Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Future of Music

We are moving in a new musical direction within the congregation and are inviting you to participate in our musical future. Two decades ago, our congregation went through a music transition. We went from a professional quartet and organist at every Shabbat service, to a compromise that included different musicians on different Erev Shabbat services. There are some practical aspects to consider. First, we lost two of the regular musical offerings (Charlene and Hazemir). Secondly, the dwindling membership we have experienced during the last 15 years, and the consequent drop in Friday night attendance, has made the large sanctuary an unfitting worship space for small groups. The Goldstine Chapel has proved to be more suitable for the congregation we are now, yet a professional choir with organ is no longer fitting for such smaller worship space. In sum, over the last few years, the compromise model has broken down and its usefulness vanished.
In considering any changes, it was important for me to know where our music taste will be in the next ten years –and not only where it has been. During the last four years as your rabbi, I have had several opportunities to talk to congregants, to discuss it at the Ritual Committee meetings, and to assess the preferences of those who attend Shabbat services regularly. All the evidence has told me that a collaborative, participatory, and integrated model of music and tefillah (prayer) is one that will inspire those who join us on Shabbat and holidays. That is our goal.
To find the right individual to achieve that goal, the Ritual Committee and I, in consultation with the entire Board, developed a new pilot position to help us move forward. From September of this year, until May of next year, Suellen Kipp will fill the position of Music Specialist. The Music Specialist will serve as an integral member of our synagogue team and will be responsible for supporting the liturgical music needs for our congregation. Suellen will be our Erev Shabbat keyboardist on a regular basis. Suellen is a talented musician who comes to us with experience in working with non-professional singers and musicians, both at churches and schools. In addition to Suellen, we will still have our beloved “Greenbergs” as well as the occasional visiting musicians local and regional.
Having a regular music specialist on staff, will help us expand our congregants’ own role in creating music. This is a formal invitation to anyone with a love for music and a gift for creating it - vocal or instrumental - to join us in bringing joy and meaning to our weekly Shabbat tefillah experience. If you play an instrument - if you sing - we invite you to volunteer and join with us in the coming months, to discover what "sound" CAV might create to lift our Shabbat celebrations even higher (just contact me directly, and we’ll get together with Suellen).
For the rest of you who might not be performance-oriented, you have an equally important role during this pilot year: be present! Come with enthusiasm to our Shabbat services, join in all of the musical elements of our tefillah, and let us know what you experience.

I look forward to the music we share, the tefillah that inspires, and the moments of holiness we create when we join together in creative, joyful prayer.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remembering the Promise With Its Obligation

Shacharit L'yom Kippur 5775
Most of you have heard this beautiful song by Naomi Shemer, z’l. The song was Shemer’s entry at the 1967 Israel Song Festival, and it won! If you listen to it carefully, it is a song about Jerusalem written at a time when Jews did not have access to the Old City. It is a song of longing; a song filled with memories
The last stanza ends with "If I forget thee Jerusalem", asher kula zahav, “which is entirely of gold,” a beautiful juxtaposition of a quote from Ps. 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon …), combined with the main image of the song, that Jerusalem is the crown jewel of our people. The song was so popular that it soon became the unofficial National anthem of the State of Israel. But, why?
I’d venture to say that it is because remembering, NOT forgetting, is at its core, just as remembering our historical ties to the land of Israel is at the core of Zionism. Zionism is the idea that we can take a common memory, the longing to the return to Zion/Jerusalem, and turn it into a Modern political movement. Zionism is an interpretation of Jewish memory, and as such, it is an interpretation of what Judaism is.
The origins of our longing for Zion are found in the Torah. In the Book of Genesis, Bereshit, our ancestors were promised the land of Canaan by God. Although Zionism is largely a secular political movement, the idea of a “Promised Land,” plays an important role in how we see the Jewish past. Our Jewish memory is that we were given the Land of Israel, l’rishtah, as our inheritance, apparently without any conditions … at least until we get to the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, D’varim, when everything changes….
The Torah portion, which Bruce just read beautifully, and translated for us, begins with one of the most famous “covenants” between God and the Jewish people. First, the Torah makes clear that this covenant, brit, is incumbent upon those present at Mount Nebo, Jews and “resident aliens” alike, as well as upon all generations to come. Secondly, if we follow the Torah, God may “bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.” The opposite, of course, if we don’t.
This covenant introduces a new idea: Keeping the “promised land” is dependent on us living up to the teachings of the Torah. The difficulty of living up to the ethical values of the Torah have come to the forefront in recent decades. Some critics of Israel have equated Israel to South Africa during the Apartheid era, and point out that Israel cannot be a “Jewish” state, and also remain a democracy, at the same time.
In a recent paper from the Israel Action Network, a project of The Jewish Federations of North America titled “Israel: Jewish and Democratic,” the authors address the issues that Israel, as a liberal democracy, must resolve when it comes to the treatment of its minorities. Given the climate of violence in the area, the relationships between the Jewish state and its mostly Arab non-Jews creates tensions.
The Israel Action Network paper cites the example of a case brought to Israeli Supreme in 2000. The case was about an Arab citizen who was denied the right to buy State-owned land after it had been transferred to the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund. The Court ruled in favor of the Arab citizen, and stated that that these Zionist institutions, which are geared toward development of Jewish settlement in Israel, cannot be used to get around the fundamental obligation to treat all citizens equally. The ISC concluded:
“True, a special key to enter the house is given to the members of the Jewish people [Law of Return]. But once somebody is in the house as a citizen under the law, he enjoys equal rights, just like all the other members of the household… Hence there is no contradiction whatsoever between the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and complete equality between all of its citizens.”
The point is that in any democracy, there will be accommodations that need to be made to respect and expand the rights of minorities. This is why, we in America, still need a Civil Rights Movement, for instance. The problem, however, is that Israel is usually singled out as not doing the right thing. Many critics point to “the fact” that a true democracy must be cultural or religiously neutral. Israel, therefore, could not remain Jewish and democratic. 
I don’t know enough about constitutions around the world, but Alexander Yacobson does. Yacobson is a former Meretz activist and Peace Now member who supports of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yakobson wrote an article for Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper titled, “Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. Here's how.” He cites these examples:
“The Irish constitution, for example, starts with “in the Name of the Holy Trinity.” According to the constitution of Denmark, the Evangelical Lutheran Church “shall be the Established Church of Denmark.” Under a 2012 constitutional amendment in Norway […], “The Norwegian Church, an Evangelical-Lutheran Church, remains Norway’s Church; Specific provisions on the organization thereof are laid down by law,” […]. In both Denmark and Norway, the monarch must belong to the Lutheran Church.”
So, it can be done, so how is it possible that what is good for Norway or Denmark, is not good for Israel? That Israel is a Jewish state does not mean Israel is a theocracy. What this indicates is that, in the public sphere, Israel may reflect its core mission of serving as the nation state of the Jewish people. I am confident that Jewish values and ideals are compassionate and considerate towards non-Jews. The Torah is clear that we must treat the strangers, the resident aliens, with decency.
The fact that the non-Jews may experience discrimination is Israel is a reality. The Israel Action Network concludes:
“Living as a national or ethnic minority within a majority culture is never easy. The situation of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens is especially challenging, both ideologically and practically. They do face de facto discrimination in the workplace and in allocation of state resources and Israel’s government should be expected to do much more to address this issue.”
We could not agree more. We should be the first to hold Israeli leaders accountable but not because the constitutions of Ireland or Noeway say so, but rather because the ethical and moral teachings of the Torah compel us. Our common Jewish memory includes both the promise to settle the land and the obligation to live up to the ethical teachings of our Torah.
As Jews who live outside of Israel, in the Diaspora, our job is to continue our support for a Jewish and democratic state by insisting that Israel be treated fairly in the concert of the nations AND that Israeli leaders keep in mind the highest ethical teachings of our tradition. It is a work in progress, my friends, but we cannot despair or give up.
For two thousand years, our people read Parashat Nitzavim at our synagogues and listened to the phrase, “the land that you enter to possess;” and it meant nothing concrete to them, only an annual utterance of longing for a promised land. Im eshkachech yerushalayim, “If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem,” echoed a distant land. The words of the covenant we read today could not be applied. We had no way to undertake our part in this covenant, in “the land that we were about to enter.”
But we are not those Jews. We are blessed to live in a time when we can again put into practice the conditions of that covenant. As Jews living in this time of national renewal, we must again also remember how we commanded to act in the land that we were given. If we turn away from compassion and turn to nationalism as if it were a cult, then, Israel will embark on a very difficult path. If, on the other hand, we walk in God’s way and grant others the rights we claim for ourselves, then, Israel will be a thriving Jewish democracy.

In the year that has just began, may we always remember our common past, its promises and demands, so that we can look into the future with hope and with the certainty that our people has a brighter future for us all. 

If We Forget Thee, Oh Shabbat

Kol Nidre 5775
A man was lying in bed on a Saturday morning. His wife said to him, “Get out of bed and go to shul”…….  “I don’t want to go to shul”, he said, “and there are three good reasons for that. First, I am tired. Second, I don’t like the service or  the sermons. Third, people there don’t even like me.” So his wife said, “Those excuses are no good. Get out of bed and go to shul- and I’ll give YOU three reasons: First, a decent Jewish family goes to shul together. Second, God will never forgive you, if you don’t come to shul. And third, you ARE the rabbi, after all.”
Certainly, not any rabbi I know … But it’s true, sometimes even rabbis have a hard time getting to services……, for different reasons than congregants, of course. Yet, here we are again, talking about the importance of attending shul, of coming to services. We all have different reasons why we are here tonight, but we all understand and value the relationship we build with God, with others and with our community when we are fully present.
We belong. Our connection to each other is based on a relationship. On this special night of Kol Nidre, we are called to remember, zakhor, that we belong to a sacred community.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism writes:
“We North American Jews are not only citizens of two great countries; we are also citizens of a people called b’nei Yisrael, “the children of Israel”—the descendants of Jacob, the descendants of Moses, the descendants of those who stood at Sinai and accepted a covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham and Sarah.”
Judaism is a tradition that values our relationship with our ancestors, with the generations that preceded us, as well as with those living in our time. Some of you may recall that on Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need for us to revive the tradition of saying Kaddish for our loved ones, family and friends. In addition to being our religious obligation, saying Kaddish builds community. Saying Kaddish is about building relationships with each other and with our congregation. Our tradition expresses this idea by teaching that we need a miniyan to say Kaddish.
In more traditional circles, they mean 10 Jewish men. The number 10 has never been questioned. I accept the traditional number; yet, it’s not a magic number.
We need a minyan for regular services at the synagogue, but also for a funeral, a bris and a wedding. To me, the rabbis of the Talmud set a number as a way to promote relationships that build community. IF we are to have a working congregation, we need to have some basic rule; one such rule is the need for a miniyan.
On this unique Shabbat, we are reminded of what the teaches: Zakhor et yom hashabbat, “remember Shabbat,” and we are to mark Shabbat as a special day. When we come to say Kaddish on Shabbat, it also marks Shabbat as a day when we make it possible for others to remember.
A few times this past year, we did not have a miniyan on Shabbat. One of our congregants, who had come to say Kaddish, almost broke into tears when I mentioned that we needed a miniyan to say Kaddish. It broke my heart that we could not provide for a basic Jewish need, and promised myself right then and there that I was going to share that experience with all of you on Kol Nidre. It is simple: When we forget Shabbat we fail to make it possible for others to remember.
For our congregation, having a miniyan on every Shabbat would be easy. Let’s do the numbers. If we divide our directory in four, about 6 letters per group, we would cover 4 Shabbatot a month. I’d need your active participation now, for an experiment. If your last name begins with the letter A, B, C, D, E, F, please, stand up (if you are able). OK, this year you will come on the first Shabbat of the month. You may be seated … now if your last name begins with G, H, I … well …  you get the idea? Obviously, everyone is welcome to come to every Shabbat, BUT if each one of you were to commit to attend ONE Shabbat a month, we would be set. We can do this! It is mathematically possible!
Yet, it is not that simple, because the source of the issue is not mathematical, but relational. For too many of us, our relationship with our community could be improved and deepened. I’m sure we all have our reasons.
Let me give you another example. Thanks to the leadership of our board and a few dedicated volunteers, the Rifkin Campus @ 5200 project is moving ahead. Yet, to date, only 40% of our members have contributed to this unique project. This project will make this location a home for the Jewish community for Northeast Indiana, and will insure our building is up to date. Kris and I have made a commitment to this project and will double our contribution. And, I should note, from now until December 31st, your gift will triple.
Some of you may think 40% is pretty good, yet, a project of this kind necessitates 100% participation. This project is about doing all we can so that we have a beautiful, safe and sustainable space for all the programs, services, and events that we all enjoy and wish to continue and improve. It is about our future in a very tangible way.  
The 40% is a sign that we need and can do better. Each one of us should look inward and ask what we can do to develop a deeper relationship with our congregation. In other words, what can we do to build a sacred community?
Before we continue, I want to make a distinction between community and friendship. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Friendship, as
“[…] a distinctively personal relationship that is grounded in a concern on the part of each friend for the welfare of the other […] and that involves some degree of intimacy.”
It is great if we develop friendships among us, but friendship should be neither our goal nor our basis for action as a congregation. We act in accordance with our values, as our congregational by-laws say:
“[…] this Congregation exists to serve God, to assist and enhance the lives of Jews in the Fort Wayne and surrounding area according to Judaism’s highest values and to bring those values into the lives of all people.”
We are a community, not a “friends club.” Social scientists tell us that a community consists of people from all walks of life: differing ages, genders, and that they may seem to have no relationship at all before joining a community. Communities are held together by common interest, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common heritage. Sometimes I wonder if we remember what our common goal is and why it is important to be an ACTIVE member of the Jewish community.
Assimilation is perhaps the great culprit here. So many Jews today have little or no Jewish education, that it is difficult for them to see the value of Jewish institutions. Lacking a sense of “belonging” can be the root cause of what we experience. Dr. Ron Wolfson teaches:
“To my mind, virtually everything a person could possibly want or need Jewishly is readily available at much less cost and trouble via Internet and rent-a-professional … except deep and lasting relationships, face-to-face relationships with people, both lay and professional, who care about you and care about connecting you to others, and work to help you build relationships with the Jewish experience […]”
I want those deep and lasting relationships for myself, but that I long for them is not enough, you have to want them too. Relationships are a two-way street. If, as an example, I call you or send you a card for your birthday,  and you never do, soon enough I’d give up on that relationship, and move on. We do not have to all be friends to be part of the same community, but we do need to CARE about each other, and provide to each other that which cannot be found anywhere else.
Sometimes I feel as if am missing a relationship piece. After more than 4 years, I still don’t know your personal stories, your struggles or accomplishments. The time we may spend together at the oneg is not enough. If we do not break bread together on Shabbat, for instance, how will I, or anyone for that matter, get you hear your story. By objective standards, we are a small congregation. We have about 140 family units who live in town, and many of them are on individual. It is doable to listen to each other’s life stories. Given our demographics, it is MOST important that we work on developing our relationships. We need to make time to hear our personal stories, our life-journeys.
We have some bright spots in our congregation; great examples of things that build community. Some of our members are actively involved in great projects and programs. One such program is our “Thoughtful Thursday,” a Nationally recognized tzedakkah project. One of the ideas behind TT is that every congregant can participate at whichever level they feel comfortable. I know it is very rewarding for those who volunteer. Our corn beef fundraiser also bring out our members, and it’s great to see so many of you, but that’s once a year. No, we cannot have “Corn Beef” once a month, or even twice a year. TT and Corn Beef are a lot of work and we cannot ask the few volunteers behind those successful programs to do more. Yet, the fact remains: We NEED more opportunities to create community that do NOT require such great investment of time and resources.
Many of the things that create and nurture lasting relationships have been part of the traditional Jewish way of life for millennia. So, what Jewish things will strengthen our relationship to our community? They are all those things that strengthen our common memory and develop new memories.
On this night of Kol Nidre, I would suggest to concentrate on three areas on which we strengthen our community. Three areas to learn about and then DO.
First, clearly, we need to be present in times of sorrow. It is our Jewish duty to comfort the bereaved and accompany the dead for burial. There are several ways to do this mitzvah: You may choose to be counted in the Shabbat miniyan; or attend a public funeral or unveiling. We can also do this mitzvah through food. Please, be open and generous when asked to be part of our congregation’s effort to provide shivah meals after a funeral or for the house of mourning. Most congregations our size DO provide these kind of meals on a regular basis.
Secondly, when our families choose to share the simchah with us all by having their life cycle event here, we need to be present as well. Whether it is a baby naming, a Bat Mitzvah celebration, or confirmation, we need to have a congregation, not merely ONE miniyan. No, we do not have to be FRIENDS with that family or have children who are friends with theirs, in order to attend their simchah. Perhaps that’s how you used to do it, but for a small congregation like ours, staying away from simchas DOES NOT work anymore. When one of our youngsters becomes a bar mitzvah, it is a reason for ALL Jews to celebrate. It is a community event, and being here will strengthen our relationships beyond belief!
Thirdly, be creative. If none of the things I mentioned above speak to you, let us know what would. Hod, our president, as well as the many committee chairs will be glad to hear your input and ideas at any time. I want to challenge you to engange in your community in meaningful and enriching ways. How do you envision your contribution to strengthening our relationships and our community? I’m not saying this lightly: My door is always open. Also, we have a new Starbucks down the street from our house, I’ll ve happy to sit down with everyone of you at Starbucks, and listen, but please, DO NOT ignore the urgency of this matter nor my plea. Like Hillel once taught, im lo achshav, if not now, eimatai, then when?
Having deep relationships with your religious and ethnic group is actually more than just a nice thing to have. Many recent studies have shown that being part of a religious community is good for our health. It does something good for each of us. We know this from surveys of people who LEFT religion and had some dire consequences to their health.
Let me share with you what one such study concludes:
“Any negative experiences after leaving religion, from depression to social isolation, can take a toll on your physical health. Isolation, according to a six-year study out of the University of Chicago, can cause health problems such as disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure, and a 14 percent greater risk of premature death.”
Need I need to explain more? Are you sure you don’t want to attend services more often? We often take for granted some relationships, but they are soon missed, once we leave the community where those relationships were created and nurtured. The reason why people who left a religious community saw their health declined was not because they missed the sermon, but because they left behind valuable relationships. Having a relationship with a sacred community is part of being human, and a necessary part of it.
Dr. Wolfson concludes:
“Call it what you will—a religion, a civilization, a way of life—Judaism is built on relationships. Born of a relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah, a pact literally marked in the flesh of males and symbolically celebrated in the hearts of females on the eighth day of life in a ceremony called brit, “covenant,” we Jews are a relational people.”
On this holiest night of the year, we must remember this covenant and commit ourselves to continue living it and reshaping it. May we all be blessed with a year of new challenges and opportunities. May we reach deep-inside and reach out to others in community so that our relationships will flourish and enrich each and everyone of us.

Remember What it Means to Be Jewish

Shacharit L'rosh Hashanah 5775

[Manny tells his jokes …]  This is precisely why the Torah tells us, again and again, zachor, remember. Zachor, remember, is ever-present in the Jewish tradition. It is not just our obligation to remember those who have died, but also to remember the stories about our ancestors; it is what creates Jewish memory.
The stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah and Rachel, and Joseph and Moses, and Miriam and Ruth remind us that their lives are intertwined with ours. We are Jewish, but sometimes we forget what it means. Every year, at the beginning of the year, we are commanded to read the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Akedah, and to remember. The story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah is about our common memory.
As a matter of fact, the only connection between the Akedah, “the binding of Isaac,” and Rosh Hashanah is through memory. The midrash relates the reading of the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah to the idea of zakhor, remember. It becomes explicit in the liturgy during the sounding of the Shofar. The second series of Shofar blows are called zichronot, “memories.” We read in the Midrash:
Said the Holy One [to Abraham], "[...] In the future Isaac's descendants will certainly sin before Me, and on Rosh Hashanah I shall judge them. If they want Me to find some merit for them and remember the binding of Isaac, let them sound this shofar before Me." Abraham said to Him, "What is a shofar?'" He said to him, "Look around you." Immediately, "his eyes fell upon a ram caught in the thicket by its horns" (Gen. 22:13)."
Following the teachings of this midrash, Zikhronot concludes with the words, "Blessed are You, O Lord, who remembers the covenant." It refers to the covenant between God and Abraham and Isaac, at the end of the Akedah.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Conservative rabbi who writes and lectures about Jewish prayer, teaches,
“When Rosh Hashanah comes, it is upon the children of Isaac to sound that horn and thus "remind" God of their merit.”
This midrash presupposes our active participation, for we are the descendants of Isaac. We need to remember that we are Jewish. In order to do the remembering, we hold Rosh Hashanah services and blow the shofar. The burden of carrying forward the memory of our people is on us. I’d suggest that Rosh Hashanah is called yom hazikaron, “day of remembrance,” because on this day, many Jews remember what it means to be Jewish.
My messages about Jewish memory could not have happened without the help of Hayyim Yersushalmi’s precious book Zakhor. It is an academic book, but I highly recommend it.
But before we delve deeper into this matter, I want to make a distinction between history and memory, with the help of Harold Bloom, the great Jewish thinker. Bloom, quoting Hannah Arendt writes:
“[...] Greek historiography, like Greek poetry, is concerned with greatness: “Through history men almost became the equals of nature, and only those events, deeds, or words that rose by themselves to the ever-present challenge of the natural universe were what we would call historical.” Against this historiography was Jewish memory, based “upon the altogether different teaching of the Hebrews, who always held that life itself is sacred, more sacred than anything else in the world, and that man is the supreme being on earth.”
In other words, history teaches us ONLY about the greatest events of the past, that is about what happened and, hopefully, why it happened. Memory, on the other hand, teaches us WHO we are and what we value most. That is why, when you come to services we read the stories we do. Abraham and Isaac were not “great heroes,” they did not embark on great adventures, or defeat terrifying monsters or dragons. Instead, they shared some very difficult moments together. Abraham and Isaac went up a mountain and had a transformative experience. Remembering their story teaches us what it means to be Jewish.
The Akedah teaches us that holding fast to the centrality of human life is not easy, even for avraham avinu, “our father Abraham.” We read about his struggles; we consider what he put his wife and son through, in order to follow his religious beliefs. It makes us wonder how we would have acted? We feel for Abraham; we approve and disapprove of his actions, like a good family member would.
But why do we HAVE to read it every year? Is it not enough for us to read the stories at home? Our sages knew that memory could be tricky; that we tend to remember things selectively, and that we need some help in building up our common memory. The Talmud talks about memory and what problems it engenders through a parable:
“To what is this like? To a man who was travelling on the road when he encountered a wolf and escaped from it, and he went along relating the affair of the wolf. He then encountered a lion and escaped from it, and went along relating the affair of the lion. He then encountered a snake and escaped from it, whereupon he forgot the two previous incidents and went along relating the affair of the snake. So it is with Israel. The latter troubles make them forget the earlier ones.”(TB Berakhot 13a).
We, as a people, tend to have a short-term memory. The latest problem becomes THE defining problem. It is natural, of course, to remember the latest things and judge everything by what happened last. It is natural but it is not wise.
Our tradition envisions that we Jews will remember our Judaism by doing Jewish things. Unfortunately, many of us remember our Jewish identity only when we hear the latest Anti-Semitic outburst or Anti-Israel diatribe.
It seems to me that many of us have a lot of time to read about the Anti-Jewish episodes around the world, but very little time to learn about our own tradition. It troubles me that many of us have an uncanny tendency to read reports that confirm what we already know: There are people out there who hate Jews. There is nothing new or newsworthy about it. On this yom hazikaron, this “day of remembrance,” we are reminded that being Jewish is more than remembering the latest anti-Jewish incident, or anti-Israel demonstration.
In a recent article titled “Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates the Jews, and What To Do About It,” published in the online magazine, Tablet, professor David Mikics reviews two new books about Anti Semitism by a couple of well known Jewish historians. I’m only interested in his conclusion. Mikics writes:
“[…] both Nirenberg and Goldhagen, [...] miss out on a central, if sometimes troubling, aspect of Jewish history—the way Jews react to what the world thinks about them. Perhaps the most basic lesson from the grim continuing history of anti-Semitism is that anti-Semites don’t get to say what the Jew is.
Here in Fort Wayne, we have been very active in the past year doing our part in combating anti Israel rhetoric, and we should continue the good work as a united Jewish community. But, defending Israel should not define us. Although it is important to combat Anti-Semitism, it should not be the driving force behind our Jewish identity.
We learn what it means to be Jewish not by reading and reacting to frightening news reports, but rather by dedicating time to study Torah, in the broadest sense of the term. Remember: We rabbis have really two sermons, “come to services more often,” which I gave yesterday, and “study more,” our topic for today!
But seriously, every week I receive many, many emails about all the anti-Israeli propaganda out there. But rarely does anyone ask me, a rabbi, about Torah; or ask me to teach a class about Jewish philosophy, ethics, history. Sometimes, it seems that the non-Jews are more interested in learning about Judaism than the Jews themselves.
Our adult education committee works hard throughout the year to bring us learning opportunities. We try to offer a variety of topics, at different times of the year, but we struggle. We lack a core group of committed adult learners who are willing to dedicate a couple of hours a week to study Torah. To the best of my knowledge, Reform Judaism has never given up studying Torah. On the contrary, unlike traditional Judaism, we are called upon to make “informed” decisions about our Jewish practice. This implies that we get “informed,” and not watching CNN, MSNBC or FoxNews. Jewish learning happens with other Jews, in community, together.
I don’t want to “beat around the bushes,” as I see it, a congregation that does not value learning does not have much of a Jewish future. I know that there is a long list of reasons why we cannot come together to study Torah: Maybe we don’t like the rabbi, or the topic, or the time it meets, the place it meets … but again, it’s a matter of priorities. I am asking you that in the coming year you take a second look at your priorities. I don’t see how we can continue to have any Jewish learning together if the future looks just like the past year. How can the New Year bring us to a more meaningful place in our lives so we will study together? Learning together strengthens develops our Jewish memory, and strengthens our Jewish identity.
Celebrating our Jewish identity is important because we are the heirs of values that are worth preserving: The pursuit of justice for all and the centrality of human life, created in the Divine image. All other Jewish values and practices derive from these two values.

Our own Jewish learning is what allow us to determine what it means to be Jewish; we cannot, and should not, let others determine it for us. It is here, in the synagogue, where for thousands of years Jews have learned what a Jew is, by re-reading the collective memory of our people as it is found in the Torah, and discussing its meaning. In the year ahead, may we resolve to build up our common memory and our shared values through learning and study. May the love and knowledge of  Your Torah return, Oh God, to our congregation. Hashivenu Adonai, Help us, Oh God, to return to study and Torah, venashuvah, and we will return. We pray, O God, chadesh yamenu kekedem, and renew in our own days the lover for your Torah of truth, justice and peace.

Zachor: Remembering Our Loved Ones

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
[Anne sings ending of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”]
Oh Yentl, Yentl … I could almost see Barbra singing. Thanks Anne! Yentl is the story of a young Jewish girl who wants to study Talmud disguised as a boy. Yentl wants the rights and responsibilities of the traditional male role for herself. In a sense, this is her way of remembering her dead father. The presence of Yentl’s father can be felt throughout the movie.
As we recall the film, we can easily remember Yentl addressing her father again and again. To me, the centrality of memory ties everything together. We are commanded again and again in the Torah, zachor, remember, do not forget.
The very end of the movie is a hymn to memory.
When Yentl is on the ship, traveling to America, she sings “A Piece of Sky,” and the theme of remembering her father is the last thing we hear from Yentl:
“Papa, I can hear you...
Papa, I can see you...
Papa, I can feel you...
Papa, watch me fly!” [Long held note …]
Yentl’s desire to memorialize her father drives her in search of a new life in a new country. She knows her father would be proud of her, if he could see her now.
Memory is powerful, but memory is also imperfect; sometimes it is difficult to recall a voice, a touch of a loved one who died many years ago. They say that time heals everything, but time also blurs our memories. For instance, my mom passed away over 24 years ago, and sometimes I cannot remember the sound of her voice calling me to come in for dinner, or telling me to stop asking questions –two very common phrases. Perhaps we need to settle for what we learn from the lives of those no longer with us. I recall what she taught me, by her example, about remembering the anniversaries of those who had passed on.
On Sunday afternoons, when I was young, we would get on the bus and go to the cemetery to visit the appropriate gravesites –according to their yahrzeit. My mom used to say, “pay attention, and come back when I cannot.” After the visit, we would stop by my aunt’s for cake and mate.
Maybe my aunt’s delicious cake was the trick –I do like cake, but I want to believe that it was because I understood the wisdom behind our visits, and still treasure them. It was not only a visit to a gravesite, but a chance to talk about my grandparents and our other relatives –and for me to ask more questions! As we remember our loved ones, they become part of us, and in this way they live on. NOW I know what she meant by “come back when I cannot.”
Our tradition teaches us zakhor, remember, again and again; one of the ways we remember is by marking the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the dead. Judaism offers us four ways of observing a yahrzeit: Two that we do in private, and two we do in public. The two private customs are lighting of a candle and giving tzedakah.
1. Lighting a candle. It is a universal Jewish tradition to light a candle at sunset, on the eve of the anniversary. [SHOW a yahrzeit candle]
The candle should last 24 hours . In Yiddish it is called a yahrtsait likht, “anniversary candle,” in Hebrew we call it ner neshamah, “soul candle,” after the verse  “ner Adonai nishmat adam, the candle of the Lord is the soul of man” (Prov. 20:27). The verse means that God’s light infuses human beings and gives us life, just like breathing would.
2. Giving tzedakah. It is also a well-established tradition to make a contribution in memory of our loved ones. The Hebrew word tzedakah evokes the idea of justice, kindness and honesty. The implication is that the giving tzedakah embodies what a righteous person stands for. So, giving tzedakah for a yahrzeit is as if we were saying, “my loved one was a righteous person, and since they can no longer give tzedakah, I will.” In the Book of Proverbs (11:4) we read, “tzedakah tatzil mimavet,” which our sages read literally, “giving tzedakah, delivers one from death.” Following this teaching, when we give tzedakah for a yahrzeit, we are keeping the memory of our loved ones alive.
Since these are private observances, I trust you follow them at home. This evening, I would like to focus on two public observances: visiting the gravesite, and reciting Kaddish at the synagogue.
3. Visit the gravesite. One of our congregants has the most wonderful tombstone inscription. It is at the Jewish cemetery on Decatur Road and reads, “Thanks for stopping by.” His inscription is right on: “Thanks for stopping by,” though you didn’t have to, but I thank you nonetheless. I believe that those who are buried in cemeteries are not aware of whether we visit or not. The visit is about us, the living. Visiting speaks about how we remember and how much we value memory.
I know it is difficult, some may even think unpleasant, to visit cemeteries even though they hold the gravesites of our parents, grandparents, and other loved ones. We keep telling ourselves, “the dead are not here,” but when we are standing at the gravesite, in some sense, they are. We feel their presence; their memories become so tangible that we can almost hear them; we sense their watchful gaze ...
For some of us, it is physically or logistically impossible to visit a gravesite on the yahrzeit of our loved one; they might be buried far away, halfway across the globe, or their yahrzeit is during a time of the year when it is not possible for us to travel to the cemetery. If that is the case, you may want to consider our Kever Avot ceremony. Kever Avot means, “Gravesite of our Ancestors.”Our memorial prayers will be held this Sunday afternoon at the two cemeteries -see your programs for more details.
Most of those in attendance come because they have a loved one buried at the cemetery. However, if you don’t have a loved one buried here, you may still come to remember your loved ones buried elsewhere. You are also welcome to come to remember a friend or a fellow congregant who is buried at our cemeteries, but whose family lives out of town or abroad. The family may not know that you are there to remember, but you will.
At a time of the year when families and friends used to come together for the High Holidays, our Kever Avot Services highlight the profound significance of a time when we visit the graves of our loved ones and friends. We remember their lives, appreciating the difference they made in our lives and in the lives of others, and of our community. It is a great opportunity to show how much each one of us care, and I know that we all do.
4. Finally, reciting Kaddish. The Kaddish prayer is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and evocative pieces of Jewish liturgy. Reciting the mourner's Kaddish links those who are alive today with all previous generations, in a continuum of faith and hope that has helped the Jewish people to survive and flourish, despite all attempts at their annihilation.
The wisdom of the Jewish tradition excels here, for we are required to recite Kaddish in public, and never alone. Judaism teaches that when we have a yahrzeit, we must leave our home, and join other people: our family, relatives, and fellow congregants, at Temple. Our rabbis had a deep insight: It is good for us to “hang out” with the living, when we remember our dead.
Yet, this ESSENTIAL and defining Jewish practice might be in decline at our congregation. Every month, the Temple office sends out notices about yahrzeits. Let me remind you that these are yahrzeits YOU have told us YOU wish to remember, YET, often, even those who request that names be read on a particular Shabbat, do not actually come to say Kaddish. Reading the name is not a substitute for actually showing up and reciting Kaddish.
I know … there are reasons why people CANNOT come to recite Kaddish: One may be sick or stuck at work, or out of town. My favorite two reasons why Jews do not live up to this responsibility are, of course well-known: “good weather … , and bad weather.” Some may say they CANNOT come because they don’t like the rabbi or the music, or the prayer book, or the time of services, or the oneg cookies, or the challah, or the coffee… Need I say more? As I see it, however, it is a matter of PRIORITIES. Nights out, fundraisers, movies, concerts, games, vacations, you name it, they can all be planned, yet they all seem to take priority over reciting Kaddish in public. If you are one of those who never missed a yahrzeit, I commend you, and encourage you to continue to inspire others with your example. We need you.
This past month, I have had a chance to examine my own actions and I have this regret about the year that passed. Al chet … I failed at my rabbinic function by not stressing enough that every Jew has the religious responsibility to recite Kaddish for those in their families who are no longer with us. When it comes to recognizing the importance of reciting Kaddish, we can all do better in the New Year.
Do I imply that those who do not recite Kaddish for a yahrzeit, don’t care about their loved ones? Of course, not! I have no doubt in my mind that we all care for our loved ones who have passed on. Tonight I want to remind you what Judaism teaches and why it is important.
To the best of my knowledge, the Reform movement never abolished reciting Kaddish in public. We have made some accommodations, so busy Modern Jews could still observe this beautiful and important mitzvah. Traditionally, one must recite Kaddish on the actual day of the yahrzeit. Reform practice represents a compromise: We may come on the Shabbat after the yahrzeit. But it is STILL mandatory, required, and expected.
I can only remind you of what our tradition holds dear. Being Jewish is a choice. We are all Jews-by-Choice. I assume that we all care about our Jewish heritage: We are here. We CHOOSE to belong or attend this congregation. Some of us might be thinking: We care, but we do it in our own way, at home, in private. I say “great!” But that has never been the Jewish way because individualism does not contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people. It is not the Reform Jewish way either. We are Reform, of course, but not THAT Reform!
I know that some of us DO NOT have any yahrzeits yet; it is OK to take upon ourselves performing this mitzvah. In the past 166 years we have collected many names in our yahrzeit list. It will take some time, but it would be very meaningful if next to each person on our yahrzeit list we could also print the name of the member who remembers them. I know who is who, but not everyone does.
WE should also remember: Many people do not have anyone left to say Kaddish for them. Think of the millions who were murdered during the Holocaust, entire families with no one left to say Kaddish. I normally say it for them, but it would be a great mitzvah for some of you to choose one of them as well, and make it your mitzvah project to come recite Kaddish for those people in our Yahrzeit list or for a family who perished during the Holocaust. What a great way of connecting with your Temple and it’s history, and to revive a lost tradition at our congregation!
Let me be clear: Rabbis have two sermons. One, “come to services more often,” and “study Torah, learn what it means to be Jewish.” That’s it, thank you … [WALK AWAY].
A problem that we Reform Jews have is the idea of obligation. In Hebrew it is called a mitzvah, a commandment. A mitzvah is different than an mitzveh, a good deed. A mitzvah is a religious obligation. We stress autonomy and personal choice so much that when treasured practices disappear, we struggle with bringing them back.
If the idea of being obligated to recite Kaddish for your loved ones or a mitzvah for others does not speak to you, I invite you to think about reciting the Kaddish in community as a personal spiritual practice, in other words, as something that brings us closer to God and to the Jewish people.
In Kol Haneshamah: Yamim Noraim, the Reconstructionist machzor, we find this most beautiful meditation, which …
“Jewish tradition, in its wisdom, teaches us that between the world of the living and the world of the dead there is a window and not a wall, […] the rituals of Shiva, Kaddish, and Yahrzeit open windows to the unseen worlds of the dead. They create a sacred space and time wherein we can open our hearts and minds to the possibility of a genuine inter-connection with beloved family members and friends who have left behind the world of the living. [… The yahrzeit] is a window.  Prepare to open that window…
At the beginning of a New Year, I invite you to get in the habit of opening that window more often, for your loved ones who are gone from among us, or for anyone for whom you cared in life, and now you want to remember. Reciting kaddish for our blood-relatives and spouses is a mitzvah, a commandment. Reciting kaddish and showing other signs of respect for the dead is an act of chesed shel emet, an act of true, pure compassion and love. In the year ahead, let us open the window to our obligation, but also, may we open the window to more acts of true compassion and care for others. If we commit to do so, our community will be enriched. We owe it to them, and to ourselves. Because, after all, how we remember them says more about us than about them.
Judaism is a tradition that celebrates zakhor, remembering as a living memory. Rosh Hashanah is known in the Talmud as yom hazikaron, “day of remembrance.” God remembers our actions during the past year, our tradition teaches, and we remember our good deeds as well as our shortcomings.
We remember at the beginning of every year, and this year, I invite you to also make an effort to remember the rest of the year. They say, “New Year, new opportunities;” it is also a time for new habits, for new or renewed traditions. Maybe we all remember one of our people’s most beloved old wise traditions, the recitation of Kaddish at its due time.

May God renew for us a New Year of treasured memories, old and new. May we remember so that we may renew the memory of our loved ones. As my mother used to say to me: “Pay attention … and come back, when I cannot.” It is now up to us, the living, to carry on the duty our tradition: Zakhor! Let us remember as long as we live. L’shanah tovah.