Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 21, 2017

Can Counting the Omer Save Western Civilization?

April 21, 2017

This sermon is entitled “Can counting the Omer save Western civilization?”  It is a rather presumptuous title for what may be an absurd idea.  Let me share with you where the idea for this sermon originated.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, David Brooks, a Jewish Republican who writes for the New York Times, recently wrote a piece (April 21, 2017) on the rise of authoritarian governments and the decline of Western liberalism.  Brooks laments that faith in the ideals of Western civilization is falling all around us and few are rising to defend Western ideals.  Brooks writes, “Western civilization has inherent values- the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.  It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.  It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…the first consequence of the decline is the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only do not believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative but don’t even pretend to believe in them as former dictators did.  Over the past few years, especially, we have entered the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.”  Brooks’ point is well made.  There has been a decline in democracy across the world and few are rising to protect it.

Democracy depends upon a belief in the value of the individual, that every person has inherent rights, that we are each created in the image of our Creator.  It demands a belief that we have the ability as a community to determine our future.  Democracy tells us that the future is not fixed, it is not a re-play of the past, but is determined through the collective action in which each citizen has an important part.  Democracy, though, would be unimaginable without Jews and the Jewish experience.  Allow me to explain.

Until the time of the Exodus, which we just celebrated during Pesach, all ancient peoples believed that the present and future would just be a rewind of the past.  There was no such thing as history, just the passing of the seasons.  Nothing was more important than ensuring the winter rains so the crops would grow in the spring and be harvested in the fall, guaranteeing that the community would not starve during the long, fallow months.  With the Exodus, our ancestors changed the concept of time.  There was an unknown future whose direction and end we cannot predict.  As Thomas Cahill wrote in The Gifts of the Jews (page 131), “…for the first time the future holds out promise.  Even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future through their actions in the present.  We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate:  we are free.  If anything can happen, we are truly liberated- as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.”

Liberation, however, was not enough.  Freedom without responsibility yields to anarchy.  From the Sea of Reeds, we journeyed to Mt. Sinai where we received the Torah.  We became bound to God and God’s law, an event we mark on Shavuot.  Cahill wrote (page 156) “…these laws remain testimony to the fact that the Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations.  Rather than imagining the demands of law and the demands of wisdom as discrete realms, they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook.  The material and spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one.”  Cahill goes on to say that the literary prophets encapsulated the beliefs that underpin democracy.  He says (page 239) they taught us that “There are right choices and wrong choices. To make the right choices I must consult the law of God written in my heart.  I must listen to God’s voice, which speaks not only to great leaders but to me.  I must take the I seriously.” 

Democracy could not exist without the belief in the importance of the individual, that what we do and think matters, that we have the ability to determine our individual and collective futures.  That is the great gift of the Jews, one that is being threatened by the collapse of democratic ideals around the world.  So where does the counting of the Omer fit in?

“The omer refers to the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. This period marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, we would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word omer literally means “sheaf” and refers to these early offerings.

The Torah itself dictates the counting of the seven weeks following Passover: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In its biblical context, this counting appears only to connect the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. As Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with a celebration of agricultural bounty, the omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Passover and Shavuot. While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”[i]

The counting of the Omer reminds us that we move from freedom to responsibility, from liberation to law, from God to humanity.  As the Jewish people accepts the Torah on Mt. Sinai we collectively and individually become in charge of our fate.  The future is yet to be written.  Together we will determine what shall be.  That is the essence of democracy which is so threatened today- authoritarian leaders tell the people what they want without allowing the people to choose what they want.  The counting of the Omer, to which we now turn, contains a most powerful message- that the growth of the barley, as the growth and change inherent within each person, is a gift from God which, like democracy, needs to be cherished and protected.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

[i] My Jewish Learning

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Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 14, 2017

What is the Fourth Turning and Why is it Important?
April 14, 2017

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!  It is so nice to see you here on this lovely Erev Shabbat, a prelude to a beautiful spring weekend.  I am speaking tonight on a “hot button” topic that is at the heart of Stephen Bannon’s ideology.  You recall Stephen Bannon?  If not, let me briefly remind you that he is President Trump’s chief strategist who recently lost his seat on the National Security Council.  He is the former editor of the far Right Brietbart News and a multi-millionaire who made his fortune working at Goldman Sachs in New York and producing movies in Hollywood.  He is vociferously anti-Muslim and is the primary force pushing for a border wall with Mexico.  Breitbart News is the news source of choice for white nationalists, Klu Klux Klaners, neo-Nazis and others of that disgusting ilk.  It revels in conspiracy theories and hatred of minorities, including Jews.  Stephen Bannon has vowed to “deconstruct” the administrative state.  No one is exactly sure what that means but it sounds like the fox is running the henhouse of government.  Fortunately, he has lost some stature in recent weeks and may even be in danger of losing his job as more moderate elements in the current Administration are gaining sway over the President.  Let us, for a few minutes, give Stephen Bannon the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s say that he is a patriot who has good intentions and wants to prepare the United States for what he thinks is the cataclysm to come.  How does he know what is coming and when?  It’s all written down in this book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, “The Fourth Turning:  An American Prophecy.”  This is the pair’s third book.  Strauss is the cofounder and director of the well-known comedy troop “Capitol Steps” and Howe is a historian and economist who works for the Concord Coalition, a think tank dedicated to balancing the budget.

You can see that my copy of the book is well read and that much of it is underlined.  That is because I have read the text several times, first when it was published in 1997 and then a couple of times since.  It was a primary text that year in one of my doctoral classes.  It is a dense and difficult text but is worth a read as it claims to explain all of history through its theory of cycles.  Allow me to explain.

Strauss and Howe claim that the key to understanding history is “a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.  Practically every major historical crisis comes in transition between saecula or at distinct periods within a saeculum. A saeculum ranges from about eighty to one hundred years.  Like the Seder, the theory is based on fours.  There are four Archetype generations within each saeculum, the Hero, Artist, Prophet, and Nomad as well as Four Turnings. We Baby Boomers, for example, are of the Prophet generation, born in the High after WW II, rebelling against our parents in the sixties and seventies, which the authors call the Second Turning or the Awakening, entering middle age in the Third Turning, the Unraveling, the early eighties through 2005, and entering elderhood during the Fourth Turning, the Crisis.  The last Fourth Turning in American history was the Great Depression and World War II. The authors predicted the Great Recession and tell us that things will only get worse during the next fifteen to twenty years.  They write “A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that…are perceived as dire…there is one simple imperative:  The society must prevail.  This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.  People support new efforts to wield public authority …government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside…public order tightens…families strengthen, gender distinctions widen…wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.”[i]  They write that “…every Fourth Turning since the fifteenth century has culminated in total war.”[ii]   “The Fourth Turning is when the Spirit of America reappears, rousting courage and fortitude from the people.  Another Crisis era is coming- and soon.”[iii]  During the Fourth Turning “new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice…America will become more isolationist than today in its unwillingness to coordinate its affairs with other countries but less isolationist in its insistence that vital national interests not be compromised.”[iv]  “Through the Fourth Turning, the old order will die, but only after having produced the seed containing the new civic order within it…a new social contract will take root…with or without war, American society will be transformed into something different…the Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.”[v]

Bannon is using Donald Trump as his instrument to bring about the Fourth Turning. He has referred to Trump as “a blunt instrument for us.” “In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one.  He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.”[vi]  Bannon believes in authoritarian politics as preparation for a massive conflict between East and West, whether East means the Middle East or China.”[vii]  It seems that Bannon is determined to ensure that the Fourth Turning takes place, even if he has to do it himself.

There is a determinism in this theory that is very troubling.  Does free will count for nothing?  Is every crisis like the last?  Certainly, the Great Recession was nothing like the Great Depression.  In the former, the government acted to prevent a complete economic meltdown.  In the latter, the Hoover administration allowed the economy to deteriorate for another two years before recovery began in the Roosevelt administration.  Our country is not at all united.  In fact, we are more divided than at any time in recent memory.  Many Baby Boomers are working against the authoritarian impulses of this administration that Bannon champions, such as the ban on Muslim immigration and the wall with Mexico.  Many of us don’t see threats to our existence as does Bannon.  I think, instead of history being already written, the future is unknown, much of it to be determined by the current actors.  As Rabbi Akiva said in Pirke Avot 3:15: “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted.” In our religious Tradition, only God knows what will happen.  Our Tradition teaches us that history, in contrast to the seasons, is not cyclical but rather is linear.  There was a beginning to time and someday there will be an end to time.  It might have come when, during the Seder, we opened the door for Elijah.  Perhaps it will happen next year.  All I can tell you is that we are hopeful, optimistic and determined to make this world a better place.  We await not a Fourth Turning, but a return to values that stress our common humanity and dignity.  Towards that we will work until the long-awaited Messiah arrives.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] The Fourth Turning, page 104.

[ii] Ibid, page 119.

[iii] Ibid, page 271.

[iv] Ibid, page 276.

[v] Ibid, page 278.

[vi] Linette Lopez, Business Insider, February 2, 2017.

[vii] Ibid, page 3.

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Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat, March 24, 2017

Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat, March 24, 2017

We are so pleased to welcome the members of Troop 97 to our service tonight.  Over the last many years, more than I have been alive, Troop 97 has become an integral part of Temple Oheb Shalom.  We are grateful to its members and leaders who have given so much of themselves to our congregation.  We are thankful for their many year round contributions to our synagogue life.  I am especially pleased to congratulate Dr. Barry Cohan, a life-long scout and leader of Troop 97, who recently received the first Distinguished Alumnus Award from University of Maryland School of Dentistry.  We are very proud of Barry and congratulate both him and Adele.  Without your support, Adele, Barry would not have the time and ability to do all that he does for our community.

In my brief remarks tonight, I hope to give you some guidance as to what is really important in life.  Since you are still in your formative years, you may want to think about what I will tell you and perhaps even take it to heart.

We live in turbulent times.  Our values are being assaulted simultaneously from many directions.  There are few role models in public life.  To whom or what do we look for guidance on how to live?  Of course, for us the answer is easy.  We go to Torah, in this particular case, the writings of the Rabbis.   In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (4:17), Rabbi Shimon teaches, “There are three crowns; the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship.  The crown of a good name is superior to them all.”  Over 1,800 years ago, during Rabbi Shimon’s time, there were none more important than the Kohanim, the Temple priests descended from Aaron and the kings, those descended from King David, who would one day rule again over Israel.  For the rabbis, the most important crown, here a metaphor for accomplishment, was to be a student of Torah, one who studied the accumulated wisdom of our Tradition.  Yet none of these crowns, those of Torah, priesthood or royalty, equaled the importance of a Keter Shem Tov, the crown of a good name.  Rabbi Shimon taught that maintaining a good reputation is crucial to being a successful and content human being.  We should do everything in our power to burnish, rather than tarnish, our reputations.  Nor should we harm the reputations of others by engaging in Lashon Hara, gossip.  Since our reputation means everything, spreading false reports about a person, the rabbi’s tell us, is deserving of death.  While they did not mean that literally, destroying another’s reputation through slander is a most egregious sin.

We are born to the priesthood by being descended from the Kohanim or the Leviim.  We have no control over that.  We are also born to kingship.  We are either a descendant of David or we are not.  There is no way of ascertaining if any of us are descended from Jewish royalty.  While all of us should study Torah, not all of us will become scholars of Torah.  Most of us do not have the ability or the inclination to sit and study Torah on a daily basis.  We do, however, have some control over our reputations.  Through what we say and what we do, we can either enhance or destroy our good names.

I offer you some succinct advice in how to better your reputations and make your good names shine brightly in the form of an easily remembered acrostic:

  • T stands for tattoo. While I do not like tattoos and our Tradition advocates against them, I do not literally mean tattoo. This is a symbol for doing or saying something that you will later regret.  There are so many people who get tattoos who later are sorry they did so and then spend lots of time and money trying to have them removed.  There are some things we do and say which cannot be removed or retracted.  Think very seriously before you speak and act.
  • O stands of others. Let us be empathic to others and care about them.  We can learn from everyone. Each of us is created in the image of God and has within us a spark of divinity.  We cannot ignore the needs of other people.
  • R stands for reading. We cannot read and learn enough.  Read as much as we can from various sources.  Know the viewpoint or prejudice of the author or website.  Everyone has a bias so try to be aware of source’s prejudice.  No one is ever bored if they have a book in their hands.
  • A stands for attitude. Let us be positive and optimistic.  No one likes to be around a grumpy people.  Let us look at the world in a hopeful manner.  Let us also grant good intentions to others.  Few people are deliberately mean.  Let us remember that everyone is fighting a private, internal, battle.  Let us be sensitive to whomever we meet.
  • H stands for humility. The rabbis tell us that we should have a piece of paper in each pocket.  One says “The world was created for me.”  The other reads, “I am but dust and ashes.”  While we should have confidence and self-esteem, the rabbis tell us that God reveres those who are humble.  But let us not wear our humility on our sleeves.  As Golda Meir once said as she admonished an associate, “Don’t be so humble.  You’re not that great!”

Since the letters of this acrostic spell TORAH it should be easy to remember.  Let us not forget that the most important thing we have is a good name.  We should strive to enhance our reputations and do nothing to detract from them.  In this way, we will deserve to wear the Keter Shem Tov, the crown of a good name, the ultimate achievement for a human being.

Amen and Shabbat shalom.


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Sermon for Erev Shabbat – February 24, 2017

The Times They Are a Changing

February 24, 2017

  • There have been 48 bomb threats against JCCs in this country in the last month. The two Baltimore JCCs have been evacuated twice.
  • Hundreds of tombstones were overturned and desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis
  • Anti-Semitic hate incidents are at unprecedented levels around the country
  • Neo-Nazis have publicized the names and addresses of Jewish families in White Fish, Montana and other small towns in the West
  • The administration’s statement released on Holocaust Memorial Day in January did NOT mention Jews, the primary victims of the Shoah
  • The so called “Alt-Right” has resurfaced and is resurgent in this country and throughout Europe
  • Candidate Trump refused to reject the endorsement of Klansman David Duke

These are just some of the reasons why American Jews are more anxious than at any time since the 1930s.  My 94 year old mother in law, a Navy veteran and no shrinking violet, said that  recent events remind her of the sixth grade, when her locker mate changed into a Nazi Bund uniform to attend meetings after school.  Now let me say at the outset that I do not think for one moment that President Trump is an anti-Semite.  He has said he is the “least anti-Semitic and racist person” and, in this case, I believe him.  It is practically impossible for him to have a Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren and hate Jews.  He surrounds himself with Jewish advisors, lawyers, and doctors.  Several of his cabinet picks have been Jews.  No, I do not think he is an anti-Semite.  What I do think is that he has fallen under the sway of his senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, who now has a seat on the National Security Council and is the generator of the Executive Order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries.  Stephen Bannon is a right wing Conservative Catholic, a Navy veteran, and a Harvard Business School graduate who made a fortune at Goldman Sachs and then as an executive producer in Hollywood.  He became editor of Breitbart News upon the death of its founder in 2012 and has been a fervent advocate of its worldview ever since.  Breitbart “is the first significant American outlet to articulate and represent, in a large-scale way, a new philosophy of nationalism and populism that has found strong purchase in American society, and in many other parts of the globe.  The Breitbart philosophy revolves around the core belief that a wildly corrupt ruling class, of both parties, has abandoned American workers in favor of policies that line its own pockets and the pockets of corporate interests.  And its white-hot anger stems from how the leading institutions of American life have engineered all sorts of arrangements hostile to American workers: trade deals that favor the interest of large multinational companies over American workers, open-border policies that serve the needs of agro-businesses at the expense of low-wage Americans, and, more generally, a set of globalist policies that support transnational business interests without regard for the deteriorating status and position of middle America.”[i]  Bannon wants to upend and destroy the elites that he thinks have ruined this country.

He is the God father of the alt-right movement.  Bannon, when editor of Breitbart News, gave comfort and support to White Supremacists and other racists who share his views.  This may be why we are seeing a resurgence of hate crimes in the United States.  Bannon, who has the ear of the President, is turning a blind eye to them.  He is also a zealous believer that we are in a civilizational war with Islam.  He has stated on numerous occasions that Christian Europe, including Russia, and North America must unite to fight the greatest threat to our existence- radical Islam.  Hence, the ban on Muslim refugees coming to this country.  Bannon does not like liberals of any variety, particularly liberal Jews.  He seems to be enamored with right wing Jews, such as Stephen Miller and especially right wing Israeli Zionists who advocate a “blood and soil” kind of nationalism akin to Bannon’s.  Allow me to take the next few minutes and explain how we are in the crosshairs of an ideological battle that has been going on for over two hundred years.

Beginning in 1789 with the French Revolution, the ideas of the Enlightenment spread throughout Europe.  Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was the rallying cry of French armies who opened the ghetto doors and emancipated the Jews of Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Poland.  Grateful for their new freedoms, our ancestors supported the French and drank from the cup of the Enlightenment.  The Reform movement began in this era as our people strove to reconcile the Jewish Tradition with the new demands of Reason.  We came to embody the internationalism and cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment.  It was not a coincidence that Jews later flocked to the Socialist and Communist movements which negated the importance of national borders and expressed the solidarity of international class struggle.  These movements were, by definition, pan national and cosmopolitan.  Modern nationalism began as a reaction to the French invasion.  Germans began to acclaim their Teutonic past and the purity of Germanic blood.  Jews who had lived in Germany for hundreds of years were outsiders in this Germany.  According to the purveyors of this filth, we were neither racially pure nor rooted in the sacred soil of Germany.  Simultaneously, Jews benefitted from the rise of Capitalism as we applied our skills and utilized our contacts across nations and continents to become financially successful.  Many of us became ardent advocates of Capitalism and its tenets, which include open borders and free trade.  What’s most important to capitalists is making money.  The borders of nation states are sometimes an impediment to that goal.

Stephen Bannon is most comfortable with right wing Zionists of the Settler movement because they share his “blood and soil” ideology and hate Arabs, as does he.  The settlers do not want to give up an inch of Judea or Samaria because they believe that God gave it to the Jewish people.  As liberal Jews, we believe in the Zionist ideal, just a different one from the settlers.  We support Israel as a homeland for our people and a center for Jewish culture and values.  As Echad Ha-am wrote a century ago, the new Jewish state should be a light unto the nations.  We should live within secure recognized borders at peace with the Palestinians who, too, deserve a state of their own.  We do not embrace the extreme nationalism of Stephen Bannon.  We believe in human dignity and equality.  We believe that all people, Jews and Christians, Sikhs and Muslims, are all created in God’s image.  We have no patience for racism or xenophobic nationalism.  We will espouse these values with all our heart, soul and might.  May the God of us all bless our efforts to ensure that the United States is a land of liberty and justice for all.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Ken Stern, Vanity Fair, August 17, 2017

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Rabbi’s Remarks for Installation of Officers, January 20, 2017

Rabbi’s Remarks for Installation of Officers

January 20, 2017


What a delight it is to stand before you this Erev Shabbat to formally install this superb group of leaders as officers of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City.  This group of officers and trustees is among the most talented, experienced, and dedicated of any who have served Oheb Shalom, or any other synagogue for that matter.  Before we offer our blessings to the new officers and trustees, I must express my gratitude to our immediate past president and friend, David Willner, who led our congregation these last two years with grace, dignity, and wisdom.  David has served as a board member, officer and president for at least a decade.  It has been an absolute pleasure to work with him on behalf of the congregation.  He has guided us during a somewhat stressful time with a strong yet understanding approach to leading a volunteer board and professional staff.  David is smart, funny, and hard working.  We met regularly for breakfast and spent countless hours together here and elsewhere.  His truly better half, Terri, supported David in all of his endeavors.  Terri loves Oheb Shalom and, fortunate for us, David married into that relationship.  So let me just say that we return that affection to you, David, as we thank you for your past and continuing service to this holy congregation.

Allow me just a few minutes to deliver a rabbi’s report on the state of Oheb Shalom before formally installing our new officers and trustees.  In brief, we are in good hands and in good shape.  Of course, we would be better off if a member won the lottery and donated about $20 million to us but, given the state of contemporary synagogue life, we are doing well.  We went through a potentially difficult transition this year as Rabbi Nagel left after twelve years of service.  The process through which we said farewell to Rabbi Nagel while interviewing for and selecting Rabbi Sarah Marion was essentially flawless.  Of almost all we have done during my tenure, I am most proud of the process itself and those who were part of it.  We identified and chose future leaders to sit on the search committee.  They stepped up, worked hard and made an outstanding choice for our congregation in bringing Rabbi Marion to us.  Several of these committee members are now officers and members of the Board of Trustees.  We thank them as well as Adam Rosenberg and Mina Wender for co-chairing this exceptional committee.

We have continued our internal relationship building through our Young Families and Teen Task forces.  Our programming, characterized by last night’s Challah bake, is exceptional.  Just one caveat.  Last night’s program took well over one hundred hours of staff time to execute.  We will need to be very discriminating in future programming because we do not have enough staff to do all that is requested of us.  Regarding staff, we have such an incredible group of people who work on our behalf.  Each of them is devoted to God, the Jewish people, and Oheb Shalom.  From our clergy to our senior and clerical staff, they give more of themselves than anyone can possibly require.  They work not just for a salary but for the love of Torah and Kehilah.  Our thanks to our clergy, Rabbi Marion and Cantor Braun, Ken, Susan, Maxine, Meredith, Aileen, and Sherri for their dedication to Oheb Shalom.  A mazal tov and special thank you to Caitlin Brazner, who will marry Scott in March and then leave us in May to begin her rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  We are very, very proud of her.  I offer an extra special thanks to my partner and soul mate, Sally, for her relational skills, teaching ability, and especially for her tolerance of me.  Needless to say, I am not easy to live with.

We are beginning the process of filling two positions, Caitlin’s membership, communications and programming portfolio, and a new position, that of a teen engagement associate.  This person will help fill a huge gap in our post b’nei mitzvah programming and will concentrate on keeping our kids involved in Jewish life.  With the demise of BEIT RJ in May, this position is absolutely necessary, despite our having to seek the funding to pay for it.  This individual will teach seventh grade, run our manifold youth groups, and coordinate our soon to be unveiled sixth grade b’nei mitzvah group service program.

There is so much more to say, but our time tonight is quite limited.  I now invite those newly elected members of our Board of Trustees and our appointed officers to please rise to be inducted into our leadership.

Now I invite Mina Wender to come forward.  Mina, you have been Sally and my friend and co-worker for these last two decades.  We have traveled together and shared many cocktails. We share goals for Oheb Shalom as well as a common world view.  You have given so much of yourself to this holy congregation over these last forty years.  This has been your family’s home away from home as you and Ed built a life for yourselves, Becca, and Melissa in Baltimore.  You have taught in the religious school and confirmation program, served on several search committees and have been an officer for many years. Your taking the helm of leadership is a natural progression.  No one has been more prepared for this day than you.  We pray on your behalf:

Our God and God of our fathers and mother, bless Mina Wender as she takes up this mantle of leadership.  Endow her with wisdom, vigor, and understanding as she guides Oheb Shalom in these trying times. May the Source of Strength grant her the fortitude and courage necessary to lead this family of families to even greater heights.  Sustain her with Your spirit.  Grant that that the words of her mouth be endowed with insight and that the work of her hands be imbued with blessing.  May Your blessing, Adonai, come to rest upon us all as we say, Amen.


Would Rabbi Marion and Cantor Braun join me as we bless Mina with the ancient benediction of our ancestors?



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A Very Difficult Sermon, December 30, 2016

A Very Difficult Sermon

December 30, 2016


To say that I have struggled with this sermon is an understatement.  The prelude to this was my anxiety over my Israel Bonds Appeal, which I delivered to you on Rosh Hashanah morning.  My apprehension is rooted in my deep personal struggle over how best to support the State of Israel while opposing its elected government with which I disagree on many issues.  Allow me to explain.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is presiding over the most right wing government is Israel’s history.  The cabinet minister’s ideology reflects that of the Settler movement which advocates for a Greater Israel, one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  The right wing ministers share their ideology with the incoming new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, President elect Trump’s bankruptcy attorney who is a funder of right wing yeshivot in the settlements.  To quote one of the most astute observer of Israeli politics, the writer J.J. Goldberg, “One thing that unites this movement is the attachment of its leaders to Hardal, an offshoot of Modern Orthodoxy, a right wing movement emphasizing stringent religious observance while retaining Religious Zionism’s engagement in modern society.  The movement first emerged in the 1970s as the religious ideology of the West Bank settler movement.  It later spread more widely.  Its nerve centers are in Kiryat Arba near Hebron and Beit El, twenty miles north of Jerusalem.  David Friedman is president of the American friends of Beit El.  What defines Hardal is its radical take on religious Zionism, seeing Israel as a divine miracle and the West Bank as a sacred patrimony which Israel must rule forever or risk divine punishment.”  [i]

No wonder this government has refused to implement the accord it made with the Jewish Agency, Women of the Wall, and the Reform and Conservative movements last January 31, promising to create a new area by the Kotel, the Western Wall, where non-Orthodox Jews are able to hold mixed prayer services for men and women.  The Reform and Conservative movements would be represented on a new public authority responsible for operating the new prayer plaza.  Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatened a government crisis if the agreement was enacted.  Recently, Orthodox Knesset members have submitted a bill “that would not only outlaw the new egalitarian prayer space but would ban egalitarian prayer anywhere near the Kotel.  It would prohibit women from wearing tefillin and prayer shawls, blowing the shofar and reading from a Torah at the site, with offenders facing jail time or heavy fines…Forced with a revolt within his coalition, Netanyahu was forced to choose between keeping Conservative and Reform Jews happy or keeping his government intact.  Millions of American Jews, he decided, were expendable.”[ii]

Needless to say, I am already furious with the current Netanyahu government and am even more outraged by his response to UN resolution 2334 and to President Obama.  I say at the outset that UN has a despicable record on Israel and that Israel has valid reasons to distrust it.  Upon reading the resolution, however, I find very little with which to disagree.

The resolution advocates for a two state solution and condemns terrorism.  It states that the Security Council “calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction.”  It reiterates “its vision of a region where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure borders.”  The key to the resolution, and Secretary of State Kerry’s recent remarks, is the support for a two state solution, a idea to which Prime Minister Netanyahu has given lip service while supporting the building of more settlements and the goal of the settlement movement.  The two state solution has been United States policy since 1967.  Its reiteration by Secretary Kerry does not mean that President Obama is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  How can anyone rationally accuse this administration of being anti-Semitic when it just signed a $38 billion dollar military aid agreement to Israel, the biggest amount ever given to an ally of the United States?

Well known Israeli writer Chemi Shalev wrote this week in Haaretz, “Resolution 2334 shatters the government induced illusion that the settlement project has been normalized, that is passed the point of no return, that it is now a fait accompli that will remain unchallenged…You can have your cake and eat it too, the government implied:  thumb your nose at Washington and the international community, build in the West Bank and still get $38 billion in unprecedented military aid.  The so called Formalization bill recently approved by the cabinet, which sought to legalize outposts that Israel had once vowed to uproot, was one bridge too far.  US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power singled it out as one of the catalyzers of the Security Council move.”[iii]

In 2008, I was part of a clergy group from Baltimore that met with the Palestinian Prime Minister in Ramallah for a two hour meeting.  We met with an impressive man, Salam Fayyad, a PhD in economics from the University of Texas who previously worked for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. before heading the Palestinian government.  I saw a burgeoning economy, an incredible amount of building, and a significant amount of cooperation and trust between Israeli security and the Palestinian police.  In fact, Israeli police and Palestinian police cooperate on a daily basis to apprehend terrorists with some success.  As we know too well, it is practically impossible to stop all terrorism, especially by lone wolves.  My point is that there is already a de facto Palestinian state with which Israel has good relations.  Building more settlements is an obstacle to future negotiations leading to a secure and peaceful future between Israel and Palestine.

The one state solution is demographically untenable.  There are 1.7 million Arabs already living within Israel.  There are another 2.8 million Arabs in the West Bank.  Let me do the math for you.  That adds up to 4.5 million Arabs in the one state compared to the current 6.3 million Jews.  Given the higher birthrate, in a couple of generations Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel.  Then Israel either becomes a kind of Middle Eastern version of 1960’s South Africa, an Apartheid state, or it ceases being a Jewish state and a state of the Jews.  Both outcomes ultimately lead to the end of a democratic and Jewish Israel and perhaps even the destruction of the state itself.

One’s position on the resolution, and Secretary Kerry’s remarks warning Israel that it cannot allow the status quo to continue, depend on our personal ideologies.  This, my friends, is what concerns me the most- we are in the midst of an internecine Jewish ideological civil war.  More and more American Jews are Orthodox religiously and conservative politically.  The Friedman nomination as ambassador has brought this rift to the surface.  The extreme wing of American Orthodoxy, including Friedman, Jared Kushner and so many others, will have a champion in the White House, or perhaps I should say Trump Tower, just three weeks from now.  President elect Trump has twitted that as of January 20, everything will change, inferring that the two state solution is dead.  Netanyahu, who supported Trump’s candidacy, is beaming from ear-to ear.  While he may continue to build settlements, even naming one of them Har Trump, this policy will only bring continued international condemnation and internal dissension.

Many years ago, around the time of the Lebanon War, I read a book by an Israeli general who coined the term “Masada complex.”  In brief, he said that Israel is a small state dependent on having strong allies such as the Unites States.  He wrote that Israel should not conduct itself in a way which alienates itself from its allies and boxes itself into a diplomat corner without a way of escape.  That’s exactly what the defenders of Masada did, those who hated the Romans so intensely that they allowed themselves no means of escape from the Roman assault, assuring that they would die either by their own hands or that of the Romans.  My fear is that Israel cannot continue to alienate most American Jews, the American government and its international allies by pursuing its current policy of building settlements which are an obstruction to eventual peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s government is boxing Israel into a corner.  I pray that it will not ascend a figurative Masada so that there will be an eventual peace between two democratic, secure and peaceful states in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine.


Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] J.J. Goldberg, The Forward, December 30, 2016, page18.

[ii] Judy Maltz, Haaretz, December 27, 2016.

[iii] Chemi Shalev, Haaretz, December 25, 2016.

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Chanukah Choral Shabbat, December 9, 2016

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December 9, 2016

Shabbat shalom and welcome to our Chanukah Choral Shabbat service.  Our wonderful cantor and magnificent choir will sing five Chanukah songs for us, each from a different era and venue of Jewish history.  Before I briefly comment on each piece, allow me to share with you some thoughts about Chanukah.

Chanukah, which begins on December 24 this year, is our only historically based festival, reflecting the real events that occurred in Israel from 167-164 BCE when the Maccabees, a guerilla army of Traditionalist Jews, engaged in a civil war against fellow Jews and then a war for religious and political freedom against the Syrian Greeks or as they were better known, the Seleucid dynasty.

Alexander the Great began the conquest of Persia in 336 BCE.  He then went on to a bloodless conquest of Israel and Egypt a few years later.  After his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided up among his generals.  Ptolemy took Israel and Egypt and Seleucus took what is today Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.  Our ancestors lived peacefully among the Egyptian Ptolemies who respected our traditional way of life.  In 198 BCE, the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies and made Israel part of their empire.  The Seleucid emperor, desperately needing money to fight off the Romans in the West, the Persians in the East, and the Ptolemies to the Southwest, accepted huge bribes from leading Jewish families in Jerusalem for the office of the Kohan Gadol, the high priest of the Temple.  A succession of high priests outbid one another for the office. Jerusalem went from being an autonomous city-state to becoming a Greek polis.  How could Jerusalem become a Greek city and still remain Jewish?  They priests engaged in a process of religious syncretism, combining the worship of our one God with that of the Greek gods, saying in effect that Adonai was simply another name for Zeus.  In about 170 C.E., Antiochus conducted an unsuccessful campaign in Egypt and on his way back to Syria, plundered the Temple, tore down the city walls and established a garrison there.  He ordered the Temple rededicated to the sole worship of Zeus and outlawed the practice of Judaism.  It is here where we enter unclear territory.  We know that Antiochus abrogated the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people, forbidding the practice and study of Judaism.  We do not know exactly why he did this.  Some scholars maintain that he did so at the request of Jewish reformers, who wanted to turn Judaism into a Hellenistic cult.  We do know that many Jews embraced Greek culture and the entire Greek way of life.  The Maccabees, the followers of the priest Mattatias of Modin, led a rebellion against the Hellenizers and the Seleucid enforcers.  They first killed the Jews who cooperated with the Seleucids and then fought the Seleucids themselves.  After a bitter three year struggle, in which Jewish rebels took on the greatest army in the world, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple and rededicated it to the worship of Adonai.  They declared that we would observe an eight day festival in commemoration of this great victory.  Hence, we have the origin of Chanukah, which means “dedication.”

Chanukah is still one of my favorite holidays.  We cannot help but look back at history through a contemporary lens.  On what side would we have fought had we lived 2,150 years ago?  Would we have fought with the Maccabees or have stood with the Jewish Hellenizers?  Obviously, our ancestors sided with the Maccabees.  If they did not, our genetic line would have been extinguished.  Despite my hesitations, Chanukah is a glorious celebration of a great victory of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the Jew against the pagan.  It is the most widely celebrated festival in the Jewish world.  Music is an important part of that observance.

Our choir will first sing “Kemach Min Hasak,” meaning “Oil from the sack,” a recipe for the making of sweet pancakes for Chanukah.  This comes from the Ashkenazic tradition of Eastern Europe.  (Song)

Next we have “Hazeremos un Merenda,” meaning “We shall make a meal” in Ladino.  This is a Sephardic children’s melody from Adrianopol in Turkey for the making of burmeuelos, a pancake of dough fried in oil, exactly the same dessert from the earlier song.  (Song)

Our choir will sing, “A Chanukah Prayer for Children,” by Ryan Brechmacher which was published just three years ago.  I know you will like it. (Song)

Our fourth composition is “Ocho Kandelikas” which is “Eight Little Candles” in Ladino.  This is one of our favorites.

The last piece for this evening is Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluya,” performed in memory of the late, great Leonard Cohen, who died just a month ago, on November 7 at the age of eighty two in Los Angeles.  He originally wrote “Halleluya” in 1984 and performed it a year later.  It achieved lasting popular after being featured in the film “Shrek” in 2001.  It has been performed manifold times in over three hundred different versions.  This is certainly a fitting way to end tonight’s program.

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