Sitting In Our Vulnerability – Rosh Hashanah 5780

Growing up in NY City I had many opportunities to connect with all kinds of different people, across the spectrums of religion, race, age, and ethnicity – you name it. When I was back here for my formative years of seminary, this breadth of NYC diversity continued to deeply enrich my opportunities for engagement.

One of my most pivotal experiences was during one summer studying chaplaincy at a major hospital in Manhattan. It was an incredibly deep dive into learning to listen, really listen to those patients who were in pain and the friends and family members who were there to support. I had the opportunity to counsel in both Spanish and English, which allowed for even more in-depth conversation and to be of greater service to patients and their families. Certainly a powerful and foundational time in the establishment of my Rabbinate.

One afternoon, I entered a hospital room to encounter a man, who for the sake of my story, let’s call him Joe. Middle-aged, grayish-golden hair, 2-day old scruff – not much else I can recall of his physical features. I greeted him and proceeded to ask if I could be of service, and offer any pastoral support or guidance. He never self-identified as any particular religious denomination, but that never stopped me from connecting with a patient.

He immediately became inquisitive about my appearance, specifically the color of my skin, my darker features. He asked my background, and I proceeded to tell him. “Wait, Puerto Rican, Spanish, European, Jewish?”, he asked incredulously and with an amused look.

“Yes,” I replied, “perhaps not a common blend.”

“I’ve seen it all now”, he said.

“What do you mean?”

“A Jew, a Rabbi, and a spic– it’s like hitting the minority jackpot. You can leave now.”

I froze. I felt vulnerable, spat upon, devalued and unsure of how to respond. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. In my body, I recall feeling all sorts of defense mechanisms and fight or flight responses, but before anything came out of my mouth, I thankfully had the wherewithal to leave his room without incident.

At that time in my life and without the wealth of experiences I have had the privilege to grow from, I sheltered all of the questions and tools I now use to combat such ignorance and lack of understanding in the world. But what if I had access to them then? What might have occurred if I actually engaged him in talking about who we are and the world we shared? Would he even care? Was it my responsibility? I never saw him again.

In looking back, I wish I could have told my former self: “sit-in-the discomfort, breathe through all the feels, because there is so much more that could possibly happen here if I stay. Yes, the outcome will be uncertain. You might feel embarrassed or exposed. You might be in this uncomfortable place and hear something that disturbs you…but this person, who they are in the world, is not about you.” Who knows…I might have learned something about him; our conversation might have generated more focus on bigotry and advocacy. But at that moment, I wasn’t ready to lean into the discomfort, the vulnerability. I walked away.

Something happens at a certain point in life. For so many years you feel like you are waiting forever for it to get started: what am I going to look like when I get older; where am I going to go to college, who will I marry, what career will I choose, will I have children? If so, how many? Will I have the wherewithal to make the right choices? And then, all of a sudden, it seems as though you are moving through life in reflection: How did this happen? Where did the time go and could I, should I have made different decisions? The experience with Joe has been one of those reflection points for me.

Over the past few years, I have been learning more about the existence and functioning of discomfort and vulnerability, and how it impacts our decision-making, our accessibility to and with those around us. So tonight, as we enter into our High Holy Days, I want to offer some approaches on how we might use vulnerability as a positive and critical tool in our own lives.

Most recently along the path of my own exploration of vulnerability, I was exposed to an incredibly powerful and very well-known voice in the healing world. Dr. Brené Brown, a psychologist and researcher, uses research based social data to examine trends in human emotion and experience.

In 2010 she delivered a 20-minute TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability”[1] that catapulted her into the forefront of the field. While I hope you will all find some time to google and watch during these Days of Awe, the core message I want to share with you is that as a society, we fear vulnerability, but we should be rethinking our approach.

For most of us, Brown says, vulnerability means: “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She notes that what most people fail to understand is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we desire.

But here’s the thing – it’s also the source of belonging, joy, love, creativity and empathy. Vulnerability is the foundation of hope, accountability and authenticity.

She notes that “If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path… it is not weakness, it is pure courage…  “I’ve come to the believe,” she says, “that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest…vulnerability is the birthplace of change.”

Dr. Brown offers us reflective power on how to use our vulnerability as a gateway to deeper meaning, healing, and growth in our lives. We experience vulnerability when we ask for help, when we admit that we are afraid; when we have to say no to someone we respect or love; when we say “I love you,” first, not knowing if we are going to be loved back; when we enter a shiva house after someone’s child or spouse has just passed; when we go on a first date after a divorce; when we have to decide if wearing the Jewish star around our neck could impact our safety and always, when we ask for forgiveness.

Experiencing and facing our vulnerability is foundational to why we gather here over these next 10 days. Think about it for a moment: what’s more vulnerable than asking yourself the tough questions or recognizing that you’ve made a mistake, admitting it to yourself and others, asking for forgiveness, and taking the steps to make a change? And yet, the promise of these holiest of days is pretty clear: if you do this footwork, you will enter the New Year with the gift of life renewed, and the “work” we are tasked with will have far-reaching, positive implications. The process of teshuvah (of turning) may even bring about redemption![2]

For the Jewish people, our cultural DNA, and dare I say, our ancestral PTSD, is rooted in vulnerability. Despite periods of history in which we find ourselves as a people with privilege, most of our ancestors throughout history lived a fairly dangerous existence, economically, basic safety, and otherwise. We have been subject to expulsions, pogroms, inquisitions, and genocide many times over — often fueled by the trope of the greedy, crooked Jew serving as the scapegoat for unrelated and more general stresses and complexities that we find in society.

This past year alone, we saw tragedies befall the Jewish communities of Squirrel Hill and Poway in the name of Jew-hatred, and countless incidents and acts of hatred that maintain a strong current of collective vulnerability. Yet, that same vulnerability has always served as our catalyst for perseverance, survival, and achievement of and for the Jewish people. Our discomforts have propelled us to choose life.

On Yom Kippur morning, the Torah reading brings this home, even mandating our persistence, as God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!” (Deut. 30:19) The choice is ours.

In the year to come, we will all encounter moments of vulnerability: moments that we choose, such as expressing feelings for someone, owning up to a mistake, and other acts of self-exposure. There will also be other moments that are involuntarily placed upon us, such as challenges in our relationships or at work, sickness, loss or even natural disaster. In every instance, we will have a choice – to collapse inward and get smaller, or choose life by embracing the fear or discomfort which, in turn, can allow ourselves new levels of openness.

Tonight I offer you three specific areas to engage with which can enable us to use our vulnerability as a powerful tool rather than an impairment; tools to strengthen our spiritual muscle in a world that make that work often very hard to want to do.

The first approach is to lean into our discomfort with an openness to faith.

You might have an assumption that rabbis have an organic, steadfast connection to faith and God – not necessarily true, and certainly not for me. Ironically, my relationship to both was renewed in the very same hospital in which I encountered my friend Joe. It was there where I watched so many suffer in pain, family members enveloped in uncertainty while given the privilege to lead them in prayerful moments.

Yet, I came to experience that for those Jewish patients and family members, God was rarely in the picture. Faith was a mere word that existed as some foreign language. Even now, after many years of encountering this trend, I’m not exactly sure the origins of this paradigm. Though it is a tendency I’ve encountered throughout my rabbinate, I recall engaging with those families, feeling my vulnerability creeping up again; how do I hold these people in the midst of their pain, while so many doubt? Yet, throughout my time there, I came to realize that it was their doubt which enabled me to wrestle. I would find myself in someone else’s room where God was present for them along their journey.

Their faith was present, energetic even. In those moments, I came to understand that God and faith can most powerfully be found when we allow real vulnerability to enter. The Psalmists agree: Gam ki eilech b’gei tsalmavet, Lo ira ra, ki atah imadi: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You (God) are with me. (Psalms 23:4)

Profound illness, a child’s limitations, divorce, death – these are moments and ongoing life experiences that change our lives or break our hearts; they can even paralyze us. Yet, as the Psalmist reminds us, we are not alone as we journey through life. Eventually, we rise and move forward. The Divine presence is right there. You may have had this experience already, you may have tried in the past to hold onto that faith or find that Divine presence, and it wasn’t accessible for you, so you walked away, just like I walked away from Joe. I’m asking you this year, to revisit that vulnerability again; to consider a leap of real faith to explore it, even if you’re convinced it’s not there.

The second approach to facing our vulnerability is to lean on those around us.

Leviticus 18 concerns itself with the sacred relationships between family members. There is one specific prohibition around seeing one’s parents’ nakedness. Perhaps that nakedness is a metaphor for something else. In one commentary on this section of Torah, colleague Rabbi Zoe Klein notes the following: “In so many ways, the people in our immediate family know us best. They are the keepers of the knowledge of our good, and our evil. They know the words that make us most upset. They know the wounds that are most raw. They know our insecurities, our fears, as no one else does. Like Samson’s lover Delilah, who knew his strength was in his hair, the people closest to us know our strengths and also our most hidden weaknesses. Before them, our careful facades are plainly exposed.”[3]

“If we read “nakedness as vulnerability,” she says, “we discover a subtler commandment hidden in the reading. When we become furious with one another, when we feel that everything we have planted is full of thorns and briars, our fists clench, our teeth set, we want to bring in the woodcutters and raze it all to the ground. Then we must look closer, beyond the rivalries and pain, to recognize… the beating heart of those nearest to us…” The people who are closest to us are also those who know us best.

Sometimes, we keep ourselves at a safe distance because we know how vulnerable we could be to them. But what if we were able to lean on these relationships for support, to utilize them as the safer space to take the risk of opening to others?

In my life, those individuals are along for the ride during those “crucible” events that continue to shape my own evolution. They cheer in times of celebration, and console in times of turmoil. But I also allow them to see so much of me, which takes ongoing work, that above all, they continue provide a source of honest feedback and reflection to keep my decision-making aligned with my values.

During these Days of Awe, ask yourself the ways in which you have and can lean on those you love. Our tradition commands us to clothe our loved ones with kindness, and in return, they to us.

The third approach to cultivating our willingness to be vulnerable by creating JOY!

Deborah Lipstadt recently wrote a book on anti-Semitism. Her last chapter is entitled: “Oy v. Joy”. She posits: “How do we want to live out our [Jewish] identity and practices?”[4] How much are we driven by oy – they are coming after us?  How can you understand the weight of that oy, the weightiness of our personal and collective histories? “Joy” – is our opportunity to transmit light– the capacity to go out and change the world.

In our country today, there is so much that is so bleak. We can have an awareness of the oy – our fear – our personal and collective hurts, but not let them shape our lives, not allow them to dominate the way we behave or the stories we tell. Joyfulness requires exposure and vulnerability because it can get lost in our daily drudge. We need to amplify our joy and look for all the ways we can use our holidays and milestones, our families and communities, to provide opportunities to both celebrate and choose life.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded that the world is created anew. And when we rise up at the end of Yom Kippur, Neilah, the Festival of Sukkot is immediately upon us. This holiday is referred to as Z’man Simchateynu – the season of our rejoicing. It’s a reminder for us that joy is a powerful tool, when we’re courageous enough to use it.  To laugh and rejoice, even when the moments may be fleeting, and to express gratitude for what we have, even though we know it can easily be taken away.

In sharing these thoughts, I would be remiss if I didn’t give us some space us to name the vulnerabilities in our own Shaaray Tefila community. This strong, beautiful congregation is in a period of significant change and flux. There are chapters that will end, and new, unknown ones on the precipice of beginning. Your clergy who have shared so much of life’s moments with so many of you are entering into new stages of life and relationships.

It is a time of some serious discomfort and I well know how vulnerable many of you feel as so many have shared your deepest thoughts, feelings and concerns with me about these changes.

Within these sacred conversations, you have even expressed your hesitation to remain a part of the community. I understand your unsettled feelings, your pain and even your anger, but if you allow that vulnerability to push you away and sever your ties, then what we have built together all these years will have been for naught. I pray that the bonds I, and we, have fostered with so many of you will grow even deeper and wider, right here in this congregation, in its next chapter.

There is no doubt that this New Year will be filled with many changes. The real question is whether we will use some of the tools I spoke of to lean into our discomfort, work through the transitions (and the vulnerabilities that come along with them), to help us adapt to those changes.

A colleague[5] recently reminded me of this story: A student once asked her Rabbi… “Why does Torah tell us to place these words upon your hearts? (Deut. 11:18) Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”

The Rabbi thought for a moment and answered… “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” For all of us, our Divinely given vulnerabilities are, in fact, our greatest strength.

As you move forward, whether you encounter a version of Joe, or any of the inevitable discomforts along life’s journey, hold onto these words by placing them on your heart, and take your sacred power on the road.

For our congregation – Temple Shaaray Tefila, I offer this blessing:

May this community continue to be guided in its sacred mission

May the work of the many who hold it up remain strong and resilient

May you remember that vulnerability is the birthplace of change

May each of you find ways to use it here to help it grow and thrive And may we all lean into our discomforts with the help of some joy, faith, and one another.


Shana Tova u’metukah – may each of us uncover joy, sweetness, and renewed resilience in 5780. Amen.


[2] Paraphrased from BT Yoma 86b.


[4] Antisemitism Here and Now. Schocken Books, New York, 2019.

[5] Retold by Rabbi Dara Frimmer


Chabad of Poway Shooting

My heart aches again, as the horrifying and devastating news came out this last day of Passover – another synagogue, another sacred space, another innocent life taken and others injured.

I recall the PTSD that emerged for me (and many of my year in Israel classmates) during the second intifada, when Shabbat would approach…awaiting news of which Israeli locale would fall victim to the next post Shabbat terror attack. Today’s news awakens that unnerving time.

6 days ago, Christians in Sri Lanka; a month ago, Muslims in New Zealand; 6 months ago (to the day) it was Jews in Pittsburgh. This age-old hate continues to infect our every day.

While any of us can easily feel numb to another act of terror, I will choose to mourn those lost, pray for resilience and healing for the injured, and love more fiercely and courageously – with all my strength and heart. Sorry…there’s just no room for hate or fiercely

Parshat Vayeshev – Hiding Takes Place In the Dark – 11.30.18

Shabbat Shalom. I have a memory that always brings a smile to my face…I recall it fondly. A moment I shared with my Ethan, my oldest, who at this moment, is preparing to becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

At the time, he was no more than 4 years old. We were in a store in the Pocono Mountains around the holiday time. As we were leaving, I lifted Ethan up, as he wanted to say “thank you” to the cashier he could barely see from his vantage point. The cashier’s response to him: “Have a Merry Christmas!” Ethan’s response to her, all of 4 years old, said: “Well…we’re Jewish, and we celebrate Chanukah.” Her response: “We don’t get a lot of Jews around here – thanks for reminding me – Happy Holidays!”

In contrast to the moment I just shared, which I have no doubt a number of you can relate to, especially this time of year, I still marvel at the relative ease of growing up in NYC and living in such a familiar Jewish community – seeing large, festive Jewish stars dangling alongside Chanukah menorahs aglow in people’s windows. I don’t take for granted these symbols, and that, for the most part, we live in an area, today, where many feel at ease when talking practicing their Judaism without worry.

Yet, a recent CNN poll, just released this past week, reveals the depth and rise of anti-Semitism. The poll’s focus was on Europe, yet translatable to the U.S. More than a quarter of Europeans polled believe Jews have too much influence in business and finance.

Nearly one in four said Jews have too much influence in conflict and wars across the world. One in five said they have too much influence in the media and politics. Meanwhile, a third, 33% of Europeans in the poll, said they knew just a little or nothing at all about the Holocaust.

Americans, they noted, do not fare any better: A survey carried out on behalf of the Claims Conference earlier this year found that 10% of American adults were not sure they’d ever heard of the Holocaust, rising to one in five millennials. Half of all millennials could not name a single concentration camp, and 45% of all American adults failed to do so.

We all bear witness to the increased incidents around us. Many of us, whatever assurances we may have previously taken for granted, now find ourselves with greater insecurity than other iterations of American Jewish life.

Yet, one way, I believe, we can continue to strengthen our resolve is to acknowledge our own vulnerability and turn it into action. And Chanukah gives us a powerful paradigm to help us transcend the vitriol that has seemed to envelop all of us.

Tonight, I would like to suggest 2 simple ways in which the ritual of lighting of our Chanukah menorahs, our chanukiot, can bring hope into this season of uncertainty.

The first….light is a metaphor for an inner divine spark. There is a rabbinic teaching that the Chanukah light is actually the original light of creation. God had to hide it from us, and the Chanukah candles actually reflect this hidden light.

This very special light offers us an opportunity to see things in ourselves and others – seeking what is sacred, what is holy about others we share this world with, and then seeing when and where to light the path of change – whatever it may be. If we see someone standing alone, for example, we can find it in ourselves to say “hello” and engage them in conversation; or when we see an injustice in our schools or work or greater communities, how do we make our voices and actions work towards “righting” those wrongs. Our inner divine sparks have a chance to radiate and be seen.

The second, and I believe even more critical today, asserting our religious identity in a public sphere, while making room for others to do so as well.

I recently learned about a girl named Jennifer, who moved to a neighborhood that was largely not Jewish. The family was a little scared to identify themselves publicly as Jews, by placing their Chanukah menorah in the window.

With Jennifer’s encouragement, they were finally able to do so. And the very next night, Jennifer noticed that the family across the street took their lead and placed their own Chanukah menorah in the window.

“Mom, Dad – you gotta see this!” And the family watched as those across the streets struck their matches and said their blessings – lighting their own Chanukah menorah. Jennifer’s mother responded and said: “Jennifer, it is a like a light in the darkness.”

In our tradition, the Tzfat Emet teaches: “Especially at this season, when lights were miraculously lit even though they did not have enough oil, there remains light even now to help us. Hiding takes place mainly in the dark; we need the candles’ light to seek and to find . . .”

This ritual of candle lighting is a symbol of building strength. We start with one candle, and add one by one with each night, until we have a blaze of light and fire on the eighth night. We begin small, unassuming almost, and through our hope and dedication, we become stronger.

Just as we learn that a single cruse of oil was enough to last 8 days, a tiny flame, a small action of justice has the potential to lead to something significant. The narrative, itself, is one of justice over tyranny, and prevailing against all odds. This is common theme we see throughout our Jewish teachings, that from the darkest place, we can once again rise.

Just this past week, we read that Jacob was running from his brother Esau for stealing his birthright. He lies down for the night. In this place of darkness and exile, he has a Divine encounter. When we awakes, he utters, “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.”

At this heightened time of fear and isolation, he finds God. And perhaps we, as a society, and specifically as a Jewish community, are in a similar moment of uncertainty and darkness. The great miracle the is the knowing that we have the potential to be the agents of change ourselves – the sources of illumination and hope in the world.

As Chanukah approaches, let us rededicate ourselves to those areas in our homes, and in our greater communities, that seek our wisdom and the actions of our hands and hearts, as we look deep within to discover hidden reserves of strength and hope.

Just as one candle kindles another may we look to each other and help each other overcome despair. Blessed are You, Adonai, who made miracles in the days of our ancestors, and continues to do so in our day. Amen.


Mourning and Justice – 11.2.18

At the beginning of this week, while our community joined with CBY and others from our interfaith community for a vigil to mourn the 11 innocent souls at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, I was in the Dominican Republic, joined by Gary Cohn, one of the leaders of our social action initiatives at Shaaray Tefila, and Kathy DiBiasi, our friend and Educator at the Bedford Presbyterian Church.

We joined in with many others “virtually” to be part of the memorial, knowing that the pain, the anger, and the mourning we have all experienced this past week are needed and necessary to hold one another, as we move through another barbaric and senseless terror attack.

While we are jolted by this tragedy, I keep thinking: what does it now mean for us as we walk into our familiar place of assembly, the place where we are gathered this evening – our synagogue, where we assemble to create sacred moments; where we laugh and cry together; where we seek comfort and counsel; where we learn, pray, and act.

The declaration that “all Jews must die” was the response to our Jewish community’s efforts to help immigrants and to care for those who are in need. Those inside the Tree of Life Synagogue, blamed for the good deeds of other Jews, and inside a place of worship – were murdered in sanctifying God’s name and God’s ultimate wish for us – to “choose life”.

This is not just an attack on Jews alone. This hate and pain-filled shooter expressed his hatred for Muslims, for immigrants – coming on the heels of pipe bombs being sent to a number of prominent political leaders (as I spoke about last Shabbat). All of this, coming only a day after another hate crime, against the black community in Kentucky, leaving 2 dead in a supermarket, when the shooter could not get into a black church.

After four little girls were murdered in the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, Dr. King said: “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”

Dr. King was right then. And that message is as powerful, urgent and true today. There are systemic issues, which have created an environment in which hate can grow.

Anti-Semitism is the oldest, and most adaptive hatred in history. But we know that where there is a tolerance for anti-Semitism, there is a tolerance for hatred of all kinds. I know…this is not the America I know we have the capacity to be….the one that many of us strive to build and want to leave our children.

Today, we are in mourning, but after this time, our tradition calls us to rise and re-enter the world with purpose. We are called to address these acts of hate….from the rise of anti-Semitism, to the demonization of immigrants and refugees, to the lack of sensible gun regulation, to the intolerance of hateful speech and incitement.

Perhaps our “assembly place”, this place, offers us the knowledge and the constant reminder that we can “choose life” even if we cannot choose what happens to us, and that we remain resilient in the pursuit of that which is both good and just in the world.

The day after this senseless tragedy, I recall the faces and concerns of so many of you, as we reflected, prayed, and processed through the weekend’s horrific events. Not even 24 hours later, Gary, Kathy, and I found ourselves in the Dominican Republic, hosted by an NGO making transformative change in the world….in support of the vulnerable.

We were there briefly to build on our 15 years of service learning in Nicaragua and envision what our teens and adults will get to share in February there – countering hateful acts with our hands and hearts, bringing dignity to our global neighbors, who are very much in need of our love and support.

As our Shaaray Tefila community has and continues to demonstrate… our resilience knows no bounds. Whether in Israel, Nicaragua, the DR, Puerto Rico, Haiti or Northern Westchester, our tradition charges us with being the change we wish to see in the world…and here, we take that literally! Many of you here this evening have and continue to serve as our angels of repair.

But, even as we struggle to hold the enormity of this tragedy, even as we grieve –right now, we need ALL OF YOU to stand up and say, Hineni – I am here, ready, and present – to roll up my sleeves and get to work!

I know…this is not the America we have the capacity to be. Standing up and saying “Hineni” calls us to our highest selves, by putting aside the blame, and to make sure love wins – that goodness and solidarity – wins.

Hineni means being clearheaded and unequivocal in naming and condemning the disease of hatred that has permeated the culture of this nation, and the fanatical obsession with guns that has transformed it from a contentious debate to a near daily deadly reality.

Hineni means: standing up to the bigotry and prejudice we know we will hear, not just from our enemies, but sometimes from the words of those we are close to.

Hineni means: finding the courage to build alliances across lines of difference, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Hineni means: not losing hope; to bring some light into the darkness; to not give into the doubt or pain of this moment.

We send much love, resilience, and strength to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh—our family. Zichronam livracha— may the memories of those who perished reverberate in this world as a blessing, and may the outpouring of support from around the world bring comfort and consolation to those whose hearts have been shattered.

And those who try, again and again, to break our resolve and “replace us”: we’re not going anywhere! Our values and ideals, which bring much light and hope to this world, will forever transcend the baseless hatred that you attempt to spread.

In memory of those souls innocently lost this past Shabbat, let us pray with our feet. Just as we have filled this sanctuary on this worldwide Solidarity Shabbat, our “assembly place”, may we all long for something else, work for something more, and lean into what is yet to be. Our communities, our country, and our faith traditions demand this. And our very humanity depends on it. Shabbat Shalom.


Ode to Mister Rogers – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

When I was a child, I was fortunate to spend much of my time in my grandparent’s apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. George and Sylvia’s love and care for me were foundational to my Jewish identity and truly unsurpassed…and grandma’s famous grilled cheeses…renown! Even more savory was sitting in front of their new “color” TV.

Many days, I watched….grilled cheese in hand…as on the tube, a man appeared, lanky and unassuming, coming through a door, slipping off his work shoes and blazer as he settled into sneakers and a colorful cardigan.

PBS’s Channel 13, home of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was a warm and familiar world I entered regularly. In fact, it was one of the few television shows Grandma Sylvia even allowed at her house.

The Neighborhood was filled with people and puppets that many of us came to know and love. Each had a distinctive personality and unique ways in which they contributed to the community.

Perhaps we think nostalgically of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as a relic of a simpler time, but in truth it first aired just a few months after the Cuban missile crisis. 1968 was far from a time of peace and harmony; it was a time when the world was seemingly on edge. Sound familiar? The notion of a worldwide neighborhood in which everyone belonged was hard to imagine. In some ways, I first learned about division at an early age from Mr. Rogers show. Do any of you remember when King Friday, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, attempted to build a wall around his kingdom to protect it from change?

While many years have passed since those days at Grandma and Grandpa’s, I was given an opportunity to briefly visit the Neighborhood this summer when Nicole and I went to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. Glimpsing into his world, now as an adult, I was grateful and moved to reflect on the radical faith that Fred Rogers brought to his audience.

We were pleasantly reminded that the hip-to-be-square icon didn’t change all that much in the 35 years between the premiere of the show in 1968 and his death in 2003. He was an ordained minister – a man defined by his faith, who illuminated a singular message, as each show responded to the issues of the time. In his own words, the message is simple “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love, or the lack of it.”[1]

In this context, I am reminded of the familiar story from Rabbinic literature, often referred to as the golden rule. The ancient fable reflects the critical mandate I first learned from Fred Rogers as a young kid.

A non-Jew, wishing to convert to Judaism nearly 2000 years ago, went to the home of Rabbi Hillel, one of our greatest Rabbinic sages. He said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel responded. “Simple! The Torah teaches: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else is commentary. Now, if ‘you’re really interested, go and study.”[2]

The visitor was so impressed with Hillel’s response that he took Hillel up on his instructions, and began to study and ultimately became one of the tribe! Mr. Rogers translated that Torah mandate in every episode for his viewers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The stories in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe portrayed common children’s concerns and explored the range of emotions that we all experience. Even the puppets had identifiable personalities, and they, like all of us, demonstrated the capacity for self-reflection and growth. They illustrated how people can work together and support one another, even in the face of adversity, anger and fear.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I am mindful, now more than ever, that we come together tonight in synagogue communities around the globe to commemorate the creation of the human race, to which we all belong. We observe by focusing on soul examination and heshbon hanefesh, personal inventory.

And we do so in the hopes that some space for a clear-head and heart might offer us the opportunity to identify our individual [and collective] wounds. From there, we can begin to do the work of healing those wounds, but we cannot heal what we cannot see.

These prolific words of our Leviticus text, “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah,” are referred to time and again throughout all Judeo-Christian traditions. It literally translates as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Over the ages, the Hillel fable, this text and others like it, have been interpreted as a commandment to be kind to others, selfless even.

But if we look more deeply at the text, the message assumes that we love ourselves. So what is this message we may have never considered? Perhaps a radical idea for us to embrace – We must first love ourselves in order to love our neighbor.

But what do we even mean when we speak of love? Look it up in the dictionary and the varied “meanings” are vague and all directly attached to the feeling toward an object or a person. The implication is that love is external, we bestow it on those outside of ourselves.

It is also a word that we use constantly and often in mundane contexts. How many of us “love” ice cream, tennis, our cars, that particular movie or book? For me, love cannot be experienced in the mind. Real love is an intention of the heart, truly of the soul and so for me, to love means to have regard for one’s happiness and well-being, and this includes ourselves.

Mr. Rogers taught: “When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”[3]

Acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, allowing myself humanness and error, giving to myself generously what I need and enjoy just because I am worthy and desire it and returning again and again to kindness toward myself. All these parallel exactly what we then are able to give to others. “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah, Love your neighbor as yourself”[4]… it is an internal job. This may seem like an impossible task in a culture so brutally focused on achievement and plagued by busy-ness.

In addition, there are powerful external forces we experience daily that create a labyrinth of potential obstacles in our culture: fear and divisiveness, technologically evolved ways of connecting, a more frenetic pace of life – to name a few. Our Jewish calendar affords us a real gift to have the space for a little distance to work on our own internal life. So, how do we get started?

Most of us define ourselves by the narrative we construct throughout our lives, weaving together experiences, relationships, skills, and labels in a way that makes us, make sense. I’m a good friend, I’m athletic, a procrastinator, I’m good with family, bad in relationships. Positive and negative and anywhere in between, all are part of my story! Even our traditional image of the annual we speak of at this time of year, can perpetuate the idea that the story is our essence. The “Book Of Life” many come to experience as one of judgement and decree.

While we may find power and meaning in this image, I think for most of us, it does not resonate entirely when we consider how to apply it on the ground in our day to day lives. Nor likely does a God on high who serves as the arbiter of an annual performance review. But the story is not our essence, the us that was created, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, as our tradition teaches.

So tonight, I offer a re-frame: What if that personal story of “self” fills the pages of the Book of Life during these High Holy Days, offering us a tool to study in order to learn how to love ourselves?

Our book has birthdays and setbacks, laughter and adventures, births and deaths, joy and pain, and it holds the moments we are at our best and those we’d like to forget.

The High Holy Days offer space and a request that we spend some time with the book of our life. That we look at our relationships and mistakes and our proudest achievements, our pain and fear and dreams yet unfulfilled.

As we do, the stories can serve as a window through which we can see the themes and patterns, uncover the wounds that need healing and then learn and grow from this “autobiography.”

Growth and healing come from action. All the meditating, therapy, yoga, “self-help” introspection in the world does not serve us until we integrate it into change, how we relate to ourselves and as a result, others.

I cannot tell you what your actions are but I can share with you ways that I cultivate self-love, compassion and kindness toward myself. Perhaps you will find a suggestion to try or perhaps nothing will resonate… but my hope is that it gives you a place to start.

I allow myself to close down the computer, while there are still a number of things to do, because I know that I am out of energy. I work, regularly, to let go of the negative voices that say “I’m not good enough or worthy” by actively responding to them with affirmations of kindness. I refocus from judgement of a final product to valuing the effort behind the task. I strive to practice true humility, which is to both own my strengths and weaknesses, my gifts and flaws with equity, as pieces of my whole self. I prioritize exercise, not to control my physical outcomes, but to feel healthy and strong in my body. I go to the movies by myself, at times. And I practice saying thank you after receiving a complement, without qualifications of denials.

This work is simple, so simple, but not at all easy and it will never be perfect, nor is there a graduation. Cultivating love in ourselves and then the world is the same as strengthening a muscle. We need to exercise it regularly. Sometimes we will consistently get to the love gym, and some days we won’t make it and all of it is ok – where we need to be. But we stay the course and I truly promise you, change happens. When we slow down, we reprioritize, the noise in our heads gets quieter and priorities shift. Doesn’t that sound like a much more likely place to be able to Love our Neighbor?

At this moment in our world, we all know, there are so many provocative topics that I could have taken on this evening. I could have united us in the fear and anger we feel around the state of our country or world. I could have made a much more direct call to social or political action. With all the noise that you and I encounter all day, every day – bringing all of that into this sacred space, as we first enter into this New Year, is contrary to everything offered up tonight. It is the quieting of that noise that I pray will allow us to do this work, and act accordingly. Rather, in this new year of 5779, my call to action is to…

Love your neighbor. Love that other person, because you struggle just like her. You love your family just like her. You make mistakes just like her.

Love your neighbor. Love that other person because you laugh just like him. You worry about your children just like him. You hurt just like him.

Love your neighbor: because like you, they need the basic stuff of nature to live – food, water, shelter and human connection.

Love that other person because, in the words of our Torah, you were both created in the image of God.

Every year we talk about the call of the Shofar as a wake up, that it’s role is to call us to action and activate us out of complacency. This year, I invite you to utilize those blasts to awaken to yourself, own all your parts out loud and celebrate your gifts, find honesty and then compassion for your flaws. It’s tough to be human, and some inward kindness can help us radiate it outward to others.

You don’t need a colorful cardigan or seminary ordination to become shofarot. Blast out the healing and light that comes to you from this holy work, and is so much needed in our world today. In 5779, may we start with ourselves. AMEN.


[2] BT Tractate Shabbos 31a


[4] Leviticus 19:18.

Now Is The Time: A Reflection on The Inauguration 2017

“Kol HaOlam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’od: All the world is a very narrow narrow-bridgebridge – the most important thing is not to be afraid.” These are the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Jewish leaders, throughout our civilization, have always found inspiration and insight in our textual tradition. And it is Rabbi Nachman’s words that seem appropriately fitting for me, and for us, in this moment of American [and more specifically, American Jewish] life.

The polarization and divisiveness that has plagued our political and social discourse has impacted ALL OF US in some way. Additionally, the intersection of Israel’s increasing alienation across the global community with the volatility of the U.S. presidential election generated a perfect storm of discord throughout the American Jewish landscape, even pitting loved ones against each other.

The narrow bridge, in which Rabbi Nachman speaks of, can challenge us. Yet, it can also serve as a motivator in which we cannot, and should not fear. exodus

So, on this inauguration day, as we usher in a new chapter of political leadership, I look to Torah as my inspiration and motivation. And perhaps, in some Divine way, we begin reading the chapters of the Exodus narrative this week: the story of an enslaved people, exiting the bonds of slavery, and journeying into the wilderness; embracing, and often, challenging the unknowns/unchartered waters.

Through the retelling of this journey, we should be encouraged by the words of Moses to Joshua toward the end of the journey: Chazak v’ematz – to be strong and of good courage; yet toward the beginning we are first reminded of “a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt.” (Ex. 1:8)

The new king’s ascension to the top office in the land did not in any way indicate a change in the very nature of that land. In fact, Egypt was still the same Egypt. The Egyptians did not need to let the fears and insecurities of their new leader influence them to change their thinking, priorities, and ideals, such that the worst of the human condition was put on display. Several times in the book of Genesis, Egypt had in fact welcomed the tired, poor, huddled masses of the children of Israel so that they could flee famine. THIS was the ideal Egypt. Yet, in one generation, in one verse of Torah, Egypt became a nation that would enslave the Israelites for 400 years, due to the unwarranted fears of its new leader.

In today’s inaugural speech, President Trump noted that a nation exists to serve its citizens and that we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.

I want to agree with these sentiments as well, but feel challenged today with our nation’s current reality. Recent weeks have brought difficult conversations and more to our family. And most recently, these past days, in our local school community as well. Swastikas were painted and carved into trees on two of our local school campuses; another at the seminary where I (and your other two rabbis) studied to be a rabbi.

My children may not yet be thinking actively about these incidents, or what’s in store for them and their futures – but I have no doubt, they have and continue to absorb the energy of the pains of our fractured world, and the questionable safety they now face as Jews in America.

On this Shabbat, as we reflect on today’s transfer of power, in concert with the ascension of a new pharaoh in this week’s portion, we must ask ourselves: how do we protect against allowing fear, our own and that of others to dominate our decision making? How do we fight anti-Semitism against us while simultaneously resisting our own inclinations to stereotype others? I believe, as Americans, and especially as a Jewish people, we must balance communal inclusivity with ideological integrity, balancing politics with the fearless hunger and timeless values of our tradition.

As an antidote to the fractures and narrow bridges we see and face, Nicole and I have noted at times around our dinner table, that our tradition commands: “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Indeed, each of us must do our part to protect the most vulnerable among us, and advance the progress in policies we wish to champion.

So tomorrow morning, our children will watch their mother and safta (along with countless others from our community) head down to march in the Women’s March on Washington,not in protest, but in solidarity – with those who identify as women, along with allies of all races, ethnicities, and religions –united in support of women’s equality in our coutry. I am so very proud of them for standing up for themselves and what they believe, and for refusing to shy away from the difficult task of moving forward in this new and challenging time.

On this inauguration day, I want my children to know enough about themselves, who they are and what THEY stand for; and unlike many of the Israelites at the beginning of their journey –feel free to be curious and not fearful of the differences or challenges that might lie ahead. They can, and should be part of the civil discourse, and in fact, our tradition mandates such.

As we move into this Shabbat, on the dawn of new political leadership, confronting the unknowns by walking the narrow bridge, what I have come to learn is that it was never about the new King who knew not Joseph. Rather, it was the fear that seemingly paralyzed the Egyptian Community. Today for me is about opportunity; it is about our personal and communal potential; it is about challenging ourselves to walk a path, no matter how narrow, that models the best within us, in order to champion our greatest love and potential as individuals who belong to something even greater.potential

Two of my colleagues, Rabbis Mona Alfi and Nancy Wechsler, created the following prayer, which beautifully expresses a prayer for a unifying vision based on the Declaration of Independence.


“Mi she’berach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu – May the One who blessed our founding fathers and mothers bless us as well, with comfort and inspiration as we begin this new year. We believe that some truths are self-evident, all people, in our many glorious manifestations, are created equal. We are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The burden upon our shoulders to remember the wisdom and courage of those who came before us, who dared to dream of a better future. Yet, to remember is not enough. In each generation we are called to take action, to preserve and protect the fragile dreams upon which our nation was founded.

In seasons of turbulence,

we pray for a steady hand to guide our ship.

As storms of anger rage, we pray for sanctuary.

As fists clench, we pray for open hearts.

When sharp words slash like swords,

we pray to transform them into plowshares

to sow seeds of understanding and respect.

Now is not the time to avert our gaze

from what troubles our hearts.

Now is the time to build friendships.

Now is the time to fiercely protect the earth that sustains us.

Now is the time to honor with our words, and with our actions,

the spark of holiness that resides in every human being.

And by so doing, we honor our country, our children and our



Moral Unorthodoxy – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 – Rabbi Jason Nevarez

On a brisk day this past Spring, I had the privilege of taking my children, Ethan and Sophie to Ellis Island –the very place their grandfather traversed in 1908, from the town of Vilna, Lithuania. As we took the ferry from Battery Park, we sailed right around the Statue of Liberty. They were in awe of her sheer size, understanding that it was this magnificent monument that greeted new immigrants and refugees, welcoming them to their new home in NY and beyond.

ellis-island-immigration-museum-2_cLady Liberty’s image stayed with us as we disembarked at Ellis Island and proceeded with the self-guided audio tour. They both immersed themselves in the experience — carefully examining every room we entered, every photo we saw. Sophie focused on the faces of the children and the short narratives that accompanied their photos. She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that her great grandpa George could ever have endured the treacherous journey. How could she ever imagine living a life filled with such harshness, suffering, and an arduous journey to a completely unknown new land.

This short journey to Ellis Island resonated deeply, the faces remaining with all of us after our departure. Soon after we were back home, another image, that of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, came searing into my mind. Aylan, whose parents valiantly tried to flee Syria to give him a life, literally and figuratively, never made it to a new land. Rather, he washed up on a Turkish shore in his tiny red t-shirt and blue shorts. He drowned, along with his five-year old brother and mother when his desperate father could no longer keep their heads above water, having been battered by unrelenting waves that their rubber raft simply could not sustain.aylan-kurdi

Aylan, of course is just one singular member of the vast global refugee population that has flooded our media for the last several years. But, this small boy tore into my consciousness, a boy who, at three years old, spent his entire life trapped in a world of horrific violence and utter despair. This boy who tugged on my (and many) heartstrings, will never get the chance to kick a soccer ball. He will never go to school, wrestle with a difficult math problem, cut class, go on a hike, or learn to hate broccoli. As I recalled his image, I wanted nothing more than to undo the unbearable pain that had been brought to his family, his community and later, to the world at large.

And all of a sudden, it became clear to me – the world’s shofar had sounded for me and others with Aylan. What all the numbers, statistics, media sensationalizing couldn’t do – the image of Aylan did in an instant.

Aylan’s story moved me so much that I joined 15 other rabbis in August on a fact-finding mission to Berlin, a hotbed in the midst of the current refugee crisis. One of my first experiences there was a visit to a remnant of the Berlin wall, where photographer Kai Wiesenhofer created an exhibit called, “War on Wall”, a profound exhibition of faces and war-on-wallstories of injured refugees plastered on a remaining section of the Wall. In his introduction, he states: “It is a paradox of war that the image of a single person makes the biggest impression upon us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of victims, the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract- people are not.”

Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon calls this paradigm “psychophysical numbing” – if I can’t do everything, I’ll do nothing. Almost daily, newsfeeds and subsequent rhetoric in support or opposition of refugees became commonplace – I, too, became numb – “that’s their issue”, I recall, thinking to myself several times.

And then one day, a small boy who washed up on the shores of Eastern Europe, broke through the numbness.

The reality IS that most of us walk through this world focused on just trying to get through the day while we seek to quiet the issues that stir intense feelings within us. While we may stop for a moment to acknowledge the pain, the tragedy, or the need, many of us (including myself), shake our heads and quietly keep on walking.

For a moment, Aylan awakened us, surely me, too late to the horrors of a crisis fueled by our own indifference.

As a society, we’ve sh-childrenbeen here before. We woke up to the insanity of this country’s gun culture four years ago after parents and families had to bury 26 innocent young souls
gunned down in their classrooms just 25 miles from where we gather this evening. It was too awful, too vivid for us to walk away at that very moment. But soon after, our Facebook feeds quieted, we shook our heads, brushed away tears, and kept on quietly walking. We did the same after Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood, Charleston and Orlando.

We shake our heads, angered, concerned….and quietly keep on walking.

We acknowledged the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in our country when Trayvon was eric-garnerkilled, and our laws didn’t change.  Our social media exploded again when Eric Garner died in a strangle-hold, or Freddie Gray, who was shoved into a police van with such blunt force that he suffered spinal cord injury and ultimately death. And most recently, the events in Charlotte last week continue to feed this seemingly endless cycle, leading to further loss of innocent civilian and police lives, further inciting violence and disdain for those in blue. For a moment, we become outraged, vocal, sorrowful and motivated and soon after, we keep on walking….

Paradoxically, as a Jewish community, we stand proudly, for years, fighting for the rights of the African-American community– from the days of modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Dr. King in Selma, exclaiming, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Yet, the latest iteration of organizational justice for the African-American community, the Black Lives Matter movement, blindsided the Jewish community with the recent unveiling of its social and political policy agenda. It portrays a strategy well beyond police brutality, and accuses Israel of genocide and apartheid, seeking to hijack important work that addresses deeply rooted societal challenges, with a platform that brings about contempt and bigotry toward Jews. Few leaders spoke up, and many of us just kept on walking….

Even locally, in our own backyard we see homeless on the streets of NYC or Mt. Kisco, and immigrants who occupy local street corners in find work so they can sustain their families.
immigrants-on-street-cornerWe may take notice for a moment, but do we truly acknowledge that they, too, are our neighbors? Chances are, we keep on walking….

It is a harsh and never-ending cycle. Truly the world would be so much simpler if all we continued to worry about was soccer or baseball, dine in or take-out, iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. And yet here comes Aylan’s image in my mind, again and again – shattering complacency, and pushing me (and perhaps some of US) to remember how fragile this journey we call life, truly is; to stop walking, turn around and face one another with an outstretched hand.

The blasts of the shofar come every year to not only wake us up (which I have charged you with in the past), but for me this year, the sacred voice of the shofar calls us to STOP walking away, take notice, and act.

In the book of Deuteronomtzedek-tzedek-tirdofy, we are commanded: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20). Our mandate for being a free people is the ongoing pursuit for justice – fighting for the rights and ensuring the dignity of the other. Judaism takes the pursuit of justice in earnest, emphasizing the word tzedek, justice, in Torah, two times, one right after the other.

But could the sages of our Torah have possibly understood the enormity of this task in 2016? Think of how many news alerts we receive in the course of one day. Could they have ever fathomed the spiritual confusion that comes when we carry tiny screens with us everywhere, notifying us in real time to every act of human cruelty, every tragic story, violent protest, – every possible political poll? Never before have we had access to so much input. How could we be expected to even hold it all, let alone act?

Joan Kantor, beloved congregant, friend, and teacher in our Religious School, recently penned a Letter to the Editor in the NY Times, responding to an op-ed entitled: Scrutinizing Our Frenzy. She notes, “Once again, I have to make room in my busy schedule to respond to your article about being busy. Don’t you people understand that I don’t have time for this? Do you really want me to admit that my crammed, stressful to-do list days are an excuse not to face who I am on the inside? I have so much going on, so many places to run to, so much to worry about. Can’t you just leave me alone and let me “not be”?”

Joan has it right. Today, there is no question that we have reached the saturation point. No surprise, then, the growing backlash to the world’s refugees crisis or our country’s race relations. Or the divisiveness that has radiated, on these issues and more, fed by our current political cycle. If we can’t make space and time to honestly look at ourselves and make self-care a priority, how can we move from a state of psychophysical numbness to one of compassion, empathy, and action?

Over these Days of Awe, we are charged to look within and to take inventory – looking deep to acknowledge both the pain and the progress.

In this inventory of our culture, I do see the growth: our unprecedented ability to treat illnesses; outstanding advances in science, medicine and technology, the newly opened forum to address gender questions, the seemingly endless charitable organizations that work hard to make an impact every day, creative solutions to end water crises in Israel that are shared with developing nations….and let us not forget WAZE! Thanks to Israel’s Start-Up Nation!

As I also take stock of the pain and the hardening of the heart: millions dead, victims of war, hatred, religious extremism and terror, and better technology to weaponize hatred and kill more efficiently and effectively – I see a significant imbalance.

What a dynamic tension: in the past century, we have learned how to think deep: I have witnessed children in our own congregation printing in 3D, and watched some of the greatest medical advances to date. Robots are communicating and teaching each other; whole cities have moved off of electrical grids and are now powered by wind and air; online stores are providing information about our genes that will make it accessible to learn more about our health.

But somehow, we have not yet figured out how to feel deep, to build stronger bridges of humanity. We have yet to overturn the U.S. legacy of racism and temper this world’s attraction towards anti-Israel, anti-Jewish vitriol. We lack the sechel, the common sense and political capital in figuring out how to protect children in our classrooms and malls and theaters from disturbed young individuals armed with weapons of war or how to provide our own citizens equal opportunity of access to all that our country has to offer.

We can send rovers to Mars, build self-driving cars, but we can’t muster the collective will to care for the world’s most vulnerable: refugee children, leaving them no choice but to venture into a raging sea on broken inflatable rafts?

We tout ourselves as the most powerful generation ever to inherit this earth, yet we still convince ourselves of our personal powerlessness. Friends – this is a “moral crisis”.

SO…what can we do to stop, take notice and act? How do we harness our creative genius and frame it in the moral choice to stop walking and turn to face our fellow human?

A critical first step is to let our empathy lead us to moral action. Our capacity to see all moral-actionhuman beings as reflections of ourselves, not as “other” will make a difference to the person at the other end of a gun barrel, or those holding on for dear life to a raft that has no business crossing the rough sea. Or to the parents who fear that their children won’t make it home from school; and reduce the fear that emanates, on either end, between a police officer and a person of color. Empathy is what allows the divine to dwell between two people – for love to overcome hate, peace to overcome violence.

In 1967 at an interfaith conference in Washington, DC protesting the War in Vietnam, Rabbi Heschel told a story about his first encounter, at the age of seven, with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which we will read tomorrow morning. He recalls sitting in class, reading the story from the Book of Genesis. When the moment comes that Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to cry. By the time the angel cries out: Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! he is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. ‘Why are you crying?’ the Rabbi asks him. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed!’ ‘But rabbi,’ he says, ‘supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. “My friends,” Heschel notes decades later, “an angel cannot be late. But we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

While we may not be able to bring an end to war, oppression, and hatred on our own (I am well aware), the reverberations of the shofar blast mandate us to actively seek out and do our part. We can change the fate of the world and its people by choosing not to come too late.

That frenzy referred to in the NY times Op Ed is the focus on all we think we need to do and be. It precludes us from seeing beyond ourselves and it burns us out physically, spiritually so much so that we may render ourselves helpless. Yet we can turn our best intentions into meaningful, sacred deeds if we choose to stop, take a breath and look up. Here are a few concrete actions steps to support our mandate in 5777:

  1. Use the internet and social media to learn what people are feeling, and get caught up on the issues that are important to the community that you want to support. Use your voice, skills, connections and gifts to educate others.
  2. Ask yourself: am I bringing moral conversations home and making space for my loved ones, my children to think deeply and take steps with causes I, or we, are passionate about? Am I deliberately looking up to see where my part is needed?
  3. There are many tangible ways that you can make a difference right here in your spiritual home through participating in our social justice initiatives. Any one of our leadership can help guide you to the many opportunities here at TST.

Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, Rav Kook’s timeless message is key here. He says: “Purely righteous people do not complain about evil; they add justice. They do not complain about heresy; they add faith.” (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p. 39)

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue! Pursuing justice still affords us time for work, our families, summer camp, vacations, theatre, and our sporting games. And as I already mentioned, there are people in our own community, perhaps even our own homes, who desperately need us to pay attention, with our love, time and resources. I believe there is room in our hearts to hold all of this.

Commit to not quietly walking away today….or tomorrow. A sweet boy in a red t-shirt and blue shorts stopped me in my tracks. Together, let’s turn our best intentions, our concern and sometimes anger, now into moral action.

I close tonight by offering a prayer, which I hope will motivate us towards next steps in this New Year of 5777 and beyond:

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu

God of our Fathers and Mothers, Source of Creation

This year, help us to STOP walking away.

Know that while we come together during these holy days to be in community with one another, our liturgy, inspired by You, calls us to turn our moral crisis into moral action.

Help us identify our wealth of skills, knowledge, influence and resources, and turn them into deeds that support the human condition and human dignity.

Help us to motivate ourselves, and one another, so that we can infuse this world with much-needed justice, light, empathy and healing to bring about wholeness in humanity.

Amen. Shana Tova.

From Megillah to Madness…and Back Again: AIPAC 2016


On the eve of the Festival of Purim, before we listen to or read the Megillah, partake in libations and festive affairs, and recall the strength of our Purim heroes, I thought it would be an ideal time to reflect on my recent experience at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. Throughout the Policy Conference, I had a chance to (re)connect with many congregants, colleagues, and friends. The energy was elevated, and the tension palpable. Over 18,000 came together to show their support and love of Israel.

First, some framing with regard to my general thinking on Israel and AIPAC:

  1. I believe that we, as a collective Jewish people, stand taller and prouder today because of the amazing and incredible work that Israel does in many areas.  It is continually innovative, forward thinking, and visionary in spite of constant threats on its borders and throughout the region.
  1. More Americans, regardless of religious or race affiliation, should support the work of AIPAC. Why?
    • AIPAC is one of the few places that supports bi-partisan conversation and work towards a common goal, further promoting the success and safety of the Jewish State. And this “bipartisanship” nourishes our ethical obligation to see the humanity in the other.
    • America needs Israel.  Israel needs America. AIPAC works unfailingly to strengthen these two democracies’ joint work in critical and meaningful ways.

At this year’s Policy Conference, I connected with and learned from African American state legislators, as they passionately spoke about the enormous impact IsraAid has had on their communities – coming to the relief of some of the poorest communities in the U.S. last year during the worst floods seen there in over 1000 years.

I also learned about the unbroken commitment to Israeli ingenuity. For example, SoftWheel is a company that is supporting wheelchair-bound individuals by putting suspensions in the actual wheel or wheelchairs – meaning no more flat tires and increase comfort for those in the chairs! And this technology is starting to be used in bikes and cars! The company was founded by IDF veterans, and supports our US vets as well – incredible genius as just one example of the extraordinary innovations from Israeli society working in partnerships with the U.S.

In addition to these impactful take-aways, the conference is commingled with countless sessions on everything Israel: education, policy, diplomatic relations, social justice, lobbying – you name it. And this year, delegates had an opportunity that witness something that only comes about every 4 years: to hear from this year’s presidential candidates LIVE.

Since I have been a rabbi I have stayed away from commenting on partisan politics. I believe that the job of a rabbi is to foster sacred space and enable others to feel free to voice their own opinion, without judgment or reservation. Yet besides being one of the spiritual advisers in my congregation, I am also a father of two. And as a father, I feel responsible to teach my children that when there is wickedness in our midst, we must stand up and recognize it. Whether at home, in our school or local communities – even the political arena, it is our moral and religious imperative.

I believe that it is vital for any U.S. Presidential candidate to illustrate their commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. And I deeply value that 4 of the 5 current candidates understood how important it was to showcase his/her platform on the U.S.-Israel relationship, and how they would actualize their vision come January, 2017. Additionally, I feel that AIPAC had every right, as a bipartisan lobbying group, to invite all candidates, regardless of rhetoric. After all, they are vying for the highest office in our land, and should be afforded an opportunity to engage with a crowd that has a desire to know where they stand on this strategic partnership with America’s closest ally.

Upon reflection, all of the candidates promoted their deep love and commitment to Israel, through either substantive or strategic proposals (Clinton and Kasich, and at times, Cruz), or through personal narrative (Trump). The 3 republicans voiced their strong opposition for the Iran deal, which seemed to serve as a centerpiece for their remarks. Some of them also focused their statements on policy failures by the current administration, rather than lay out any substantive plans. Some brief highlights: Cruz quoting Talmud, Clinton bringing on (Pure)im, Kasich on his relationship with Sharansky, and Trump boasting about his Jewish grandchildren. For me, both Clinton and Kasich spoke passionately, with experience and commanded-ness, about the U.S.-Israel relationship, both of their vision making reasonable and short and long-term strategic sense.

Yet, while substance was provided during most of the speeches, sadly, the wickedness we have seen throughout this election cycle reared its ugly head on Monday night as well. As anticipated (and boy he did not surprise), I experienced an early Purim Shpiel of sorts – outrageous declarations, silly cheers and boos, all of which caused many to mask our truest selves, and sew confusion over who is good and who is wicked. As a glass half full guy, I was hoping for a muted response and ideally, in advance of the policy conference, a voice that would distance AIPAC from potential inflammatory statements from Mr. Trump, and given the organization an opportunity to model their theme: #cometogether. Sadly, it never happened. Nevertheless, the next morning, AIPAC leadership stood front and center and shared much of what needed to be said. I felt, at least, it was a good start and much-need teshuvah (repentance) (click here to read the remarks):

They condemned Mr. Trump’s incendiary remarks against President Obama and misguided rhetoric. I stood proud in that moment, in contrast to the great discomfort I felt as he approached the center of the arena to share his 15-20 minute oratory.

Truth be told, “wicked” is a term identified who those who seek to bring others down; those who seek to find the worst in others. I believe our tradition would certainly qualify Mr. Trump as such. From his call on banning all Muslims from entering the United States, to his lengthy evasion to disavow support from David Duke, his pervasive and persistent misogyny, proposals to make torture legal, and a call to kill the families of terrorism suspects (to name a few), there is no doubt in my mind that his campaign has, and continues to inspire and unmask those who promote these injustices. 

This evening, we will read the Book of Esther and recall that good triumphed over evil: King Ahasuerus first seduces the people of his kingdom with lavish parties – his people grateful for his seemingly “audacious hospitality”. It is at that moment that the King elevates the wicked Haman (boo) to a position of great power. Haman eventually manufacturers an edict to kill the Jews in his kingdom, but Mordechai, a Jew living in Shushan, senses Haman’s potential power and refuses to bow down. All but Mordechai prostrate themselves before Haman.

It is at the moment that I believe Mordechai spoke great truth to power. On Monday evening, I thought of my children and the messages I wanted to convey to them. And as I write this, I am able to draw inspiration from our narrative. We must not bow down and kneel to those who inspire hatred and overlook calls for violence. This is our mandate and our sacred responsibility.

So, what can we do when our political landscape affords bullies the platform to dominate public arenas? As a Jewish people, we look to our tradition, to God, and to the world around us. And, as a modern Jewish community determined to learn from those around us – we listen, we learn, and we act.

Our Rabbinic teachings note: “Silence implies consent.” We will not and cannot be silent. Our “more perfect union” is indeed, not so perfect. And as progressive Jews, we have a moral imperative to become more involved with groups like AIPAC, not less. We must make our voices heard, and demand more of our elected officials. We must not remain silent. We must not stand idly by. There is no room for hate. Our child deserve more.

I hope you will join me at next year’s AIPAC Conference (click here to register NOW) to add your voice in advocacy, and in support and love for the Jewish state.

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