Monday, March 24, 2014

Telling the Story: 36 Rabbis

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.  There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go into the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say a prayer.”
And again, the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.  Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer.  I cannot even find the place in the forest.  All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.

Childhood cancer kills more children each year than any other disease — more than AIDS, asthma, cystic fibrosis, congenital anomalies and diabetes combined. And yet, all types of childhood cancers combined receive only 4% of the U.S. federal funding for cancer research. More than 175,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year.[1]

But tonight I want to tell you the story of one of them.

I met his parents at a poker game in 2002. I think it was in their home. I was invited by another player. I can’t shake from my memory that there was a baby in a carrier on the floor most of the evening. It might have been his older brother David, or it might have been any Cincinnati rabbinical student’s kid. I remember that Mike was very funny when he did speak. I remember Phyllis as being there but not playing. Perhaps she was busy with the newborn or her studies. Maybe she just wasn’t into cards. I remember liking them.

His mom and I participated in a Pre-Passover project in 2010 called Tweet the Exodus, along with 10 or so of our colleagues from all around the country. One of the bonuses to being a part of such a project with so many great rabbis is that there were a lot of terrific blogs to follow. It was fun to read the exploits and ideas of my colleagues and learn from their best practices and from their mistakes. Because I liked her style I regularly read Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s blog posts, in June 2012 I was shocked to read the news.

Sam Sommers, second born to Rabbis Phyllis and Michael, had been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a kind of cancer that starts in the bone marrow and attacks the cells that would otherwise make white blood cells. From the little I know about medical terms, “acute” usually means that something is temporary. In this case, it means it appears quickly and attacks quickly.

Sam was a wild kid with a great imagination. He loved magic and superheroes, and very much loved his big brother David and his younger siblings Yael and Solly. He had a great sense of humor, even through all the tests and treatments and tubes and needles and pain.

During the summer of 2012, Sam and his mom had a conversation about all the people saying Mi Shebeirach for him. She told him that hundreds of synagogues all over the country had his name on the list, and thousands of people were praying for him every day. He wasn’t sure if he believed her, so he asked her, “prove it.” She had the idea that people should send Sam pictures of themselves dressed in superhero T-Shirts, since he was already known around the hospital by the moniker, “Superman Sam.” I was at URJ’s Camp Coleman at the time, and I had about a dozen superhero shirts with me. I asked the entire camp to put on their superhero shirts for lunch the next day. I handed out a few, some of the counselors handed out a few, and about 100 of us went out to the lawn and had a big picture taken for Superman Sam. Our ages ranged from 7 to over 70. We represented four states, 16 congregations, and two NFTY regions. It was a moment of great pride to know that we were among the 500 or so congregations who helped his mom “prove it.”

In January 2013 Sam was finished with his treatments. They threw a celebration in the hospital where he got to ring a bell in celebration of the miracle.

By March he had relapsed. They spent the year in and out of the hospital. In late August, Sam had a bone marrow transplant. It looked good for a while, but in November they realized that the cancer was going to win.

During the URJ Biennial Convention this December, on Friday night, after an amazing Shabbat Service, after an evening celebrating and singing and sharing so much joy, word spread that just after midnight for him in Chicago, at home with his family, Superman Sam took his last breath.

Sam Sommers lost the battle, but the war is far from over.

Sam is far from the only child to contract such a horrible disease. He isn’t even the only Reform rabbi’s child to fight cancer. Sam’s inspirational attitude, his family’s openness, and the close-knit community of friends they have all over the country have brought this fight to the forefront, and now it is our turn to do whatever we can to help.

In memory of Sam and in honor of everyone fighting childhood cancer, a group of rabbis has decided to do something a little drastic to call attention to this fight. Started by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr and Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, two very close personal friends of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, the goal was originally to get 36 rabbis to shave their heads publically to raise money. Rabbi Einstein and I were among the first half of rabbis signed up for the project. At first the goal was 36 rabbis raising $180,000. It seemed like quite a difficult task. A short while later there were over 36 rabbis signed up. A little while after that we had surpassed our original goal and had raised it to $360,000. But we have surpassed that too.

To date there are 94 participants, including nearly 80 of us shaving our heads on April 1 during the CCAR convention.  We are $90,000 shy of our latest goal of $540,000. The money goes to an organization called St. Baldricks, which has given grant money for childhood cancer research to 690 projects for 326 institutions in 20 countries.

So how does shaving our heads raise money for childhood cancer? I’m glad you asked. We raise the money through sponsorship.

Three weeks ago at the NFTY SoCal Social Justice Kallah, the teen board asked me if they could buzz my head to get me started for the shave next month. Half thinking they were kidding, I said, “Sure, if you can raise $1000 for St. Baldricks.” They were more than successful. They raised $1500 for 36 Rabbis.  Quite an impressive group of teens!

Now it’s your turn.

I am asking everyone I know to sponsor my shave on April 1. It’s easy to do and can be done at any level.

All you have to do is go to and search for Rabbi David Young or CBT Rabbis, click the giant green button that says “donate” and give a tax deductible donation in memory of Superman Sam. The CBT Team is Rabbi Einstein, Rabbi Schorr, and me. Rabbi E and I are both shaving, Rabbi Schorr is organizing the whole event.  Once you have found the web site, pass the information along to everyone you know. 

Convince everyone you know to give what they can to save lives.

You might not know the place, you might not have the shears, but now you have the story.  Tell Sam’s story.  We can create the miracles that could save thousands of children.

[1] According to the St. Baldricks web site:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

35 Horas en Antigua, Guatemala (35 hours in Antigua, Guatemala)

I landed Saturday at 9PM and I take off today, Monday, at 8AM. Not nearly enough time here, but it was time well spent.  The first thing I noticed was the lights. As the plane landed in Guatemala City, it seemed that the tallest structures were the street lights, so they hugged the landscape, revealing the sparsely populated rolling hills of what I imagined was a gorgeous country. The drive to Antigua was blind but fascinating, allowing me to glimpse trees in the headlights and feel the winding mountain road under the taxi, but the darkness left the mountainous forest to my imagination.

When I arrived at my hotel I was greeted by Alejandro, whose weak English combined with my weak Spanish allowed us to understand one another just enough for him to show me around as if I were staying in his home.  I learned later that the hotel actually used to be two homes. The owner used to keep one as a summer home, and he was able to buy the next door neighbor's home just about a year ago.  After six months they turned their two properties into a beautiful villa with ten rooms.  Mine overlooked a lap pool and a small yard with a picnic table.  The room itself was gorgeous, with a brick archway separating the bed area from the sitting area, and way more space than I needed on my own.


In the morning I finally got to see Antigua. I was out of the hotel by 8, and started walking around the town. Cobblestone streets and closed storefronts greeted me most of the morning, but a large mountain (that I realized later is actually a volcano), provided a beautiful view no matter where I was in the city. I made my way to "Parque Central," which is more of a town square, and started towards the center, where a statue beckoned for a photo. Called, "The Call of the Sirens," it's four sides feature a woman covering her breasts, from which water shoots through the fingers. As I held up my phone to snap a shot, a man walks up to me and says, "Llamado La Leche Clara, (It's called The Clear Milk)." I answered him in my weak Spanish that it reminded me of a story of Sarah from the Bible, and told him the midrash of Sarah producing so much milk that she could feed all the children of the city. He asked if he could show me around the city, and when I politely refused, he offered to at least take me to the marketplace. Since that was one of the places I wanted to go anyway, I accepted and enjoyed chatting on the way there.

Nothing special about the market, so I spent the morning wandering the streets. Around 10 the city transformed. People started roaming with me, and in no time the streets were overflowing with people. Shops opened, carts rolled out with fruits or ice cream, and peddlers shoved cheap toys or candy in the faces of passers-by.

I found a coffee shop that I was drawn to because of the Hebrew lettering on the sign saying "שלום." I went in and asked the woman behind the counter, "¿Hablas Ebreo? (Do you speak Hebrew?)"  She said no, and I was leaving when she walked out of the store with me to point out the owner. He called himself Chaim, and he told me he had lived in Jerusalem for a year, then Miami, but decided to come home to Guatemala and open two coffee shops. Amazed that I too had spent time in Jerusalem and Miami we had many notes to compare, but when he found out I am a rabbi he would not let me pay for my coffee.  It was my first lesson in the high regard people here hold clergy (a belief I did not have time to debunk in 35 hours). We spent a little while chatting until he had to return to his other coffee shop.  I left on a high from making such a unique connection in such a remote place.

The highlight of the rest of the walk was lunch. I saw a sign that said, "The best terrace in Antigua," so I gave it a try. Up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof of the restaurant, I immediately knew the sign was right. The view was the ruins of a Mayan Temple with the volcano looming in the distance. It was gorgeous. The food wasn't too bad, either. I tried a fish called robalo, and a beer called Gallo. The locals I spoke with had told me Gallo was the beer to try in Guatemala. All I have to say about that is: at least it was cold.

I got back to the hotel around 2, and was planning on a nap when the cleaning crew knocked, so that was out of the question. I wandered out to the hall to sit close to the wifi, and saw a family having lunch. I asked if I could sit and introduced myself, to discover that this was the hotel owner and his family, all of whom were to be guests at the wedding.  Though the conversation took my Spanish to the limits, it was wonderful chatting with them and learning about the hotel, the city, and their connection to the bride and groom. I don't know whether it was how slow my Spanish is or how much I enjoyed the con station, but the next thing I knew two hours had gone by and it was time to get ready for the wedding.

The wedding itself was wonderful. The bride and groom are both models, as are most of their friends, so to say it was beautiful is certainly an understatement.  Two things of note during the party that I find particularly memorable. The first was during the hora.  Guatemalan DJs apparently don't have much access to Jewish music, so the hora included Hava Naglia, Mashiach Achshav, an Irish drinking song, Adon Olam, and a Maccabeats (I think) song I didn't recognize. It was the most ridiculous hora mix I had ever heard, and the guests....LOVED it, even if they didn't know how to make a circle.  During the hora the groomsmen decided to make a line to pass David the groom on their hands. Passing quickly became throwing, and soon the groom's feet were over his head.  Thank God he is so light (model), because they caught him upside down just before he ate dance floor. What did he do next? He got right back up on their hands and let them throw him again. It was an amazing display of perseverance and positive attitude.

The second moment was during the toasts. David's father spoke beautifully about his son and daughter-in-law. One thing of note was the pride he had in his son's accomplishments as a model. He expressed how difficult it can be living in Australia when his son is in New York, then told a story of a time he was driving and saw his son fly past his car.  He realized that it was an advertisement with his son's picture on the side of a bus, and said that because of David's success, no matter where he lived he was never far from his son.

35 hours after I landed, I was sad to have to leave early and excited to head home at the same time. Like the father of the groom implied in his toast, nothing is complete without your family close by.  As great as this trip was, I hope that the next time I come to Guatemala I get to have Natalie and the kids with me. As my wife and children always say, "Everything is better when you share."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Loss of a Hero

Some may say heaven has another angel tonight.

Some may say it was meant to be.

Some may say his suffering ended tonight.

We will all say no one should have to bury their child.

I am not a part of this story.  I did not know his family except for a handshake and a quick conversation.  "You did this project? So did I! You blog? So do I!" That was about it. We exchanged blogs and emails and went our separate ways. I was a silent observer, enjoying the way she wrote about being mother and clergy at the same time.  I imagined similar situations with my kids, just a little younger than hers, just a child shy of her brood.  I followed and read, though I never responded.

When Sam Sommer was diagnosed with leukemia, his struggle became a struggle for many of his parents' friends and colleagues. They all supported them, watched in waves of hope and desperation as Sam's health showed signs of improvement that went away.  Into the hospital and out of the hospital, only to go back again.  Treatments and tests, attacks and remission, thousands of prayers going out to the little boy whose name appeared on hundreds of Mi Shebeirach lists.

I am not a part of this story.  I never met Sam, but I felt a connection through his mother's words.  I felt like I understood the strong little kid who loved Superman and had more strength than any seven-year-old should ever need to have. I watched silently as his diagnosis grew bleak and his time drew near.

Tonight a family lost their son, brother, grandson. A community lost its little superhero.

I am not a part of this story, but I am so entrenched in it that I was inspired to raise money by shaving my head this coming March.  I secretly hoped that Sam would be able to see thirty six shining bald heads, inspired by his story, and that he would know how much of a superhero he was.

Sam Sommer taught me that, even though I am not a part of his story, he will always be a part of mine.

Zichrono livracha. His memory and his story will always be a blessing.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Changing the World: Rosh Hashanah 5774

I hope you have all seen the recent movie “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.”  If not, spoiler alert: the boat sinks at the end.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a character based on Eugene Allen, who went from working the cotton fields as a boy in Georgia to serving eight American presidents as a White House Butler.  Inspired by Will Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post Article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” the movie shows the quiet power of the invisible forces in our lives.

In the film’s exposition, Cecil Gaines sees his mother raped and his father shot by one of the plantation owners under whom they toiled.  In a brilliantly acted display of pity combined with condescension, the matron of the plantation takes him into the house and trains him to be what I will rephrase as “House Boy.”  She tells him that when he enters a room to serve, he should not so much as breathe.  The room should feel empty when he is in it.  The training to be invisible in a room combined with his own sense of anticipating the needs of those he serves make him the perfect butler.  So perfect that in the movie he is eventually sought out by the White House staff to serve President Eisenhower.  As he is trained by the White House Maitre D’, he is again reminded that a successful butler makes a room feel empty when he is in it.

Cecil spends 34 years going in and out of the Oval Office.   He is regularly confided in by the eight presidents he serves.  President Reagan calls him a member of the family, which lets us know that he enjoys a level of confidence that no other low-income American has.  It is this level of confidence that gives him this quiet power.  He served the White House in a time when the country was just learning about equality.  When Cecil left the White House he had to use separate water fountains and bathroom in public.  Segregation was the norm, and the men he worked for, by asking him personal questions, had their eyes opened to the problems with how America treated African Americans.

It is also a study of power and its contrasts.  As Cecil serves in the White House, his son   Howard joins protests.  He sits at the counter at Woolworth’s, rides the Freedom Bus, gets arrested and beaten over and over by standing up vocally for equal rights.  He even becomes a politician who speaks out loudly for civil right in America--and eventually for the desegregation of South Africa.  But Cecil and his son are not the only images of contrasting power.  Lyndon Johnson sits on the toilet asking for prune juice, JFK jokes about the 103 aspirins he takes daily to keep his Addisons in check, and a butler sits as a guest at a state dinner.  Cecil Gaines stands in a darkened Oval Office next to a blood-stained Jackie Kennedy as he powerlessly pleads, “Please tell me how I can help you?”  A look of triumph quietly creeps across his face as he tells his direct boss Mr. Warner that the President has pre-approved his request for a raise that Warner just rejected.  Director Lee Daniels does a brilliant job contrasting those who fight for their civil rights with those who serve the most powerful people in the nation.  The power of keeping your head down and working hard versus the power of rising up and fighting for your rights are regularly interplayed in dialogue and montage.  

The power one person has to change the world.

Tomorrow morning we will read the beginning of the Torah, which is fitting for Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah begins with God creating the universe.  God makes light and darkness, water, air, land, plants, and all kinds of animals, including human beings.  Last night I announced that our Study Theme for the year is going to be change.  So why not start big, with changing the world?  In Judaism changing the world is often referred to as tikkun olam.  Anyone who has attended a Jewish summer camp, taken part in Religious School, or attended services more than twice a year has heard this phrase before.  It has a tendency to be overused as a catchphrase for social action.  Tikkun olam does work as a term for social action, but the phrase originates from a Kabbalistic story about the creation narrative.  The 16th Century Mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria tells the tale of what happened before God started to create.

Before the creation of the world, God was everywhere, filling every space.  God wanted to create the world, but to do so God needed to make room for creation.  God had to withdraw from God in an act called tzimtzum.  Much like when we take a deep breath of air and compact our organs around our lungs, God’s essence was compacted around the edges of the space created by the withdrawal.  Rabbi Luria compares it to an emptied flask of oil that retains a sheen from the oil that was once there.  This God-oil, as it were, begins to drip, and it needs to be contained, so God creates vessels to hold the essence of God.  Alas, because of the power of God’s essence, the vessels shatter, and tiny shards of the Infinite explode throughout the universe.  These tiny sparks are hidden throughout the universe, and whenever we do an act of kindness for another human being, we bring two of these sparks together.  That act is not just healing the world, but healing ha’olam, healing the eternal.  Every time we make a positive change in the world we are healing God.

Lisa Greenberg changed the world.  If you don't know Lisa, she is our youth director and 8th/9th grade religious school teacher.  Our teens are at a critical moment in their lives.  They are thinking about college, about socializing their way through high school, and they don't have a lot of time to think about being Jewish.  Lisa keeps Jewish living on their radar.  She makes Judaism fun.  She makes it easy for our kids to be a part of the CBT community, and she keeps them wanting Jewish contact in their lives.  That is changing the world.

Rabbi Andy Koren changed the world.  In the summer of 2007 Rabbi Koren and I were serving as faculty at Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA.  We were talking one evening about New Orleans and the devastation caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It was almost two years earlier that so much of New Orleans was wiped out, and there was still so much to be done.  He asked me if I would be interested in bringing some kids to New Orleans to do some clean-up work.  I immediately said yes, and though we both seemed excited about the prospect I didn’t hear from him for about three months after that.  He called me up and asked if I thought I could get five teens to join his synagogue on a trip to the Big Easy.  He had 15 signed up, but he needed 20 to make it a viable trip.  A week later I had 8 kids ready to go, so the week after Thanksgiving we took off for a long weekend that would change our world.

While we were there we met the Carters.  Phyllis and Joe Carter worked as a teacher and a pharmacist’s assistant, respectively.  They had lived a nice life in a two-story house that they owned.  They had converted it into a duplex so their daughter and her family would have a place to live.  In 2003 Phyllis retired a few years earlier than she had planned so that she could focus on fighting breast cancer.  Joe retired in 2005, a few months before Katrina hit.  They had a retirement fund, a small savings, and they shared expenses with their daughter.  When they evacuated their home before the hurricane, they didn’t bring much with them.  They had been through storms before, and usually the warnings were false alarms.  So they went to Phyllis’ sister in Mississippi and waited it out.  By the time we met the Carters, they had used up all of their insurance.  The money they got paid for repairs and much of the flood damage, but they had more expenses than they anticipated, especially since they were robbed three times during the building process.  Joe took to sleeping in his truck in the driveway to deter thieves, and they worked on to fix their home.  One thing Phyllis promised herself was that she would save their retirement fund.  They could use the insurance money and use their savings, but she didn’t want to use their retirement money because she worried about having to go back to work, especially since her daughter had found work in Mississippi and decided to stay there.  So she decided that she would forgo painting the house, because they just didn’t have the money.  Her contractor told her that if they did that they couldn't get insurance for the new house because paint is more than aesthetic--it also gives a layer of protection against weather and wear.  Faced with a terrible decision, she decided she would have to bite the bullet.  She was walking out to greet her contractor, ready to tell him to paint the house, knowing it would put her in debt, when the phone rang.  Standing in her driveway, she answered the phone to learn that we were on our way.  We were bringing paint and supplies, and a crew of more than 20 workers to paint the Carters’ home.  Over the two days we worked on their home, we learned their story, learned that she was Lil’ Wayne’s third grade teacher, that she values learning just as much as Jews do, and that she has an incredible sense of humor.  Joe didn’t talk much.

We connected with the Carters and enabled them to live in the home they own in the city they love.  We brought together their Divine Spark with ours, and healed that part of the universe.  All because one person said, “Do you want to go on this trip with me?”

One person has tremendous power in Jewish teachings. The Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save the entire world (B. Sanhedrin 37a).  We are commanded to ignore all negative commandments--all the “thou shalt not’s”--if we can save one life (B. Yoma 84b).  Just as one person merits being saved, one person can do incredible things.  Examples of this permeate our texts.  Sure, we know all about Moses and Joseph and Noah.  David defeats Goliath.  Esther saves the Jews from Haman.  Yael single handedly takes down Sisera.  Elijah defeats 300 priests of Baal.  Rabbi Ishmael dies in silence while being tortured knowing God will destroy the world if he screams in pain.  The fate of the world has been changed time and time again by one person.

Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Hannah Senesh, Nelson Mandela.  They all changed the world.  They all saved lives by their actions.  Each of them was just one person.  One person can make an impact on the entire world.  Perhaps they were just in the right place at the right time.  Thankfully, we have many opportunities to be in the right place at the right time with Congregation B’nai Tzedek.  We can change the world.

There are so many opportunities with CBT to be that one person who saves the world.  When my family and I spent our High Holy Days in Cincinnati, OH, Wise Temple would give us these paper bags on Rosh Hashanah, and we would have ten days to fill them and bring them to the synagogue.  We would fill them with non-perishable food items that Wise would donate to a local food bank.  My parents would take us shopping in between morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur.  We thought it was fun to go shopping on Yom Kippur, especially since we were shopping to give to the less fortunate.  When I got here I learned that we do exactly the same thing!  Today you found paper bags on your pew.  These are not just to keep you from getting splinters.  Fill them up and bring them with you on Yom Kippur.  Since many of us will spend the day not eating, we can buy enough food for a day, and then give it to those who don’t get the nourishment they need.  This is an easy way to save a life and change the world.

Any one of us can change the world.  I would love to organize a trip for Congregation B’nai Tzedek to rebuild in New Orleans.  We feed with the homeless, clean up swampland with an environmental group, and build homes in areas wiped out by the flooding.  This gives us the opportunity to work at a personal level with homeowners,  a communal level with New Orleans’ homeless population, and on a global level by working to help the environment.  Talk about changing the world!  If we can get just ten families from CBT to go to New Orleans, we can partner with other organizations who would like to join us.  I even know of some families in Miami who would love to meet us there.

Probably the best thing we can do to change the world will be on March 23.  March 23, 2014 will be B’nai Tzedek’s next Mitzvah Day.  Our Social Action Committee has spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to bring people in to the synagogue to work as a team for the Orange County community.  Mitzvah Day in the past has offered various activities available for different groups of people.  Project Linus made no-sewing-required blankets for children who are away from their families.  Hygiene kits were made and donated to the Southwest Community Center.  There was cleaning of beaches and books, and donating of blood.  Activities for senior citizens, teens, and young families.  Activities that allow the whole community to lend a helping hand.
Some people scoff at the idea of a Mitzvah Day.  They criticize the idea that people are doing Mitzvot, the important deeds God commands of us, only one day a year.  I agree with this critique.  I do not think Mitzvah Day is an occasion to say, “I’m done,” and sit on the sidelines for the rest of the year.  I see it as a springboard of opportunity, a chance to find out first hand how much it means to help where help is needed most.  I see us building community, sharing time together on a Sunday, using our hearts and hands to heal the world.  I see us changing the world together.
We can be that one person who changes the world.  We don’t have to hope that we will some day be in the right place at the right time.  A right place is at CBT. A right time is on Mitzvah Day: March 23, 2014.  Soon you will learn details about Mitzvah Day from our monthly bulletins or weekly emails, or read about it in flyers from your children’s religious school teachers.  Please sign up early so we can plan accordingly.  Even better, let us know now that you would like to help plan a project on Mitzvah Day.  Perhaps you have a cause that stirs your passions.  You may be an animal lover, a blood and marrow donor, or just someone who wants to help.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.  We can help each other change the world.

Not everyone is going to have the president’s ear like Cecil Gaines.  We might not be able to march on Washington or ride the Freedom Bus.  We might not recognize every opportunity we have to do tikkun olam, to repair God’s infinite presence.  But those opportunities are out there all the time.  If we recognize an opportunity and seize it, we will make a huge difference.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For indeed that's all who ever have.”

Sparing Change: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

I have led services all over the place.  Miami, FL; Cincinnati, OH; Fairbanks, AK; Moscow, Russia; even in Jerusalem.  I have worshipped in sanctuaries, chapels, social halls, woods, mountaintops, beaches, and campfires.  But this is something completely new to me.  The last synagogue where I worked was nice, but this is really fancy.  Wood chairs, marble floors, and a hot tub!

I have never before had to cover things up to make the worship space Judaism-friendly.  This is a big change.  And the space isn’t the only thing that is different this year.  You are.  All of you are a change from what I have gotten used to over the last seven years.

Oh, where are my manners?  Please allow me to introduce myself.

My name is David.  I am a husband, a father of three, a native Cincinnatian, a fan of theatre and film, a beer maker, a cook, and a rabbi.  It was suggested to me by the board of trustees that I spend this entire time slot, this whole Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, introducing myself and telling the congregation all about who I am.  Well, friends, it is fitting this time of year that we offer our apologies.  So to the Board of Trustees, I am sorry.  Perhaps a few people would like to know a little bit about the new rabbi.  Maybe everyone.  But not me.  If you want to learn more about me, come in and say hi.  Meet me for a cup of coffee or a beer.   Come to my home for a meal.  A High Holy Day sermon should not be about the person speaking, it should be about the High Holy Days!

So tonight we gather for Rosh Hashanah.  It is the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the calendar year 5774.  Some attribute Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of the world.  There’s a story you may have heard.  It starts, “Let there be light,” from the book called Genesis, where God’s utterances begin the process of creating the world.  That happened  today, according to legend.  5774 years ago  today on the Hebrew Calendar, which corresponds roughly to October 6, 3761 BCE, if you believe that kind of thing.  

I don’t.  

Reform Jews believe strongly in the concept of personal autonomy, both in the sense of how to follow Jewish law and how to interpret Jewish teachings.  Science is simply too compelling for most Reform Jews to believe that the world is 6000 years old instead of 42 million years old.  We have changed the ancient thought process, developed new ways to study the world.  We no longer need to rely on stories and legends to learn.  There is carbon-dating, archaeological findings, and of course: logic.

Rosh Hashanah is the time of year when we, in partnership with God, get to rebuild our world anew.  We take time for introspection, to consider the past year and how we have lived our lives.  Have we been the people we really want to be?  Have we fulfilled our promises to our friends? Or family? Ourselves?  Have we worked as hard at being alive as we have at making a living?  Have we adhered to the expectations we would set for others?  Rosh Hashanah is a time to look at the way we were, think about how we want to be, and change.

Change is a difficult concept to embrace Jewishly.  So often we laud tradition in Jewish practices.  We hear that we are a religion that is thousands of years old.  We read and reread texts that are easily 2000 years old.  We perform many of the same rituals that our people have been performing for generations.  We quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof to show how important it is: “Tradition!”  But listen closely to what he actually says:
Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat... how to work... how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, "How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell you!
[pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition... and because of our traditions... Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
He sings and dances about tradition.  He quotes the Bible, extolling the virtue of our ancient traditions, usually incorrectly.  This quote and others like it that keep Tevye praising tradition qua tradition, occur at the beginning of the movie.  By the end of the movie, all three of his daughters have relationships that are increasingly against tradition.  He picks up his family to move out of the town they have traditionally lived in for generations.  He even dances at a wedding--with his wife!  So the movie as a whole is not about how great tradition is after all.  Even Tevye, the stalwart supporter of all things tradition, changes.

Tevye reminds me of the mother with the roast.  Perhaps you know the story.  A young girl is watching her mother cook a roast.  The mother cuts off both ends of the roast before she puts it in the oven to cook.  The little girl asks why she does that, and the mother doesn’t know, so she calls her mother.  Her mother tells her that that is the way that grandma used to do it, so you should probably call her to find out why.  So the woman calls her grandmother, and asks why we cut the ends off the roast before we cook it.  The grandmother says, “Well, when your mother was young, our pan was smaller than a roast.”

If only Tevye really knew his Bible.  Perhaps instead of misquoting Moses and making up passages, he would be very interested in Deuteronomy.  I am thinking specifically of Deuteronomy 30:12, which we read just this weekend in Parashat Nitzavim.  It says, lo bashamayim hi: “It is not in Heaven.”  The “it” this verse refers to is the collection of laws and instructions that we call the Torah.  The verse continues to say that it is not in heaven so that people will not be able to claim that Torah is too far away to access.  It is not in heaven, nor across the sea.  It is in your mouth and your heart.  Close to you, close to all of us.

The rabbis of the Talmud use this verse in a wonderful story about a group of rabbis doing what groups of rabbis did best back then: arguing.  They are arguing over a particular oven and whether it can be considered a kosher oven or not.  Rabbi Eliezer, a wise and venerated scholar, believes it is kosher, while everyone else does not.  Rabbi Eliezer to perform miracles to prove his point.  A tree uproots itself out of the ground and moves, but the other rabbis say, “You cannot prove the law with a tree!”  A river flows backwards, but the other rabbis say, “You cannot prove the law with a river!” and so on.  Finally, a voice comes down from heaven to declare that Rabbi Eliezer is correct in this and all matters.  Then Rabbi Yonatan, another venerated scholar, stands up and shouts, “Lo bashamayim hi!”  It is not in heaven.  It is not up to a Divine voice to determine the way Torah applies to us today!  You gave it to us!  You told us it is ours to interpret, in our mouths and hearts!

And so the Divine presence….leaves.  And when Elijah the prophet later asks what God’s reaction was to this humbling moment, Elijah says that God was laughing, saying “My children have bested me, my children have bested me.”

This is what our tradition teaches us.  That real tradition is to change tradition.  Just as tradition for the sake of tradition does not serve our Judaism, neither does change for the sake of change.  The point of the Talmudic story is that the rabbis were in a heated debate.  Their discussion probably lasted hours about this one oven.  They were learned men, serious scholars of kashrut and all Jewish law.  And they were locked in debate because when we take the time to seriously engage the text, we can come to understand what it meant when it was written, and thereby we can understand what it means to us today.  They didn’t need another voice, even the voice of God, to tell them what to do because it had been done before.

In the words of the great 20th Century American Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, “the past gets a vote, not a veto.”

When a traditional colleague scoffs at Reform Judaism, I often ask why he (it is usually a he) is so against Reform Judaism.  An Orthodox rabbi once answered me, “Because your movement is named for change, and you don’t change what has worked for thousands of years.”  I asked who he viewed as the first Reform Jew, and he suggested Rabbi Isaac M. Wise.  While perhaps Rabbi Wise is one of the greatest reformers of the movement, he was not the first Reform Jew.  The first Reform Jew, I suggested, was Yehuda Hanasi.

Yehuda Hanasi, or Judah the Prince, was a 2nd Century rabbi.  He was known in the Talmud simply as “Rav,” because his teachings were so well known.  He is today considered to be the person who single-handedly compiled the Mishnah.  My Orthodox friend smiled and clapped me on the shoulder, thinking I was joking, which is too bad.  Yehuda Hanasi did something extraordinary for his time.  He took a dying religion, one that had just suffered one of its greatest losses in the destruction of the Temple, and revived it with his ingenuity.  He created a system of studying the laws of Torah that held it in such high esteem that, when combined with daily prayer services, replaced the sacrificial worship from the defunct Temple.  The Holy Temple no longer existed, and Judaism needed a reboot.  It needed to be changed.  So he raised a myriad of disciples and taught them Torah.  He taught them a different way of looking at Torah laws.  His way was to debate, to discuss the laws and answer questions about them, so that the words of the ancient scroll would be relevant to modern life at the time.  He was the first Reform Jew.

The very word Reform means change.  We are involved in a movement called Reform Judaism, which holds educated change as one of its core concepts.  Not just change, my friends: educated change.  Change meted for a purpose, and with intention.  Change made to improve the world, bring us closer to one another, and enhance our relationship with God.  

A quick look-up of the word “change” at lists 38 different meanings.  To make different; to convert; to substitute.  Most of them have subtle differences from one to another.  For example, definition #8, “remove and replace” like changing a baby is different from definition #15 “switch outfits,” as in changing clothes.  Perhaps the difference here is whether we do it to ourself or to someone else.  Some definitions are completely different.  Definition #24 is “a harmonic progression from one tone to another,” while definition #30 is “coins of low denomination.”  We can change our mind, change our name, or change the course of history.  It is precisely this flexibility that makes it fitting to use “Change” as our study theme for the 5774 programming year.  

You might want to ask me, “Rabbi Young, what is a study theme?”
I’m so glad you asked.

A study theme is a theme that we will use throughout the year to inform our various programs, lessons, divrei Torah, and more.  It is helpful to us as a congregation because, in the midst of all this change--new rabbi, new office, new sanctuary set-up--there is a thematic constant.  Yes, I am thoroughly aware of the irony of change serving as a constant, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun.

So as we move through 5774 together, expect to see changes, but also expect to learn about change in Judaism.  When did some of our changes happen?  What is the impetus for certain changes?  Why do some things never change?

I hope you will join me on this journey as we explore change.  A community that studies together grows together.  As we work to change ourselves into the very best version of us that we can be, may we also work toward the positive changes that will keep us strong as a holy community.  Let us not be like Tevye, ignorant of the law and clinging to the past.  Let us be like Rabbi Yonatan, shouting, “Lo bashamayim hi!” to the Heavens as together we discover what positive changes are available to us.  Let us be like Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, engaging in serious conversation with like-minded, passionate friends who know that innovation is in our heart and in our mind.  It is up to us to learn it, and do it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

29 Elul

Many thanks again to my colleagues who helped with this project:
Rabbi Rachel G. Greengrass from Temple Beth Am in Miami, Florida; Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia; Rabbi Eric G. Linder from Temple Israel in Athens, Georgia; Rabbi Alan E. Litwak from Temple Sinai in North Miami Beach, Florida; and Rabbi Daniel N. Treiser from Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater, Florida. 

A New Year’s Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy
I'm good at making resolutions, but not always good at keeping them. There are so many goals I'd like to achieve, so many changes I'd like to make. I pray to You, God, for strength. Teach me how to live a meaningful life, to comprehend my true promise, to understand why You have put me here. Let this be a good year, God. A year of health, blessings, love and peace. Amen.

May you all have a wonderful, sweet, prosperous, and healthy 5774!

Shanah tovah!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

28 Elul

The New Year is a time to reflect and to make goals/resolutions for a better tomorrow.  Reflection is hard; resolutions are often abandoned.  So, here is an exercise Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen once suggested to a patient of hers that I believe we can all learn from; review the events of the day for 15 minutes each night and ask the following questions:  What surprised me today?  What moved or touched me today?  What inspired me today?  By doing this, we begin the practice, not only of reflecting, but of finding life's blessings.  As we practice, finding those blessings becomes easier and easier until we actually live lives in which we notice blessings as they happen. . . let reflection bring us all to a place of awareness of just how blessed we are.