In Dedication to Cantor Alois Kaiser – April 18, 2014

Jerry Lurie, the fortieth president of Temple Oheb Shalom, is passionate about history. Early in his term, he pronounced that we would correct an egregious omission in the history of this 160 year old congregation. We would rectify an age old mistake by commissioning a portrait of our first cantor, Alois Kaiser, and dedicate it before he left office. Jerry does not miss an opportunity to connect us to our history. He refers to his beloved synagogue by its correct title, “Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City,” thereby linking us with the city in which we were born and nurtured and to which we owe a great debt. Our recent commitment to BUILD rededicates us to Baltimore City. It confirms that even though many of us live in Baltimore and even Howard Counties, our fate, and that of Oheb Shalom, is dependent upon the health of the city in which we reside. Jerry was also quite aware that even though Cantor Kaiser died on January 5, 1908, the only member of our clergy to die while still actively serving the congregation, his legacy has not been properly memorialized by the congregation he loved and who loved him in return. So, with the proper motivation, Jerry authorized our Executive Director, Ken Davidson, to have a portrait painted from a photograph of Cantor Kaiser. You will see the result of this process in a few minutes.
Alois Kaiser was born on November 10, 1840, in Szobotist, Hungary. We know nothing about his parents, except that they obtained the coveted privilege of being able to move to Vienna, meaning they must have been fairly well to do. He received his first instruction in the congregation school of Dr. Henry Zirndorf, one of the most respected teachers of the day. He later attended the Realschule and the Teacher’s Seminary. Showing an early aptitude for music, he was placed in the Vienna Conservatory of Music and, at the age of ten, began singing in the choir of the celebrated Viennese Cantor, Solomon Sulzer, the well-known composer of 19th century synagogue music. At the tender age of 19, in 1859, he became assistant cantor in the synagogue of Funfhaus, a suburb of Vienna. He excelled in his apprenticeship and three years later, was called to serve as cantor at the Neuesynagoge in Prague, a quite prestigious position.
Throughout his life, Cantor Kaiser was a disciple of the great Sulzer. He made it his life’s task to continue Sulzer’s vision of synthesizing the Jewish cantorial tradition with Western artistic musical standards. As he studied with Sulzer, he imbibed the rich heritage of miSinai (from Sinai) tunes, all of which actually dated to medieval Rhineland Jewry, and other melodies of Ashkenazi Jewry, which Sulzer had been careful to preserve, revitalize and incorporate into his artistic settings and into the new Viennese rite.
Like so many other German Jewish young men, Kaiser yearned for the political freedom which was denied to him in Central Europe. In 1866, he immigrated to New York and was soon employed as Cantor of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City, the largest synagogue in Baltimore and the home of the renowned Rabbi Benjamin Szold. The two of them made a great team, as they were engaged in a new and uncharted enterprise, creating a modern synagogue compatible with American sensibilities. Throughout his career, he was convinced, as he wrote, “that the ancient melodies, chants, and tunes of the synagogue have lost none of their original charm, and while in order to adapt them to modern tastes, we may have to clothe them in a new garb,” by which he meant restylization, reharmonization, and adaptations to Reform liturgical and ritual adjustments, even including English versions. Cantor Kaiser was a prolific composer as well as a scholar of Jewish music. He collaborated with two fellow immigrant cantors, Moritz Goldstein and Samuel Welsch, to compile, edit, and publish a four volume anthology of Jewish music, Zimrath Yah, between 1873 and 1886. The publication of this anthology caused him to become known throughout the country as America’s greatest cantor. Cantor Kaiser dreamed of creating a hymnal that could be used by all American synagogues. His dream came true when a group of prominent Jewish women from Chicago invited him and Cantor William Sparger of Temple Emanuel of the City of New York to compile a book of Jewish music for the Jewish Women’s Congress of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The first part of the book contained fifty seven well established melodies adapted as hymns for the new Western style synagogue. The second part contained original musical compositions for the synagogue by the stars of synagogue music, Lewandowski, Sulzer, Naumberg, and even Kaiser himself.
As a token of its esteem for this prestigious work, the Central Conference of American Rabbis made Cantor Kaiser an honorary member. This organization of Reform rabbis just released its new Union Prayerbook in 1894 and invited Cantor Kaiser to create and edit a new hymnal as a companion piece to the prayerbook. Thus was born the first edition of the Union Hymnal, first published in 1897, edited by our own Cantor Alois Kaiser. I hold up a copy of the second edition of the Union Hymnal from 1932 which contains four of Cantor Kaiser’s original compositions. While many of his pieces contain a flowery and grandiose English libretto that is foreign to our contemporary ears, the melodies are adapted from authentic Ashkenazic musical tradition. As Cantor Kaiser wrote, “These songs of Zion, they are our heritage, entrusted to our care and cultivation. Let us zealously preserve them, for we are their watchmen and guardians. We have brought them with us from across the seas; let us imbed them firmly in the hearts of our American brethren that they may abide there forever.”
Cantor Kaiser died prematurely at the age of sixty-eight, still serving his congregation and known as the greatest cantor in America. Tonight we pay our proper respects to Cantor Alois Kaiser, the first senior cantor of Temple Oheb Shalom, one whose portrait most deservedly will take its place on our hallowed walls.
I invite our President, Jerry Lurie, to formally dedicate Cantor Kaiser’s portrait.
________________________________
Milkin Archive of Jewish Music
Ibid
Ibid

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In Dedication to Cantor Alois Kaiser – April 18, 2014

     Jerry Lurie, the fortieth president of Temple Oheb Shalom, is passionate about history.  Early in his term, he pronounced that we would correct an egregious omission in the history of this 160 year old congregation.  We would rectify an age old mistake by commissioning a portrait of our first cantor, Alois Kaiser, and dedicate it before he left office.  Jerry does not miss an opportunity to connect us to our history.  He refers to his beloved synagogue by its correct title, “Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City,” thereby linking us with the city in which we were born and nurtured and to which we owe a great debt.  Our recent commitment to BUILD rededicates us to Baltimore City.  It confirms that even though many of us live in Baltimore and even Howard Counties, our fate, and that of Oheb Shalom, is dependent upon the health of the city in which we reside.  Jerry was also quite aware that even though Cantor Kaiser died on January 5, 1908, the only member of our clergy to die while still actively serving the congregation, his legacy has not been properly memorialized by the congregation he loved and who loved him in return.  So, with the proper motivation, Jerry authorized our Executive Director, Ken Davidson, to have a portrait painted from a photograph of Cantor Kaiser.  You will see the result of this process in a few minutes.               

         Alois Kaiser was born on November 10, 1840, in Szobotist, Hungary.  We know nothing about his parents, except that they obtained the coveted privilege of being able to move to Vienna, meaning they must have been fairly well to do.  He received his first instruction in the congregation school of Dr. Henry Zirndorf, one of the most respected teachers of the day.  He later attended the Realschule and the Teacher’s Seminary.  Showing an early aptitude for music, he was placed in the Vienna Conservatory of Music and, at the age of ten, began singing in the choir of the celebrated Viennese Cantor, Solomon Sulzer, the well-known composer of 19th century synagogue music.  At the tender age of 19, in 1859, he became assistant cantor in the synagogue of Funfhaus, a suburb of Vienna.  He excelled in his apprenticeship and three years later, was called to serve as cantor at the Neuesynagoge in Prague, a quite prestigious position.

         Throughout his life, Cantor Kaiser was a disciple of the great Sulzer.  He made it his life’s task to continue Sulzer’s vision of synthesizing the Jewish cantorial tradition with Western artistic musical standards.  As he studied with Sulzer, he imbibed the rich heritage of miSinai (from Sinai) tunes, all of which actually dated to medieval Rhineland Jewry, and other melodies of Ashkenazi Jewry, which Sulzer had been careful to preserve, revitalize and incorporate into his artistic settings and into the new Viennese rite.[i]

         Like so many other German Jewish young men, Kaiser yearned for the political freedom which was denied to him in Central Europe.  In 1866, he immigrated to New York and was soon employed as Cantor of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City, the largest synagogue in Baltimore and the home of the renowned Rabbi Benjamin Szold.  The two of them made a great team, as they were engaged in a new and uncharted enterprise, creating a modern synagogue compatible with American sensibilities.  Throughout his career, he was convinced, as he wrote, “that the ancient melodies, chants, and tunes of the synagogue have lost none of their original charm, and while in order to adapt them to modern tastes, we may have to clothe them in a new garb,” by which he meant restylization, reharmonization, and adaptations to Reform liturgical and ritual adjustments, even including English versions.[ii]  Cantor Kaiser was a prolific composer as well as a scholar of Jewish music.  He collaborated with two fellow immigrant cantors, Moritz Goldstein and Samuel Welsch, to compile, edit, and publish a four volume anthology of Jewish music, Zimrath Yah, between 1873 and 1886.  The publication of this anthology caused him to become known throughout the country as America’s greatest cantor.  Cantor Kaiser dreamed of creating a hymnal that could be used by all American synagogues.  His dream came true when a group of prominent Jewish women from Chicago invited him and Cantor William Sparger of Temple Emanuel of the City of New York to compile a book of Jewish music for the Jewish Women’s Congress of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  The first part of the book contained fifty seven well established melodies adapted as hymns for the new Western style synagogue.  The second part contained original musical compositions for the synagogue by the stars of synagogue music, Lewandowski, Sulzer, Naumberg, and even Kaiser himself.[iii]

         As a token of its esteem for this prestigious work, the Central Conference of American Rabbis made Cantor Kaiser an honorary member.  This organization of Reform rabbis just released its new Union Prayerbook in 1894 and invited Cantor Kaiser to create and edit a new hymnal as a companion piece to the prayerbook.  Thus was born the first edition of the Union Hymnal, first published in 1897, edited by our own Cantor Alois Kaiser. I hold up a copy of the second edition of the Union Hymnal from 1932 which contains four of Cantor Kaiser’s original compositions.  While many of his pieces contain a flowery and grandiose English libretto that is foreign to our contemporary ears, the melodies are adapted from authentic Ashkenazic musical tradition. As Cantor Kaiser wrote, “These songs of Zion, they are our heritage, entrusted to our care and cultivation.  Let us zealously preserve them, for we are their watchmen and guardians. We have brought them with us from across the seas; let us imbed them firmly in the hearts of our American brethren that they may abide there forever.”

         Cantor Kaiser died prematurely at the age of sixty-eight, still serving his congregation and known as the greatest cantor in America.  Tonight we pay our proper respects to Cantor Alois Kaiser, the first senior cantor of Temple Oheb Shalom, one whose portrait most deservedly will take its place on our hallowed walls.

         I invite our President, Jerry Lurie, to formally dedicate Cantor Kaiser’s portrait.

 

[i] Milkin Archive of Jewish Music

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

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The Afikoman: What is it Really? – April 11, 2014

Sermon for Shabbat HaGadol
Finally, finally, after a long and trying winter, spring has arrived. Today was a lovely day. It seems that we can put our snow shovels away and get our winter coats cleaned. We deserve a nice long spell of good weather.
Nothing announces that spring has arrived like the onset of Pesach. This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat, and it is the Shabbat just prior to our first Seder. The Haftarah reading for tomorrow morning connects us to Pesach as it is from the Book of Malachi, the last book in Prophets, which announces, prior to the coming of God’s day, that God will send us Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to the parents. Eliyahu HaNavi will be the precursor to the Messiah. He will come before, as our text says, “The great and terrible day of Adonai.” Those of us who are parents know that it will take the appearance of the Messiah to bring parents and children together, to reconcile our differences, and to bridge the gap between the generations. This reference in tomorrow’s Haftarah to the Mashiach, the Messiah for whom we are waiting, is a foreshadowing of the great theme of the Seder- that we move from genut to shevach, from the degradation of slavery to the exaltation of physical freedom. With the eating of the Afikoman, the middle matzah which we break in half and then hide, and the opening of the door for Elijah, the Seder moves from the elation of our physical freedom to the realm of the Messianic Age, from the freedom of the Jewish people to the ultimate liberation of all humanity when the Messiah comes. Allow me to explain.
The Seder as we know it is a late first and early second century phenomenon. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis needed to invent another way to celebrate the spring festival since we were no longer able to offer the paschal sacrifice. The rabbis modeled their celebratory meal after the well known Greco-Roman banquet which had four courses: appetizer, entrée, dessert, and then philosophical discussion. The rabbis simply inverted the order, placing the philosophical discussion prior to the serving of the entrée. They were concerned that if they left the discussion, the story of our liberation from Egypt until the end, too many people would just eat and then get up and leave. The rabbis mandated that eating the Afikoman and opening the door for Elijah be held after the meal, towards the end of the Seder. The best, like dessert, would be saved for last.
The rabbis of the Talmud translated the Greek word Afikoman as “entertainment” or “dessert.” What it really means, according to the biblical scholar, Robert Eisler, is “he who comes,” referring to the Messiah. The eating of the Afikoman and opening the door for Elijah herald the transition of the Seder from the celebration of our physical liberation to the redemption of all humanity. We go from the particularistic to the universal, from the Jewish people to all peoples. If this is true, and I believe it is, why did the rabbis mis-translate the meaning of Afikoman? Why is there not a more explicit reference to the coming of the messiah in the Seder?
The reason has to do with history. Simultaneous to the origin of the Seder the growth of Christianity occurred. Jewish Christians, those Jews who believed that Jesus was the mashiach, interpreted the symbols on the Seder plate in Christological terms. It is fascinating that only in the Seder are we commanded to explain the meaning of symbols. We are told to explicate the meaning of the Pesach, the lamb bone, the Matzah, the unleavened bread, and the Maror, the bitter herb. We do so to ensure that we are attending the right Seder! Christians would interpret these symbols in very different ways than would we. A similar phenomenon is taking place with the Afikoman. As Rabbi Michael Oblath wrote, “What is interesting to me is the possible connection of the Afikoman to the ritual of the Eucharist…at least, perhaps an original expression of it. For what do we do with the Afikoman? We get the matzah back, match it up with the original piece of matzah (symbolizing Israel, the Jewish people), divide it up and then eat it. Yum! I can easily imagine the Last Supper (if it had been a Seder), Jesus eating with his friends and students, someone giving him the Afikoman (I wonder if he gave out prizes?), and then breaking it up, and saying to his group, something like, ‘Oh, by the way, this represents me.’ Seems a simple evolution of the game of ‘telephone’ to turn that into ‘this is my body…’ No wonder the rabbis, for all intents and purposes, dumped the real meaning of Afikoman.” Jesus and his disciples took the hidden middle matzah and imbued it with Christological purpose. They, in a sense, hijacked its meaning, making it difficult, if not impossible, for our ancestors to continue considering it as a messianic symbol.
So, my dear friends, it is time for us to remove the layers of obfuscation and return to the real meaning of the Afikoman and the Seder- it is a Messianic meal, one designed to transport us from the historical to the meta-historical, from real time to the end of time. When that happens, we will know that Elijah has truly walked through the open door.
Amen. Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Sameach!

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Sermon for Scout Shabbat – March 28, 2014

It is a joy to once again welcome the members of Troop 97 and their families. This annual Scout Shabbat solidifies the ties that bind Troop 97 to Oheb Shalom. Our congregation has sponsored a scout troop for almost a hundred years, starting with the predecessor to Troop 97 and continuing, since the 1940s, with Troop 97 itself. The scouts perform many valuable services to our congregation and community, including working at the recent Purim carnival and setting up chairs in the Blaustein Auditorium for the High Holydays. Troop 97 also has an enviable record of creating Eagle Scouts. There is rarely a year that goes by without one of the scouts ascending to the rarified level of Eagle Scout. To say that we are proud of our scouts is an understatement.
Our Torah portion for this week is Tazria, from the Book of Leviticus. This portion, and its twin, Metsora, are usually read as a double portion. This being a leap year, however, we separate the two. Woe to the bar mitzvah who has to chant from these portions which deal with skin diseases, bodily fluxes, house mold, and all manners of ritual impurities. These portions actually tell us a great deal about our ancestor’s sense of their world, of how they distinguished between sacred and profane, life and death. We believed that God created boundaries that could be crossed only at our peril. If we did transgress one of them, we became ritually impure and had to go through purification ceremonies to re-enter the boundary and hence, the community. Since this thought world was disassembled when the Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago, these laws became anachronistic. The only remnant of them is the use of the mikvah and handwashing when we enter a home immediately following a funeral.
The rabbis who lived after this period had to re-interpret these rules in order to make them relevant to their time. The rabbis associated these most grave skin diseases with the character damage that ensues from motsi shem ra, the mis-use of language, a deliberate word play on Metsora. The rabbis believed that one who engaged in verbal abuse placed himself outside the boundary of the community, just as did the one who contracted a terrible skin disease and was ritually impure.
I spoke to a woman last night who moved to Baltimore five years ago. She is happy here and well adjusted to our community. She said the biggest shock of moving here was how much people talked about one another. She could not get over the amount of gossip in which we engage. Jewish law is obsessive on the subject of the improper usage of language. “It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). We may not even speak negatively about people regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara). Even idle gossip is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.” The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.” The great moralist, the Chofetz Chaim, cautioned that we should not even engage in lashon hara about ourselves. We are not allowed to run ourselves down, for when we are overly critical we are slighting God, our Creator, who made us in His image and placed a divine spark within our souls. To disparage ourselves is to disparage the Godliness that is within us.
In this day of instant communication, the mis-use of language is even more serious than it was in earlier times, when malicious talk was spread person to person. Now, with Twitter, Instagram, and Face Book, one can ruin a person’s reputation literally in an instant. The consequences of this have become horrific, as young people misuse on line communication to bully and embarrass others. This has led to numerous suicides of adolescents who cannot deal with the public shame of motsi shem ra. So tonight, my young friends, I caution you to think before you speak, to fashion a narrow filter between your brain and your mouth, and to reflect very carefully before you write anything that will be seen by other people. Not only do your words come back to haunt you, but you may, even unwittingly, embarrass someone so profoundly that the consequences will be irreversible.
As we begin to chant the Tefila, we say “Adonai s’fatai tiftach u’fi yagid tehelatecha,”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Jewish Week.

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Broken Tablets – February 14, 2014

     I hope you have heard that Oheb Shalom has engaged in two new initiatives.  In November, our Board of Trustees voted to join BUILD, a 35 year old, multi-congregational advocacy organization that works to improve life for all of us in Baltimore.  We are the first synagogue in Baltimore to join BUILD and the first in Maryland to join such an organization.  Over 160 Reform congregations belong to similar organizations around the country. BUILD is responsible for hundreds of new homes in Baltimore City, after school programming for thousands of students, and most recently, the $1 billion school bond issue that will build and renovate over thirty schools in the City.  BUILD listens to the concerns of its members and strives to make changes in our community based on what it hears at the grassroots.  We are now in a listening campaign at Oheb Shalom that will last until the end of this month.  We have over thirty volunteers reaching out to 150 of our members, learning about the issues that personally concern them.  We will collate our information and see if we can act on any of these issues, along with those of other BUILD congregations.  Since this is an election year and none of the gubernatorial candidates are from Baltimore, it is crucial that we express our concerns in a consistent and organized manner.

          We also recently created Isaiah 61, a joint task force of Oheb Shalom and Bethel AME which will do “hands on” projects while helping to create relationships with one another.  Co-chaired by Shelle Schnell and Rev. Lorraine Castain, we will work on restoring Bethel’s outreach center on McCullough Street.  We have planned two clean up days in the spring.  Read your emails and Pathways for more information.

          I have personally conducted seven listenings of our members over the last few weeks.  Our members have spoken about what issues keep them up at night- public education, crime, local water quality, and student loans.  One member spoke to me about a heart-felt issue, one that particularly resonated with me.  Let me explain what I mean.

          Our member spoke about the epidemic of drug deaths, especially among young men in their twenties and thirties.  I understand this, since a year does not go by when I have not officiated at the funeral of a young person who died of a drug overdose or complications of addiction.  I have done funerals for children at whose bar mitzvahs I have officiated.  Every single funeral of a young adult is a tragedy which might have been prevented had these kids gotten the help they needed.  Even so, many did receive help and were in rehab at least several times.  They were not able to shake the habit, reverting to drugs or not taking prescription medication that was necessary for their mental stability.  Addiction is a terrible disease.  Today’s heroin is so potent that one can literally become addicted to it after one or two injections.  While it sounds idiotically simplistic to just say “no” to drugs, it is the best policy.  Once one starts using, it is so hard to stop.

          Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tisa, in which Moses, descending the mountain with the Ten Commandments, was astounded by what he saw. The people’s revelry around the Golden Calf infuriated Moses, who threw down the two tablets in a fit of anger.  After punishing the people and castigating his brother, Aaron, who made the Golden Calf for them, God told Moses to once again ascend the mountain where he would receive a second set of commandments.  “Our Tradition tells us that God alone fashioned the first set of tablets.  Moses passively received them.  The second set of tablets was a divine-human effort.  The second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, by the hand of Moses, an imperfect human being, rather than by the perfect God.  The Talmud tells us (Ber.8b) that the fragments of the first set of tablets were carried in the Ark along with the replacement set.  That which was once holy retains it holiness even when it is broken.” [i] So it is with our addicted young people.  Even though they are broken and sometimes unfixable, they are still holy and deserving of our love and concern.  They have the spark of God still within them, deep inside, waiting to be released when the drugs which deaden them are gone.  Our young men and women are like the broken tablets, fragments needing to be made whole once more. 

          Over the last few years, we have seen the demise of Jewish Addiction Services, our Jewish half way houses, and Eternity, a support group for parents whose addicted children have died.  Last week, I wrote a letter to Marc Terrill, the President of the Associated, imploring him to use all the resources of our Jewish community, to help those in need.  Perhaps, just perhaps, if we had an agency in our Jewish community which could rehabilitate drug addicts while treating their mental health issues, preparing them for a job, and giving them the life skills needed, a few less Jewish parents in Baltimore would be saying Kaddish for their children.  Like the second set of tablets, it takes a Divine-human partnership to help our children in desperate need. Our young adults are broken tablets. We must cherish them and hold them near to us. With the proper help, some of our children can once again find the Divine spark within and lead a life of holiness.

          Amen

         

 


[i] Etz Chayim, page 540.

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Sermon for Bethel AME Service – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Commemoration on January 19, 2014

Good morning! Sally and I are so happy to be back with you, our Bethel AME congregants, once again. It is hard to believe but this is the thirteenth time our two congregations have worshiped together to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We have changed much and grown together- mostly older. When I first preached here I weighed twenty pounds less, had lots more hair and no grey. I was also, however, less mature and less humble than I am now. Cleaning up regularly after two very big dogs is a fine way to keep me humble. There is, though, a certain amount of wisdom that accumulates over a lifetime of service. Let me share a bit with you.
For many of us, the number thirteen is highly unlucky. There is even a name for those who superstitious about the number thirteen- Triskaidekaphobia. Try to say that three times! There are several reasons why thirteen is unlucky. There were thirteen people at the Last Supper, with Judas Iscariot being the last to take his seat. According to Norse mythology, twelve gods sat down at a banquet when the evil god, Loki, showed up and took the thirteenth place. Traditionally, there were thirteen steps leading to the gallows. I can go on and on, but you get the point. In Judaism, however, thirteen is a lucky number. Yes, a lucky number. According to the Torah, God has thirteen attributes of divine mercy. We recite these attributes thirteen times on Yom Kippur. The great medieval sage, Maimonides, articulated the Thirteen Principles of Faith. There are thirteen laws of textual analysis that explain the Mishnah, our first digest of Jewish law. Thirteen is also the age of bar mitzvah, of majority. I must digress for a moment and thank Rev. Reid and the Bethel Nation for attending my bar mitzvah celebration this past April. I was delighted to see you. You honored me with your presence. On behalf of Oheb Shalom, I congratulate Dr. Reid and Bethel AME for Dr. Reid’s twenty five years of inspired leadership. As you will see in a moment, the twenty sixth year is even better than this one.
There is a very important Hebrew word whose letters, in Gematria, add up to thirteen. In Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet has a numerical equivalent, so the first letter, alef, is one, bet is two, and so on. The art of finding meaning in letter/number combinations is called Gematria. We can sometimes discover profound meaning through Gematria. The Hebrew word for “love” is ahava, spelled alef=one, hay=five, bet=two, and hay=five, which adds up to thirteen. Thirteen is the number of “love” in Hebrew. No wonder thirteen is a lucky number for us. When we combine the love between two people, we add 13 to 13=26. The number 26 also is the Gematria for the name of God, Adonai, yud, hay, vav, hay. We believe that when two people are in love, God is the third party in their relationship. God is present in the relationship between Dr. Reid and his beloved congregation. When a congregation loves its pastor as this one loves Dr. Reid, we know that God smiles.
God is part of every true meeting and every genuine relationship, whether that of individuals or communities. Over the last thirteen years, God’s presence has become stronger in the relationship between our two congregations. When we learn about each other and begin to care, then God is present. God is present in the relationship between Bethel AME and Oheb Shalom but God is not present in much of American society today. This country has not been more divided since the 1920s. We are politically at odds and economically stratified. The major issue dividing us today is not race but class. Our twenty and thirty something children are, for the most part, color blind. Young people of all races and ethnicities work together and socialize together as long as they are at the same educational and professional level. College educated young people see the world through rainbow colored lenses. In particular, Jews and African-Americans are getting along very well. The relationship between young Jews and Blacks in the entertainment industry is legendary, going back to the twenties and thirties and expressing itself today, for example, in hip hop. Inspired by black artists, Jewish artists such as Drake, Mac Miller, and Action Bronson recorded some of the most talked about releases in hip hop this year. In August, a YouTube video compilation went viral, showing rappers Kanye West, Cam’ron, Killer Mike, Gucci Mane and Jan-Z thanking their Jewish lawyers in songs. Star of David bling adorned the cover of Rick Ross’s latest “The Black Bar Mitzvah.” I know nothing about hip hop but I know that good relations between blacks and Jews mean God is still present in this world. Believe me- I am not naïve. Racism and anti-Semitism continue to plague us but in this country, and I emphasize this country, it is not nearly as pernicious as it was. Class is what divides us. We are separated into the very rich and the very poor with a shrinking middle class in between. Most of us here today are part of that shrinking middle class.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared a War on Poverty, a campaign which largely failed. The poverty rate has fallen from 19% to 15% in two generations, leaving 46 million Americans living in households where the government considers their income to be scarcely adequate for survival. To be fair, we are much better off today than we were fifty years ago. Yet economic stratification is more pronounced than ever before. If we are in the top five per cent of earners, we are doing very well. If we are not, we are having a hard time making a go of it. Even those of us who have good incomes see our children struggling to get jobs, pay off student loans, and find a place for themselves in a less mobile world. The American Dream is dying. The ability of those born into poverty to make a better life for themselves is drying up. People are born poor and die poor, even after a lifetime of hard work. The rich are not necessarily responsible for this. The major contributors are teen pregnancies, dropping out of high school, lack of low skilled jobs, drugs, and unstable families. These factors prevent young people from gaining the educational skills they need to advance in a highly competitive economy. There is a growing hopelessness and malaise that is gripping all parts of America. The lack of social mobility combined with the lack of hope for a better life leads to anger and ultimately to social instability. We know all too well where that leads. It took us forty years to recover from the Baltimore’s last riots.
So what are we to do? The challenges seem insurmountable. How can we make a difference? How can we change American society? The answer is may not be able to better the entire country but we can make a difference in Baltimore. We can make life better and bring more opportunity for hundreds and thousands of people. Is the task daunting? Is it overwhelming? You bet it is. The rabbis taught us in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (2:16), “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to desist from it.” We need to recreate the American dream by giving our children every opportunity to succeed in this more complex world. How do we do it? The answer is simple, we do it together.
The rabbis tell us that Moses was in front of the Jewish people at the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was in the rear. Moses appealed to God for a miracle. “Save us,” Moses implored. God said to Moses, “We must work together. One of you must have the courage to jump into the sea. Only then will I part the waters. Finally, with the Egyptians coming even closer and those at the back of the column screaming with fear, one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the house of Judah, jumped into the freezing water. He walked and walked. The water got deeper and deeper. Finally, when it came just under his nose, the waters parted. The sea split in two and the Israelites walked through the sea on the dry land to the other side. Hence, we are taught to pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on us.
We need more Nachshons, leaders who are not afraid to jump into the raging waters and make changes for the better in Baltimore. We need many of you to emulate Nachshon, to become part of the Oheb Shalom-Bethel AME Taskforce called “Isaiah 61,” co-chaired by Rev. Dr. Lorraine Castain and Shelle Schnell, a task force that will not only bring our two congregations closer together but will help make life better for the people of this neighborhood, many of whom do not have a chance to make it in stratified America. Why is this task force named Isaiah 61? The prophet Isaiah, who lived about 2,600 hundred years ago in Babylonia, modern day Iraq, called upon the Jewish people to “bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, and to comfort all who mourn.” We proclaim our love of God by offering our help to God’s children.
One of our major goals is to rebuild the Bethel Outreach Center, a 20,000 square foot structure that can house much needed services for this community. Our own Mark Levin has offered his architectural acumen for the reconstruction effort. We will at first be called upon to offer our labor to clean out the center so re-construction can begin. The center will eventually be a magnet for this community, providing health, legal, and educational services, housing a community grocery and a much needed café. We can help level the playing field and give many more young people the skills needed to advance in today’s economy if we work together. We just need many more Nachshons, those who are willing to take a risk and jump into the water. So, my dear friends, repeat after me, “Be Nachshon.” Once again, “Be Nachshon.” A third time, “Be Nachshon.” When we join together to work on behalf of this community, we help rebuild our nation. When we work together God is present. When we express our love for other human beings, God will bless us.
So, I ask that we express our love for God and one another by exerting our leadership and acting for God. When we do so, countless young people will have a chance to achieve the American dream. Be Nachshon- and help make America great.
May God bless us all.

Amen

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Remarks for Domestic Violence Shabbat – October 25, 2013

Throughout the entire Metropolitan Baltimore region, clergy are speaking this weekend about the issue of domestic violence. The same message will be spread in every synagogue, church, and mosque. Domestic violence is never acceptable. It is never appropriate for spouses or partners to physically hurt one another. This message is especially important within our Jewish community because for decades, we denied that Jews engage in this kind of behavior. Let me share an ugly truth with you. Domestic violence occurs in all kinds of families- Jewish and non-Jewish, white and black, rich and poor. There are no class or socio-economic barriers to domestic abuse.
It used to be said that Jewish men are better husbands because we do not drink and beat our wives. Sadly, that is simply not true. We have become aware over the last twenty years that Jews and non-Jews engage in similar behaviors at similar rates. With each generation we live in America, the behavioral differences between Jews and other Americans evaporate. We are blessed as a Jewish community to have an agency of the Associated, CHANA, specifically dedicated to helping victims of domestic abuse. No one needs to suffer alone. Anyone who has been hurt can come to any of our clergy, our social worker, or go directly to CHANA to receive the assistance she needs. It is not a shanda to admit that one’s spouse has beaten her. There is no good reason to endure it. If it happens once, it will happen again. The best thing to do is to get help immediately. CHANA will get you into therapy, help you live independently, and get you the life skills necessary to begin a new chapter in your life. Let me emphasize this point again- it is never appropriate for a spouse or partner to inflict violence on the other. We must never tolerate or accept this. If it ever happens to you, help is here. Take advantage of it.
Is it coincidental that this Domestic Violence Shabbat takes place as we read Parashat Chayei Sara from the Book of Genesis? I sincerely doubt that the Mayor’s office looked at the calendar of Jewish Torah readings when they selected this weekend. Much of Chayei Sara deals with Avraham’s mourning of his beloved wife, Sara, and his selecting and purchasing a burial plot for her. While Avraham may not have been the best husband and did not always consult with his wife over important decisions (that was simply not the way men and women inter-acted over three thousand years ago), he treated her with love and tenderness, in life and in death. It would be unthinkable for him ever to be violent with her. We can learn from their relationship. We should always be kind and considerate towards our spouses, consult with them regarding every important decision, and concern ourselves with their welfare even before our own. That is how Jewish married people, in fact how all married people, should treat one another.
May this week’s observance get out the message that domestic violence is never acceptable. It will not be tolerated. Help is always available. We pray that someday it will not be necessary for this message to be proclaimed throughout our community.

Kein y’hi ratson- May it be God’s will.

Amen

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