September 11

         I will never forget September 11, 2001. I was leaving first period at  Nicolet High School, my senior year, when I saw televisions in the hallway of B-wing. “That’s odd,” I thought. I turned to watch along with many others as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I froze-I had never been to New York at that stage of my life but I knew something terrible had occurred.

         Since that time I lived in New York for 10 years out of a 13 year period, 5 on the Upper West Side and 5 in Jericho, Long Island. I’ve often considered myself a good luck charm: barely missing the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy, and devastating Tropical Storm Isaias in New York; the shooting of Gabi Giffords in Tucson; Hurricane Irma and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Miami and Parkland. However, one’s luck eventually runs out-what does not run out is people being there for one another. No matter what natural or man-made disasters come our way, we stand together, tall and strong. Jericho lost Glenn Winuck, who went into work on September 11, 2001. He was one of the 2,977 who were murdered on that day. I know so many who were “near misses,” coming in late that day, and have heard of others who were in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

         My first year in Jericho I asked that Craig Taubman’s “Holy Ground” be played for Friday Night Live, our musical Shabbat service, and we ran out of time. We have enough time this evening for this powerful piece. Just as Moses was on holy ground at the site of the burning bush, so too is each one of us on holy ground here at Bet Shira Congregation. So many of you lived through Hurricane Andrew, whose 28th anniversary was just over 2 weeks ago. You remember what happened those High Holy Days and with the Bat Mitzvah and wedding scheduled that weekend. Yet you didn’t give up and get out of dodge; you stayed and rebuilt this holy congregation. As we approach High Holy Days 5781, let us remember that each of us stands on holy ground and that each of us is holy-a force of good with the power to make a difference in our congregational family, our community and the world.

A Time For Action

While I have not posted in a month, I have been attuned to the issues facing our beloved country, one in which I am proud to be a citizen. When I first learned of Kenosha man Jacob Blake being shot several times in the back in front of his children and being paralyzed from the waist down, I got chills down my shoulders and back. Kenosha was 45 minutes from where I grew up and I remember going to a Bar Mitzvah there during my elementary school years. While Kenosha is a whole different world from the Glendale, Wisconsin of my childhood, hearing about the shooting hit me hard, just as George Floyd’s murder did three months before and just Ahmad Arbury and Breanna Taylor’s murders did before that. It is telling about a wrong in our country which we need to find a way to make right-the systemic racism that we are facing.

While I have background in Community Organizing, I have not used it to its fullest potential in my rabbinical career up to this point. The closest I have come is serving on the board of Humane Borders in Tucson, Arizona and going on water runs in the desert to ensure migrants had full water stations during their trek through the hot Sonoran Desert. Since becoming a solo rabbi I have not gotten involved in the same way, for organizing constituents to have large-scale Actions is a political act, and I am a people pleaser by nature. I can no longer stay silent. Rabbi Shai Held reminded me last week at our Miami Board of Rabbis High Holy Day Sermon Seminar that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander in Judaism; silence by its very nature indicates consent with the status quo.

I was very proud of my Milwaukee Bucks, who I have been watching in the NBA playoffs, being the first team to officially boycott a game in protest of the treatment of Jacob Blake and of police brutality primarily towards African Americans. It is time that we demand change, and I am proud to be working with Steve Gutow and Miami Rabbis on ways to organize around police reform as well as a related issue of fighting gun violence.

Please note that while this has become a political issue, I view it as a human rights issue. I have congregants who admirably serve as police officers, putting their lives at risk each and every day. They kneeled along with the Miami police in solidarity with peaceful protestors against the murder of George Floyd, a courageous act that we should laud and which I will remind my congregation about on Yom Kippur. Just as I viewed defending migrants as a human rights issue on minimizing deaths, so too do I view defending the most vulnerable citizens, who are too often judged by the color of their skin, as a human rights issue on minimizing deaths. Kohelet teaches t(3:1) “to everything there is a season,” and this is the time to take action and stand in solidarity.

I know some will not see eye-to-eye with my views, but as they come from the heart and pen went to paper (or pixels were typed :)) in a steady flowing way, I know that I am saying what is true for me. As we continue in Elul and approach the High Holy Days, I hope that each of us will take action in ways that are meaningful for us and that we will work with every fiber in our beings to make this world a better place. May it be our will to do so.

Confederate Statues

Upon going to Rome during my year in Israel, my dad said “You have to go see arco tito.” Little did i know that arco tito, the Arch of Titus, was located just outside one of the 7 wonders of the world, the Roman Colosseum. Engraved on the arch, one sees Roman soldiers carrying off booty from the Temple, including the Menorah, and Jews being driven into exile. Upon visiting, I thought ‘Why is one of the most humiliating moments of our people’s history located in such a prominent place in Rome? Why instead can’t we celebrate the continuation of the Jewish people and remember the downfall of the Roman Empire?’

On Thursday we began 3 weeks of mourning, starting with the Roman breach of Jerusalem and ending with Tisha B’Av, when the Second Temple was destroyed. During the summer, when many people are celebrating at the beach or on vacation, we are supposed to enter a period of mourning, not cutting one’s hair or shaving, going to concerts, weddings, and as we enter the final 9 days not eating meat or drinking wine. Some do not even take a warm shower or do laundry. While some are inevitably easier to do this year during the plague that is coronavirus, as a people we communally warm the destruction of our holiest site and our exile from Judea. It is a very difficult time for our people, which makes it all the more insensitive that an arch to celebrate our defeat is prominently on display in Rome.

I use this as a jumping off point for the Confederate statues that many want to take down. These statutes, made to celebrate those who seceded from our Union and to honor those who fought for slavery, have no place on the streets of our country. I wouldn’t melt them down-they can have a place in our museums-but they don’t belong in town squares any more than the Arch of Titus belongs in the center of Rome. Progress is being made to be more sensitive to those things that cause offense-such as the Washington Redskins changing their name-but we still have a long way to go. Moving the Confederate statues is a small but important step in serving the goal of being more understanding of our country’s troubling history and taking steps to make amends for it.

While I believe those statues must go, I feel differently about Mount Rushmore and some other “hotspots of debate.” Past presidents had ideas and policies that we find abhorrent today. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves with Jefferson having and affair with one, Andrew Jackson led tens of thousands of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, and Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged an entire regiment of African American soldiers. While we can take issue with their beliefs and the actions they led to (not to mention Woodrow Wilson) that does not negate that they served as President of our country. Similarly current leaders, as politically correct as some might be, might have policies that future generations will find abhorrent based on new knowledge and developments. That does not negate the good that current leaders can do and the place in history that they will occupy.

There’s no question that it is difficult to draw a line. The line I draw is what was someone’s intention: was it to divide and break away from our great country or was it to lead us as best as they could, recognizing that their views and actions, like all of ours, are imperfect. I believe there is a way to withdraw those things which are most offensive without fully engaging in a cancel culture, pretending that our Founding Fathers’ owning slaves “never existed” or eradicating them because they made indefensible choices. Let us be honest with our past and keep it alive for future generations while concurrently eliminating those elements which are most offensive.

Zealtory

Is zealotry good or bad? Is it good to be so passionate and so ardent that you put your career, your reputation, your life on the line for a cause? Pinhas did that-his jumping in to kill Zimri and Cozbi when they were doing cultic worship at G-d’s altar put an end to the plague afflicting Israel. Sir Rabbi Jonathan Saks said, as I learned at Parshat HaShavua, that because Pinhas acted in the moment and during the sexual act he was validated; had he responded too soon or too late he would have been vilified. 

         We know that hesitation is a hideous demon and that we cannot always hold back or analyze all the possible outcomes ad nauseum. At times we need to be zealous, to fight for what we believe in. Yet if we are zealous about everything we do not have a grounded perspective and like one who is overly hesitant, we lose credibility. We become known as one who is “my way or the highway.” The goal is to be in the middle, to carefully and strategically pick and choose our battles. 

         As we look at the world “through freedom’s eyes”, with the freedom to choose whatever we want, let us remember this lesson of zealotry. May we remember the zealotry of Pinhas, that at sometimes we need to act in the moment rather than “wait for it” even if it means putting ourselves on the line. At other times we need to carefully analyze and choose wisely, or we end up like the Sicarii zealots who began the Great Revolt against Rome, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple and ultimately our exile from Judea. As we are in the 3 weeks between the Roman breach of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, let us remember the example of the Sicarii zealots as a time when we jumped in over our head while concurrently recognizing that at times we need to be like Pinhas, acting in the moment rather than waiting for a consensus. May we choose wisely. 

Juneteenth

What a historic week capped off by Juneteenth, the emancipation of slavery in Texas in 1865. We also have a holiday celebrating freedom from slavery-Passover. In college at UW-Madison I took a course on Black-Jewish Relations that centered on the community of Brownsville, Brooklyn. It was fascinating to learn about how Black-Jewish relations have changed over time. I also learned firsthand from Jews of Color, being mentored by Rabbi Capers Funnye in Chicago (first time I ever gave a D’var Torah and people shouted “Amen Brother!”) and in working with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

June is also Pride Month, and we saw the Supreme Court’s legislation protecting people from discrimination regardless of sexual orientation. We also saw the Supreme Court protect Dreamers, those who came to the United States as children and many of whom have now grown up in our country. As a mentioned in our portion, “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the LORD.”[1]

We need to remember that each of us is made in the image of G-d and to love everyone for who they are, rather than who we want them to be. I thank Kim Foster for creating Bet Shira Facebook ads for Equality and for Pride which hopefully will be posted next week.

Let us also remember the quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”[2] Now is the time to fight against injustice, for “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[3] Let us now lift every voice and sing (from the comfort of our homes so as not to spread COVID-19) for who we are and for what we hope to achieve as a congregation.

[1] Numbers 15:15

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a Dream,” August 28, 1963.

[3] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

Live in Action, Not in Fear

We learn from this week’s portion about the spies sent out and their report. We begin the journey with excitement-looking forward to hearing a wonderful report of the Land of Milk and Honey. We end with tragedy-people quickly turning an about-face toward Egypt and punished by spending an additional 38 years wandering in the desert so one generation can die and a generation that did not know slavery can emerge.

Why were the spies punished? Most say not for their report which was accurate but for the fear that they instilled in others. They did not believe in themselves or have faith that G-d was able to lead them past any obstacle that they faced. Fear ruled the day rather than hope.

When my parents moved to Arizona, gave me books from my childhood to take back with me to Miami. One of those books was As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Towards Freedom, which I will read some of at next week’s Drive In Shabbat Jammies and Jeans. It is about how Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel took a stand and marched with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Heschel took a risk in going to Selma yet he never had a doubt that it was the right thing to “pray with his feet” and march with Dr. King.

We need to pray with our feet also and speak up against the injustices that are occurring in our country. When I moved to Jericho in 2014, it was Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray. Six years later in Miami it is Breanna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. The words “I can’t breathe” filled the streets in 2014 just like they do in 2020. We are angry and upset at the lack of change. We want justice and equality for all people under the law.

At the same time we find glimmers of hope. We see the Supreme Court’s decision that discrimination not be allowed on the basis of sexual orientation. We see the police, in places like Miami, kneeling to be in solidarity with protestors. We changes that are being made to make safer encounters between civilians and police. We cannot let fear and disillusionment rule the day. We cannot let the fear of the spies win out and incite us to freeze, throwing our hands up and being uncertain of what to do. We cannot flee from topics just because they are controversial. Rather we must fight for what we believe in, just as Rabbi Heschel fought with his feet.

I want to share with you some words from Rabbi Micah Caplan z”l, our synagogue’s rabbi from 2005-10, after the death of George Floyd as well as a poem I wrote after the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in hopes that they inspire us towards action to make our world a better place:

My friends,

Last week in Minneapolis, like too many times before, we witnessed painful injustice of our brothers and sisters in the black community. We are one and when they hurt, we hurt.

No one should lose their life for going for a jog, breaking up a fight, sitting in their home watching TV, driving home from dinner, buying candy at a convenience store, or having their car break down. And no one should lose their life over $20, especially at the hand of those who should keep us safe.

As Jews, we know all too well what oppression looks like based on our history. Some of the biggest lessons learned from our past are to never forget and not be silent.

The Talmud highlights that silence equals agreement. And the Torah teaches us to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

Elie Weisel reminds us, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” And his sentiment is echoed by so many others that have faced oppression. South Africa’s Desmond Tutu says, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

This is no time to be silent. As Jews, we are taught to stand up for ourselves and others and use our voice for good. As Hillel says, ”If I am not for myself who will be for me. But if I am only for myself who am I. If not now, when.” Our fellow Americans need our help.

I urge you to find a way to express your solidarity peacefully. Consider calling your member of Congress, supporting a human rights organization, or being a good samaritan and neighbor if you see something that isn’t right.

As a people, let us be a light unto our nation.

With hope for healing,

Rabbi Micah Caplan[1]

Now I will read my poem for  after Ariela’s birth “Two World,” in the book Not by Might edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. Rabbi Creditor just edited another book about clergy response to COVID-19.

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world in which people are loved from who they are

Or the world in which people are hated for being different?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world of open-mindedness and compassion

Or the world of prejudice and racism?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world in which we work together

Or the world in which we grow apart?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world of self-fulfillment and happiness

Or the world of frustration and anger?

 

In which world would be daughter grow up?

The world where guns are melted down to make building tools

Or the world where guns are used for wanton acts of violence?

I will do my part to ensure

That my daughter grows up in the world of embracing others

Loving all people regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation

And pray that the world in which she will live

Will no longer know the horror of these shootings.[2]

 

Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to make it so.

[1] Rabbi Micah Caplan, Message to Congregation Or Tzion in Response to Shooting of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

[2] “Two Worlds.” Edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. Rabbis Against Gun Violence. 2016. pg 225.

Appreciating the Little Steps

My younger daughter  has had some gross motor developmental delays. Ever since 6 months she has not reached developmental milestones on the scheduled time. She’s been going at her own pace. It has taught me to appreciate the little steps she has taken and to have patience when she is not progressing as quickly as I’d like.

Like many of you, I have been home-bound for much of the past month trying to avoid public places to flatten the curve slow the spread of COVID-19. That has enabled me to spend much time with my wife Karina and with both of my children. During the past month I have seen my younger daughter begin climbing the steps, cruising, and as recently as yesterday standing in place on her own for a split second. Seeing these small steps, which I did not appreciate with my older daughter have reminded me of the importance for each of us to embrace and celebrate what is going on in the present. While I certainly wish that COVID-19 was not here and my heart breaks each time I hear another person I know with the virus, I wonder if I would have paid attention to these little steps my younger daughter takes if I was going about my regular routine. I’m not sure I would have noticed or appreciated these steps.

In every crisis and challenging time I look for a silver lining to hold onto. In the age of COVID-19 I am looking to how I can appreciate the steps taken by both of my daughters in their development and growth. Rather than rushing to get outside, perhaps each of us can see what is going on in our homes and find things to appreciate and in which to take pride. I can’t wait to see both my daughters’ future accomplishments, appreciating each step as it comes and patiently waiting when it does not arise as quickly as I would like. I hope each of us will have the patience to wait calmly until it is safe to go out and return to ‘our regular routines’ while we make the most out of every moment of this time at home, appreciating the little things that make life so wonderful.

Maintaining Faith in a World of Multiple Possibilities

We live in a world with multiple possibilities. As the saying goes, “When one door closes, another one opens.” At times in life we feel that we are out of options or wishing we were back at a previous moment in time. However, each moment presents infinite possibilities and opportunities to make our lives better.

In reading through the weekly Torah portions, I think about the Israelites’ lack of faith. In next week’s reading we learn about the golden calf, created because “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt-we do not know what has happened to him.” How in a span of 40 days did a people who had seen marvels such as the splitting of the sea lose their faith? How did the same people send forth a delegation to return to Egypt even after Caleb said “Let us by all means go forward and we shall conquer the land?” How easy it is to lose trust in one’s leaders as well as faith in a better future.

How relatable is Israel, travelling in the desert where food and water was scarce, becoming nostalgic about a past of Egyptian slavery where at least they had three meals a day and roofs over their heads. The slightest mishap leads to doubts and second-guessing, the “what ifs.” What is missing is faith in a better future and recognizing that we live in a world with multiple possible outcomes, that what is often most important is not the outcome but the process one takes to get there.

Think about a time in your life when you thought you were at the end of your rope, that there was no going on-only to laugh about it a month or two later when your situation changed. While sometimes inexplicable tragedies occur, more often than not things are not irreparable. The line that we say before we read from the Torah is “Those who cling to G-d are all alive today.” What do you hold onto that gives you the courage and faith to continue forward?

In our world of multiple possibilities, what gives me strength is knowing that I will do my part and let G-d take care of the rest. Sometimes I will give things right, other times I will make mistakes but either way I will be complete and whole. No matter what happens to us, especially if it is something beyond our control, we are complete and whole. At the end of the day there’s no could have, would have or should have-there’s only this moment in time and what we can do to make the most of it. When things look bleak, let us maintain our faith in ourselves and in the path on which we walk in this world and may we remember that no matter what the outcome, we will be fine and will find a way to thrive.

Happiness Comes From Within

As a rabbi I have learned that you can never please all of the people all of the time; however you can please all of the people some of the time. The question is when the right thing to do is one which will cause the displeasure of others. Moses, our people’s greatest leader, had numerous periods in which he lost the confidence of the Israelite nation, when they complained and wanted to return to Egypt. If even our people’s greatest leader could not make the people happy, how can we hope to do so?!

Happiness comes from within a person. It’s not something that we can find through materialism or through external circumstances. We often feel ‘if only _______ happened, I’d be happy’. We sometimes look to leaders, be they politicians, social workers, teachers or clergy, to fix our problems rather than reflectively looking inside ourselves. However, a leader is not a savior. A leader’s job is not to try to make others happy; that is each individual’s job. A leader’s task is to act out of the courage of his/her convictions to try to make the world we live in better, but that is not by solving every problem that comes our way. Moses could lead Israel towards the Promised Land but he could not change their mentality, making them excited to leave slavery for freedom and to enter a land of milk and honey. The hard, individualistic work of a positive mindset in spite of whatever is going on is left up to each and every one of us.

It is my hope that each of us will find the inner spirit to meet head-on any challenge we face with positivity, serenity and grace and that we are able to appreciate all that we have rather than taking it for granted. We are blessed to live in the mecca of South Florida with beautiful winter weather and with so much to offer people of all ages. When we recognize that we might not have everything we want, may we take the time to turn inward and see what we can do to better our situation rather than outward to blame others. Let each of us work hard to take ownership of and become the authors of our own lives, and in so doing may we find wholeness and happiness rather than resentment and bitterness. As Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) teaches “Who is strong? One who conquers his/her impulses. Who is rich? One who is happy with what s/he has.” Our leaders can lead us to the path; may we do our part so that we can reach the Promised Land.

The Young with the Old

In this week’s portion, Moses demonstrates that he is a leader for the entire community. After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh gave in and says “Go and worship your G-d in the desert; who will be the ones to go?” Moses replied, “Our young and our old will go.” This angered Pharaoh who would only allow the men to go. Pharaoh knew that if everyone left they would not return, so he wanted to hold some of the people back. Moses, however, said that either all the Israelites would go or none of them would.

Why did Moses argue for the children to come? The medieval commentator Chizkuni states that “the way of children is to celebrate.” Rabbi Harold Kushner brings two alternative interpretations in The Etz Hayim Humash: that “no celebration is complete without children” and that “a child without parents is an orphan but a nation without children is an orphan people.” The last point is especially poignant, without the children there is no future.

The commentaries are great at emphasizing the children but I believe it is equally important that Moses said the elderly must go as well. Elders bring wisdom to the community through their past lived experiences. They also provide a sense of historical precedent as to why things are as they are. Moses knew that just as the children are necessary so too are the older individuals. As we must look towards the future, so must we also remember the past and what brought us to this present day.

Moses felt it was important that everyone be able to leave Egypt, regardless of their age. This has a lot to say for how the Jewish community works: that everyone is a valued member of our community. The way of a successful synagogue is to leave no one behind, showing each person that he or she has a valued, integral place in our community.

At Bet Shira Congregation, we have brought together people from multiple congregations, whether Temple Zion, Samuel Or Olam, Bet Breirah or others. As your rabbi, I value each and every one of you exactly as you are. Our identity is not determined by where we came from but by who we are. As we move forward towards a future yet unknown but with exciting possibilities, let us remember that we are stronger together. Like Moses who went forth with the young and the old, we too must go forth united in our goal to perpetuate Conservative Judaism in South Dade. When we are together, what is not possible to achieve?

When we feel torn in life, may we us remember the excitement we shared as children, curious, with wonder and open towards the possibilities of the unknown. If we do that, we will transcend the experience of מצרים, those narrow places which constrict us and harden our hearts. Many of us, myself included, struggle with uncertainty, yet as I learned from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, nothing is permanent and everything is ever changing. Let us keep mind of this lesson today and every day.