you come in on Friday nights over the next six weeks, there will be a table with plenty of Shabbat candles by the entrance, instructions, the words of the blessing in Hebrew and English, and a special kavana, or spiritual focus, related to the goal of illuminating and focusing on what matters most in our lives.  I’ll be eager to hear your feedback about this experience after the six weeks are complete.

If you’re new to the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles, or you don’t regularly make it part of your life, I hope you’ll consider joining us on this experiment.  If you can’t stay for services, but just want to come light candles in the lobby, you are welcome to do that as well. If you’d prefer to light candles at home, as Jews have for centuries, we’ll make sure to have extra candles on hand in the office during the week – feel free to come pick up a pair for free.  You can light Shabbat candles with anything as simple as a set of little tea lights.  Of course, the tradition of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah, has inspired generations of Jews to light their Shabbat candles in beautiful candlesticks.  If you need a pair of those, our gift shop, Gifted, always has plenty of gorgeous ones on hand!  Call our office to find a time when the gift shop will be open.

Thank you for joining me in the first step of this experiment.  And Shabbat Shalom!

Marching in Montgomery

My colleague Rabbi Bob Loewy shows the Torah scroll to other marchers before we head out for the morning.

My colleague Rabbi Bob Loewy shows the Torah scroll to other marchers before we head out for the morning.

The morning after we arrived in Montgomery, we woke to a quiet hustle of the march organizers adjusting the day’s plans based on the emerging information from police and from other organizers. It was the first and only day of marching for our group from Beth David, but it was the fourth day of the 40- day march for others who had arrived over the weekend. By 7 am, while the rest of us were pouring coffee, choosing between Southern biscuits and hash brown and some healthier options (I had hard boiled eggs and fruit, but couldn’t resist the hash browns), the lead team was out the door to start marching for the day. The logistics were complicated by the fact that the police, who would be escorting us all day, didn’t want more than a few of us marching during rush hour, since we would be taking up a lane of traffic, and the road along our rural route between Montgomery and Tuskegee was only one one lane in each direction.

Three rabbis on the bus and ready to march!

Three rabbis on the bus and ready to march!

Additionally, because the weather was so hot and humid, they weren’t planning on having any of us walk the whole route. In order to cover the ground we needed to cover that day to get to Washington DC for the rally on September 16, a lead team would be heading out early in the morning to cover the beginning of the route, and the rest of us would catch up with them by bus after the morning rush hour. In the end, the lead team somehow managed to cover 18 miles by the end of rush hour!

That meant that we had an easier task for the rest of the day, so they kept the pace slow and gave everyone breaks on the air-conditioned buses. They kept us cool with sun hats and ice packs, and they kept us hydrated with water and Gatorade, not to mention fruit, trail mix, and occasionally some nice chilled chocolate along the walk. And I appreciated all of it – it was up to 103 degrees in the afternoon, with a heat index of 114.

imageBut our group, which ranged in age from teens to people in their 80’s and included a man walking with a cane and others with mobility challenges, made it through the heat of the day without smiles on our faces. Longtime civil rights activists led chants, Millennial musicians led old and new protest songs, and I helped teach some Jewish songs and remind people of Peter, Paul and Mary lyrics. (Take a listen to some of the singing below!)  People driving by us in the other direction often waved hello – good Southern hospitality – but many people, mostly black, also honked their horns or gave us a thumbs up to show their support.
11230655_10207075193695262_6814161142616669387_nOnly one driver gave us a thumbs down out the window of his truck.  The state troopers who accompanied us were supportive and friendly, which was a poignant reminder of just how much has changed in the past 50 years, even as much work remains to be done. Several of the officers were also curious and interested to learn about the Torah.

I was one of three rabbis marching for the day, and so Rabbi Robert Loewy of Metairie, LA and Rabbi David Weis of Northfield, NJ and I shared the honor (and the weight!) of carrying the Torah through the course of the day. But lots of other marchers were excited to help carry the Torah, too, so our arms were never tired for long. Although it was hot, I also thought it was worth the extra layer to wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, which made me more recognizably Jewish to some people, and more recognizably clergy to others, even if they didn’t know the significance of the tallit. Because of Beth David’s longtime commitment to social justice, especially in the arena of civil rights under our Rabbi Emeritus Henry Cohen, I was proud to be marching together with Ed and Jane, two members of the Beth David, and also to wear a tallit that belongs to the congregation. imageNext time you come to services, if you happen to pick up a tallit from the rack at the door to our sanctuary, you might just wear the one I marched in. (But only after I get it back from the dry cleaner’s – it was hot out!)

I’ll write more soon about the stories of some of the people I met on the march, and some of the learning we did about next steps toward making substantive change toward justice in our country. But for now, I’m left with the feeling of just how inspiring it can be to walk in the hot sun when you’re walking as part of something so much bigger than your own steps. Just like the journey to Washington over the next month, the journey to justice is taken step by step, it isn’t always comfortable or easy, and you can’t do the whole thing alone. But together, with thanks to those air conditioned buses, good songs that keep your tired legs moving, and plenty of Gatorade, we’re going to get to Washington.

Arrival in Montgomery: Tora(h) is Her Nickname

Just one week after I committed to joining more than 150 other Reform rabbis in carrying a Torah during America’s Journey for Justice – but exactly 50 years after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in this city – here I am in Montgomery, Alabama.IMG_0783 I’m here with Jane Horwitz and Ed Hoffman, two members of Beth David who were somehow able to rearrange their schedules to join me on this journey.

My flight to Montgomery was on a small plane, the kind only big enough for one flight attendant, and when she introduced herself over the PA system, she said, “Welcome aboard your flight! My name is Torah.”

Coincidence? That’s one way of describing it.

I had to know more about her name, so after the plane had landed, I told her a little bit about the Jewish meaning of Torah, and why I was coming to Alabama. She corrected me on the spelling – it’s actually Tora – and she told me that it’s her nickname. It made me think of a teaching by the early Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezrich, who used to tell his students: Don’t just talk about the Torah. Be Torah.

That’s a pretty good way of describing why it is that I came all this way for such a short trip. First, because if our congregation is going to teach our children that the Torah demands that we pursue Tzedek, justice, and that all human beings are created equally b’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God, then I better be willing to jump on a plane every once in a while to practice what I preach. And second, because I have plenty to learn about other people’s experiences with injustice in our society, and how we can overcome it together – and this march seemed like a great opportunity to learn from other people who are busy being Torah as part of that struggle.

Our first glimpse of what it might mean to be Torah at this march took place at a rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. imageSince the march will last for 40 days, ending in Washington, DC, the crowd is much smaller here in Alabama than it will be by the end. But it was still inspiring to see the diverse crowd of people who came out today. Alabama churchgoers, New York union workers, college student activists, grandparents who lived through the civil rights struggles of 50 years ago, and their grandchildren in tow, some wearing tshirts with pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that recalled the last march from Selma to Montgomery.

IMG_0782The rally was focused on issues of economic justice, and speakers raised issues ranging from the need for a living wage for tipped workers to the frustration of workers with “full time aspirations” stuck in part-time jobs and of recent college grads living with their parents because of unemployment and student loan debt. There were five Refom rabbis at the rally, one of whom, Rabbi Mark Miller, gave the closing benediction. imageThe rabbis who marched today passed the Torah to the three of us marching tomorrow. We got a special shout-out for having sent so many rabbis from all around the country. Jews, one of the speakers explained, are the original members of the Abrahamic tradition – “the original Baptists, the original Methodists.” I guess that’s how we know we’re in the Deep South!

After the rally, Jane, Ed and I met up with the handful of other Reform Jews and rabbis who were in town this evening (from New Jersey, Michigan, and Louisiana) for dinner (who knew there was such good sushi in Alabama?), and then we made our way to a Catholic church that is serving as the home base for marchers in Montgomery. Tomorrow night, when our feet are likely to be aching, we’ll sleep at a hotel, but for tonight we joined other marchers and NAACP staff on cots in the gym.

IMG_0789The accommodations were basic, but the camaraderie in the room was warm, even for us as newcomers who hadn’t yet met any others. We got to talk a little bit with NAACP staff, including the national president, Cornell Williams Brooks, and a young woman who is originally from Wynnefield, the same neighborhood in Philadelphia where Beth David was originally located.

But now, it’s time for bed. A long day of marching in the hot sun awaits us tomorrow!