Rabbi’s Report for 5775, May 15, 2015

It is my privilege to bring to you my sixteenth Rabbi’s report on the state of Oheb Shalom. To paraphrase Hillel, while standing on one foot, our congregation is healthy, stable, and growing.  We are engaged in incremental change in almost every area of our congregational life. In this day and age, that is an incredibly positive statement.  All the rest is commentary.

The commentary is still very important.  Allow me to wax for a few moments upon a verse in this week’s Torah portion, one that is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.  At the end of Parashat Behar (26:1) towards the very end of Leviticus, God tells the Jewish people, “
You shall not make idols for yourselves.”  That verse has defined our identity from Abraham until today- we are idol breakers.  We smash false assumptions and destroy cultural norms.  We stand for that which is timeless, for values which endure throughout the ages.  We are the descendants of the greatest idol breakers of all, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets.  Today, we devote our lives to the creation of sacred community, one which is counter to the American cultural value of the autonomous self.  We speak not of “self,” but of community; of “responsibility,” not of privileges.  We ask our people to be “selfless” and not “selfish,” to think of others before we think of ourselves.  In an anti-intellectual age, we urge our people to make the study of Torah a priority, to continually think and question, to find answers in ancient texts. To be a serious Liberal Jew today is to be completely counter-cultural.  This is the attraction of Reform Judaism.  It is also what turns some away.  Not everyone will be drawn to a community that places expectations upon them.  Yet to be part of Oheb Shalom is to stand with Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets as we continue to shatter the norms that govern modern life.  As your rabbi, I am proud to be part of this venerable and vibrant community.

The Pew Research Center’s recently released report on American Jews offered some interesting findings which Oheb Shalom reflects.  Next to Hindu Americans, we are the most educated religious group in the country.  We are still the largest religious minority in the United States and the Reform movement is by far the largest of our three major denominations.  What I find very compelling, and crucial for our future growth, is the growing number of non-White Jews.  Today, 90% of American Jews say they are Caucasian, while 2% are black, 4% Latino, 2% Asian, and 2% other non-Hispanic.  These numbers indicate tremendous growth in the Jewish “non-White” population, for which we should be incredibly grateful.  We are a world – wide tribe of peoples united by our faith and traditions.  Race has no place among us, for every Jew is a descendant of Abraham and Sarah. If you look around our congregation and religious school, these figures become palpable.  There is no such thing as “Jewish” looking anymore.  Just look at the children in our religious school and you will see a remarkable array of physical and racial types. It is incumbent upon us to be as inclusive as possible.  In addition, the Pew Report tells us that 17% of all adult Jews are converts, a remarkable statistic that indicates our message is a compelling one.  Rabbi Nagel and I are certainly doing our part to increase that number as we work with and officiate at approximately ten conversions a year.  These precious individuals reinvigorate us, add their strength to ours, and remind us what is so precious about our heritage.  We are so grateful that they have cast their lot with us.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Oheb Shalom is our stability.  Our three clergy have been here a combined 35 years, with no end in sight.  Rabbi Nagel, Cantor Braun and I are a smoothly functioning team that works together each and every day on your behalf. Ken Davidson, assisted by Susan, is continuing to do yeomen’s work as our Executive Director. I do not know of anyone who works harder than Ken. Ken is especially thankful for the Indian American and African American communities, because of whom rentals of our facility have tremendously increased. Sally is completing her 16th year with us, presiding over Beit Midrash and Adult Learning which have grown exponentially.  90% of our parents study with her regularly.  Aileen Friedman, the Directory of our Learning Ladder, is leading our early childhood center towards Maryland State accreditation, which we hope to achieve in the next two years.  Maxine is busier than ever on special projects, planning our Israel trip for this December and staffing the very worthwhile Engagement Task Force.  As an aside, there are, as of now, 63 of us going to Israel on December 23.  We have room for eighty, so please feel free to join us!  We were absolutely delighted when Meredith Geller rejoined us this year as our Programming and Communications Coordinator.  As of July 1, Meredith will be resuming her role as Assistant Principal of our Religious School.  Next month, we will welcome Caitlin Brazner to assume Meredith’s position.  Aliza Raskas has been with us for three months and has done beautifully as assistant to the clergy.  We hope to have a new youth director in the next few weeks so we can concentrate on rebuilding OSTRYG, our Senior Youth group. On a sad note, Debra Mogul, assistant to our Executive Director, has announced her retirement after 28 years with Oheb Shalom.  Debra will always be an integral part of our congregation as she makes a well-deserved life transition.  We will have an opportunity to thank Debra for her service next month.

When our congregants return for Rosh Hashanah, they will notice a number of physical improvements, most obviously the resurfacing of the West parking lot.  As a result of a very recent, quite generous anonymous donation, we will be doing major improvements to our O’Donnell Street Cemetery.  We hope to begin that process this summer.

Our religious school now has 350 students, the largest number since the mid-70s.  We expect it will even be larger by this time next year.   We will have the largest b’nei mitzvah class in two decades, with each child having his or her own service on Shabbat morning or during the Shabbat Mincha Service.  Perhaps the most notable change for this year will be Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Machzor. Given the approval of our Religious Practices Committee, our ushers will be handing out new High Holyday prayer books on Rosh Hashanah.  Gates of Repentance is now forty years old, which means it is in drastic need of revision.  Mishkan HaNefesh is more than a revision but an entirely new Machzor in the spirit of Mishkan T’fila.  Our clergy team had its doubts about the efficacy of the new book when we piloted the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service and looked at Yizkor.  Just last week, Rabbi Nagel, Cantor Braun and I attended a seminar in New York to review Mishkan HaNefesh and learn how to better utilize it.  We unanimously agree that we are very excited about our new Machzor and look forward to its formal adoption by our congregation.  It will enable our High Holyday services to be even more meaningful than ever before.

In the words of the poet Kohelet, time is fleeting and of the making of books there is no end, so even though I can go on and on, it is incumbent upon me to end.  I conclude by thanking our officers for their devotion to this kehilah kedosha, our clergy and staff for their continued dedication to Oheb Shalom and my dear wife, Sally, for being the best partner a man could ever have.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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Sermon for Boy Scout Shabbat – March, 13, 2015

Once again, we are delighted to welcome the members of Troop 97 to the Gordon Chapel.  Troop 97 has been sponsored by Temple Oheb Shalom for longer than most of us have been alive.  It is an important and valued component of Oheb Shalom and we are proud to be its sponsor.  Besides training boys to become fine young men, Troop 97 provides valuable services to our community and especially our congregation.  Without Troop 97’s participation in last Sunday’s Purim Carnival, for example, it would have not been the great success it was.  This is just one of the many activities with which the Boy Scouts help.  We are continually grateful to the scouts, their parents and scout masters for their ongoing support of and participation in the daily life of Temple Oheb Shalom.

My words tonight are specifically directed to our scouts but have universal import.  I begin by referring to a very serious incident that occurred last month at UCLA, the Southern California flagship of the University of California system.  An outstanding Jewish student, Rachel Beyda, was going through the confirmation process for the student council’s Judicial Board, which is the campus equivalent of the Supreme Court.  Rachel is a sophomore economics major, belongs to the Jewish sorority Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi, and is active in Hillel.  She hopes to go to law school after graduation.  Everything was going well at the proceeding until it came time for questions.  The first question changed everything.  A member of the student council asked, “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”[i]  “For the next forty minutes, after Rachel was dispatched from the room, the council tangled in a debate about whether her faith and affiliation with Jewish organizations, including her sorority and Hillel, meant she would be biased in dealing with sensitive governance questions that come before the board.  The discussion, recorded in written minutes and captured on video, seemed to echo the kind of questions, prejudices and tropes- particularly about divided loyalties- that have plagued Jews across the globe for centuries.”[ii]  The council voted to reject Rachel’s application only to later unanimously put her on the board, just after a faculty advisor pointed out that belonging to Jewish organizations was not a conflict of interest.

What happened at UCLA is appalling.  This was not a protest against Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians but was blatant anti-Semitism.  Rachel’s roommate, the current president of her sorority, went to the meeting expecting her friend to be immediately approved.  She was stunned at what she witnessed.  She said, “I swear the word Israel was not said once.  It was all about Jewish affiliations.  It didn’t leave any doubt that what this is, anti-Semitism.  There has to be recognition that there is anti-Semitism on the campus and it manifested itself first with the anti-Israel boycott.”[iii]

This incident is just another example, although the most egregious, of what is happening on college campuses all across the country.  Throughout the United States, criticism towards Israel has morphed into blatant anti-Semitism.  This would never be tolerated if it was directed, for example, against African-Americans.  Once again, this ugly canard of dual loyalty surfaces in the United States.  We thought we had put this issue to rest two hundred years ago but, dear scouts, you will have to face it head on once again.

The claim has been made since our Emancipation in France following the French Revolution in 1789, that Jews could not be loyal citizens to the country in which they were citizens as well as being faithful Jews.  In 1807, Napoleon constituted the Great Sanhedrin, bringing together rabbis and leading laymen from all of France to answer twelve questions, almost of all which were directed towards this question.  Allow me to read questions four through six, which get to the heart of the matter:

  1. In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen who are not Jewish considered to be their brethren or strangers?
  2. What type of conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward non-Jewish Frenchmen?
  3. Do the Jews who are born in France and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France?

The members of the Council gave Napoleon the answers he sought.  Jews and Frenchmen were brothers.  Jews followed civil law, even if it conflicted with Jewish law, and Jewish citizens of France owed their loyalty to France alone.  While Napoleon’s goal was to force the assimilation and eventual disappearance of French Jews, we have followed the precedents set by the Great Sanhedrin ever since.

On March 19, 1841, Rev. Gustav Poznansky of Charleston, South Carolina, uttered these immortal words when he dedicated the new building of the venerable congregation, Beth Elohim, “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our father defended with their lives that temple, that city and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city, and this land.”[iv]  Since that time, Jews in the Federal armies fought Jews in the Confederate armies, French Jews fought German Jews, German Jews fought Russian Jews, and Italian Jews fought Austrian Jews.  We have demonstrated our loyalty to the United States and the countries of our citizenship with our blood, our funds, and our devotion.  While we love the State of Israel and its Jews are our brothers and sisters, we neither vote or pay taxes in Israel nor serve in the IDF.  This is our country- and our loyalty to the United States should not, may not, and cannot be questioned.

Sadly, my young friends, you are part of another generation that will have to defend our unquestioned loyalty to the United States.  As you leave the scouts and enter college, you will have to strongly protect yourselves, and us, against the Jew hatred which is once again part of American life.  We believed it had departed with the Dust Bowl and the Depression, but here it is again, this time not propagated by right wing fanatics but by the intelligentsia of the left.  It is, nevertheless, just as virulent and hateful.

I regret to lay this burden upon your young shoulders, but you, like your forebears before you will, I am sure, wear your dual identity as Americans and Jews with pride and distinction.  We pray tonight, as always, that with our help, you will be the next generation in this Shalshelet HaKabbalah, this long line of Tradition, to take on this daunting task and triumph.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] NY Times, March 5, 2015.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Meyer, Michael, Response to Modernity, page 234.

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Remarks for Leona Morris’ 100th Birthday – November 15, 2014

Just two weeks ago, we read from Parashat Lech Lecha, which means “Go forth.” God told Abraham and Sara to leave their home in Haran and journey to the land of Canaan, taking with them all the people they had acquired in Haran. The sages interpreted the phrase, “the people they had acquired in Haran,” to refer to Abraham and Sara’s students, the proselytes who also believed in the power of the One God in the Universe. Abraham and especially Sarah were their mentors, their surrogate parents, who molded their characters and raised them to be righteous people and God revering Jews. I refer specifically to Sara this morning because she was a model for us, the mother of the Jewish people, a strong and determined woman who influenced countless generations for good.
Leona is our own Sara Imeinu, Sara our mother. We are all her children and her students. As a teacher, she imparted knowledge to us and taught us the ways of the world. Even more important, she has been a role model for us, showing us that age and optimism can be synonymous, that life does not atrophy with additional birthdays, and that change can be embraced no matter what one’s chronological age. She is a model for women everywhere: the first woman to teach in the History Department of the University of Maryland, the first woman to become a dean at what became Baltimore City Community College, the first female confirmation teacher (1950-1966) and the first female president of this holy congregation (1983-85).
Leona represents the highest ideals of our Faith. She is a student of Torah, a leader of our congregation and the community at large, and a doer of good deeds. In 2005, Leona said in her own words, “I hope to be remembered as one who loved learning, who loved people, who was always ready to try new things, who accepted change, who was ready to help those who needed assistance and who always used humor to lighten difficult situations.” Leona is a brilliant, erudite, witty, and irreverent person. She is warm, friendly, and welcoming. Leona has embraced thousands of students and made them her children. Her impact upon this congregation and the people of Baltimore cannot be overstated.
Leona’s dear father and mother, Samuel and Sadye Morris, raised Leona and her brother Vernon in small towns in Virginia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they made a living as merchants. Always active in their communities, they taught Leona the importance of engaging with others in order to work for the common good. After high school, she left home for the big City of Baltimore where she attended Goucher College, majoring in history and political science and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her Master’s degree at the University of Maryland and took advanced courses through many distinguished universities. She taught at Southern High School and Poly for many years, eventually joining the faculty of Baltimore Junior College and its administration. In 1972, after formally retiring from her career in education, Leona embarked on a new endeavor. She became the senior on-air correspondent for WJZ, meeting thousands of new people and showing the entire state and nation that a vigorous and enthusiastic person such as Leona cannot be limited by any societal imposed boundaries.
In the course of her life, she has made countless friends, has influenced thousands of students, and has been a great mother to us all. As we celebrate her 100th birthday, we wish that Leona may continue to “go forth” and live as long as Sara Imeinu, until 127 years of age, with undimmed eyes, a clear mind, and the ability to find meaning and enjoyment each day of her life. She honors us by her presence today.
May Leona continue to go from “strength to strength” as together we say


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The Orioles and the Sukkah – October 10, 2014

This is one of the most exciting nights in recent Baltimore history for, after a very long draught, the Orioles are playing in the American League Championship series.  It is not my task tonight to wax rhapsodic about the Orioles or the Kansas City Royals, a scrappy and competitive team from a second tier city like Baltimore, far away from the media centers in New York and Los Angeles. My role tonight is to briefly share with you the answer to the question, “What do the Orioles and Sukkot have in common?”  At first blush, the question may seem rather ridiculous, but I think you will understand as we go along.

The Orioles were predicted to finish no higher than fourth in their division.  At the beginning of the season, prognosticators confidently bet on the Red Sox repeating and the Yankees giving them a run for their money.  No one thought the Orioles would capture the division title, let alone beat the renowned Detroit Tigers and their three Cy Young Award winning pitchers to advance to this point.  Then again, no one expected the Kansas City Royals to sweep the Angels, the team with the best record in baseball.  Sometimes, the forecasters are wrong.  No matter how fine their biometrics, numbers cannot always predict the outcome of a particular ballgame, series, or season.  That is one of the joys of baseball- and of life in general.

The Orioles were known for their defense and their solid play.  They had All Stars in Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy, and Adam Jones, each among the best at their position in the American League.  None of them were authentic sluggers like Nelson Cruz, whom the Orioles got for a relative steal in the early spring.  With the decline of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz’s bat gave the Orioles the power they needed to win ball games.  That, however, is just part of the story.  The Orioles starting pitchers, who seemed so dismal in April and May, all of sudden turned into a first class rotation.  Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Wei Yi Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez dazzled us with their steadiness and hard work, producing one of baseball’s lowest earned run averages in the last three months of the season.  The bullpen, which began the season without a certified closer, performed beyond any reasonable expectation.  They were literally fantastic.  The great surprise was the infield, bolstered by two catchers, Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph, a second stringer and a rookie, Steve Pierce, a first baseman whom the Orioles released at the beginning of the season, Jonathan Scoop, another rookie, and Ryan Flaherty, a dependable utility player who was known for being all defense and no bat.  These five players filled the gaps left by the injured starters and added a lot of heft to the team.  Without any great stars, including Nelson Cruz whose reputation was so damaged by last year’s steroid scandal, the Orioles magically became our darlings once again and stomped all over the American League East opposition.  They proved this year that an age old truth still has efficacy- the sum is greater than its parts.

What that means is that the Orioles’ success this year is based on the synergy of all the various parts of the Orioles’ system working together, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players.  Each component brings its energy to the whole, creating an inexplicable chemistry that makes the team shine.  The Orioles “clicked” this year because of that synergy, of the combined energy of the systems’ parts.

Just a few days ago, many congregants came up to Cantor Braun and me and said that our Erev Yom Kippur service was the most beautiful they had ever attended.  “What was different?” they asked?  The answer is, “Nothing, everything and everyone just clicked.  Each of us brought something special to that service which created an ineffable chemistry.  You experienced the magic of that synergy.”

Now what does this have to do with Sukkot?  The lulav and etrog, which we have before us, has four components.  The etrog has a strong flavor and fragrance.  It reminds of Jews who learn Torah and do good deeds.  The palm generates a fruit with flavor but no fragrance.  This reminds us of Jews who learn Torah but do not perform good deeds.  The myrtle has fragrance but no flavor.  It reminds us of Jews who do good deeds but are ignorant of Torah.  The willow has neither flavor nor fragrance and reminds us of Jews who neither study Torah nor perform good deeds.  The rabbis tell us that God said, “Bind them together in one bunch and they will make up for each other.”  The sum of the Jewish people is greater than our individual parts.  We need each other to become a coherent whole.  We bring together individual abilities and strengths to create a synergy to make us better together than any of us could be alone.  Just like the Orioles, the Jewish people are greater than the sum of our parts.

May the O’s bring home the pennant and the World Championship this year to Baltimore.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

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Yizkor Sermon – Yom Kippur – 10 Tishrei, 5775 – October 4, 2014

This is the time of day when we are feeling weak and most vulnerable. Hungry, tired, and overwhelmed by emotion, the tears come easily as we remember all those who have walked the path of life with us and now live only in our memories. While the last ten days have been given over to self-reflection and prayer, this is when we feel closest to God and one another as we mull our ultimate fate. What will our loved ones remember about us when we are gone? What of us will they miss the most? What will the rabbi say about us in our eulogy?

The last question is quite salient. What will the rabbi or the cantor say about us in our eulogies? Will he or she say, “His crowning achievement in life was making senior vice president. What everybody most loved about her was that she ate lunch at her desk every day.”

Eulogies are about the stuff that make us the kind of people we are. Eulogies speak about love, relationships, caring, friendship, and passion. They speak about our connections to others and all the good we did while we were alive. Eulogies speak about what makes us laugh and the kind of wisdom we shared. As David Brooks wrote a few months ago, “Eulogies are not resumes. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.” Yet we spend very little time preparing for our eulogies and most of our precious time adding to our resumes, trying our best to meet our current broken definition of success.
Steve Jobs, one of the most successful and well known men of our generation, the man responsible for making Apple what it is today, was eulogized by his sister, Mona Simpson. She spoke about his work ethic and all the amazing things he did, but she spent most of her time talking about how much he loved his family. She sprinkled her eulogy with lines like, “Steve cultivated whimsy. He treasured happiness. He was humble, he liked to keep learning, and he had lots of fun. Steve was an intensely emotional man.” His sister made sure that we knew him as a man who had a family, friends, and passions, not just as the man who invented the I Phone. Steve Jobs lived his eulogy, not his resume.

Very few of us have the kind of security and independence of a Steve Jobs, but each one of us can define our own success in life. We can be fully present in the lives of those whom we love. We can re-prioritize what is important to us. We can redefine what we mean by being successful. We can re-devote ourselves to what we really care about. We can be more grateful for all the positive things in our lives. We can take this time to begin working on a new and better version of our eulogies. Let us each take this message to heart and do so while we have the opportunity.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah– May we be sealed for good.

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Yom Kippur Morning Sermon – October 4, 2014 -10 Tishrei, 5775

This is the Day of Awe, our most serious and introspective day, when we stand alone before God in the midst of our congregation, promising to change and asking for forgiveness. This does not mean, however, that we are not allowed to laugh. Let me tell you a story:
Samuel Cohen was the oldest of seven children who lived on Lombard Street in Baltimore. Unfortunately, he had to leave City College early and go to work to help support his younger brothers and sisters. So Samuel never learned to read.
Years later when he married and opened a bank account, he signed his checks just “XX”.
Samuel then started his own tailoring business in Pikesville, which soon prospered. He became a very rich man.
One Thursday, he got a call from his bank, ‘Mr. Cohen, I wanted to ask you about this check. We weren’t sure you had really signed it. All these years, you’ve been signing your checks, “XX”; this one is signed with three X’s………’
Samuel sighed, “Since I’ve become rich, my wife thought I should have a middle name.
Samuel Cohen is a perfect example of who we are and what we have become. Just three or four generations separate us from our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who worked very hard and sacrificed so that their children could go to school and become Americans. Their children and grandchildren prospered in this new country, making us the most successful ethno-religious group in the United States and the wealthiest Jewish community in history. That doesn’t mean that all of us have prospered. There are many poor Jews, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007. Yet most of us, despite economic setbacks, are pretty comfortable. For us, sacrifice means not taking a vacation every year, not getting a new car or postponing our cosmetic surgery. This does not mean that life is easy. We still worry about money and are insecure about our employment. We do not spend enough time at home and work too hard. Despite our angst, the majority of us are college educated, live in nice homes, and enjoy some material pleasures. It is not just the older generation who is doing well. If you haven’t been here on a Sunday morning when religious school is in session, you should see the kind of cars that pull up to drop off our kids. Half of our children go to private school and half to public schools, the best ones in Baltimore and Howard Counties. By any standard of measurement, we are doing well and I thank God for that. I am incredibly thankful that my grandparents came to this country so that we could have the opportunities we do. We can live freely as Jews without fear of persecution. We have achieved the American dream. While it is harder today for our children then it was for us, compared to most in this country, they will do well.
My concern today is that for many Americans today, the American Dream is unattainable. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the American Dream meant that anyone who worked hard and was a good citizen could own a home and have a decent life in this country. It was this idea that brought our ancestors here and still attracts millions of immigrants to our country every day. Yet most Americans will not be able to achieve this standard of living- and more and more are being left behind every day.
We have become the most economically stratified country in the world. A few of us here today may be in the top 1% of all Americans in terms of wealth. Most of us are in the top 5 and certainly the top 10% in terms of income. The middle class, however, is not growing. It is shrinking! The economic gap between the social classes in this country is becoming enormous and is perceived by those at the bottom to be unbridgeable. It is this last statement that is most troubling for if so, it means the American Dream, that which inspired our ancestors and still propels us to success, is dead for the majority of Americans.
We do not have to go far to witness the despair that envelopes so many in Baltimore. Just drive a few miles south on Park Heights Avenue or Reisterstown Road and we enter a different world, one plagued by crime, drugs, and hopelessness. Thousands of Baltimoreans have no hope that their children will break out of the cycle of poverty in which they live. They believe, with some merit, that if their children are born into poverty, they will die in poverty. They have little towards which to aspire, except for a short and hard life.
Writing in Politico, Doug Sosnik assessed what he called a decade of anger and disaffection. He said, “At the core of American’s anger and alienation is the belief that the American Dream is no longer attainable. For the first time in our country’s history, there is more social mobility in Europe than in the United States.” Our middle class, which had long been the world’s most affluent, no longer is. We have been overtaken by Canada. America’s rank on a social progress index of 132 countries has us at 39th in basic education¸ 34th in access to water and sanitation and 16th overall, just two spots ahead of Slovenia!”
For us and so many others, education has been the key to economic advancement. “The gap between the wages of a family of two college graduates and that of two high school graduates is $30,000 a year…American workers with a college degree are paid 74% more than those with only a high school degree, on average, nearly the biggest premium in the industrialized world.” The United States used to lead the world in educational equality. Not anymore. Among 25-34 year olds, only 20% of men and 27% of women have achieved a higher level of education than their parents. It is even bleaker at the bottom: Only one in twenty Americans aged 25-34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. In most industrialized countries, the average is one in four!” Unless we vastly improve public education for the poorest of our children and help them break out of the cycle of poverty, America will become more and more stratified into a nation of rich and poor.
A strong middle class has been America’s greatest strength. Without giving those at the bottom rung of society a real chance to move upwards, our country is in real trouble. That is one of the reasons why I am so committed to making life better for all people in Baltimore. I want to give as many children as possible a chance to achieve the American Dream, to make something of them, and not end up as just another statistic in the crime reports. Too many of our children, and make no mistake, they are all our children, see their lives as dead ends. They are born poor and will die poor, living in cockroach infested housing, working for the minimum wage, and dying at a young age. We know what happens when anger and frustration build up in the inner city. Baltimore is still recovering from the riots of 1968. What will happen when thousands of people, many of them just wanting a chance for a better life, become so angry they take out their frustrations on those whom they view as an impediment to their having one?
Dear friends, our Torah portion for this morning speaks to us of choices, choices we make every day, for life or death, blessing or curse. We have a choice to make and we should make it today. Will we stick our heads in the proverbial sand and allow these trends to continue or will we do our very best to change our community’s priorities? Will we try our best to lower the impediments to social and economic advancement or will our country become a place for the rich and the poor with few in between?
Let me assure you that I am not naïve. I know there will always be poor people and that some will always struggle. The rabbis of the Talmud said that until the Messiah came there hunger, poverty and oppression. Yet that does not give us an excuse not to try to make Baltimore a more livable and more humane city.
I encouraged our congregation to join BUILD last year, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, so that we could join with like minded people, members of churches and schools throughout our city, to be part of ongoing work. BUILD has been around for almost forty years- and we are the first and only synagogue to be part of it. BUILD is a community action organization. It is dedicated to creating relationships that will change the power dynamic in our city. Over the years, BUILD has brought after school care to the city schools, has made possible the creation of hundreds of new homes, and helped steer the $1 Billion bond program through the State legislature that will renovate and rebuild over thirty Baltimore schools. If the cycle of poverty will ever be broken, if Jewish families ever want to buy home once again in Baltimore City, we have to start with the schools. If Baltimore gets quality schools, then families will stay in the city, neighborhoods will be more stable and prosperous, jobs will be created, and the American Dream will become reachable for the next generation.
I would like each of us to donate a few hours every month, just a few hours, to make life better for others in our city. In Hebrew, the word for volunteerism is hitnavdut. It comes from the root nun-dalet-vet which means “free will offering.” Giving to others is literally a gift of our hearts. We can work provide meals for the residents of the Ronald McDonald House through Oheb Shalom. Just contact Shelle Schnell, our vice president of Tikkun Olam. Shelle also co-chairs Isaiah 61, our task force with Bethel AME that works on improving the lives of the residents of Upton, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. Shelle, will you please stand up so everyone can see you?
I just mentioned Tikkun Olam. These two words mean “Repair the world.” This is more than just a phrase. Tikkun Olam is a Kabbalistic concept that is at the heart of my Jewish belief and identity. The idea was most profoundly taught by the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived four hundred years ago in Sfat. It is at the center of Lurianic Kabbalah. No one has described this concept better than master of Jewish storytelling, Howard Schwartz:
“At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting himself. From that contraction darkness was created. When God said, “Let there be light,” the light that came into being filled the darkness. Ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
In this way, God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the holy land of Israel than anywhere else.
That is why we were created, to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles, to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.
When enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.”
Whenever we help another, perform a good deed, study Torah, and do a mitzvah, we gather another spark and restore it to the broken vessels. When we work together individually and communally, through the efforts of countless generations, eventually we will raise enough sparks to repair the world and bring forth the Messianic Age. That is what I believe. It gives meaning to my life as a human being and a Jew. It makes our existence worthwhile. It makes our work together as part of this greater community even more important.
So, my dearest friends, on this holiest day of the year, let us re-dedicate ourselves to Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Our lives, our city, and our very world depends upon it.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
May we be written and sealed in the Book of Life.
Frank Bruni, the NY Times, May 3, 2014.
Eduardo Porter, NY Times, September 10, 2014.

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Erev Yom Kippur Sermon – October 3, 2014 – 10 Tishrei, 5775

No One Needs to Suffer Alone

This is the holiest night of the year. During this most sacred day, we stand alone before God in the midst of millions of other Jews, opening our souls to God and standing before Him in judgment. For the last ten days we have engaged in Cheshbon HaNefesh, an examination of our souls, asking ourselves how we can become better human beings. How can we become more empathic, more caring and more giving people? How can we diminish our selfishness and become less self centered? How can we better appreciate our family and friends? How can we show our gratitude for the blessings, large and small, that God has given us?
The vast majority of us greatly benefit from this day of personal and communal introspection. There are some of us, however, who live in a cloud of darkness, who are not able to see the light that wants to envelop them, who are so ill that life itself is a burden rather than a blessing. Among us tonight are some who have a disease of the brain that is as real as if they had cancer or heart disease. We call the disease from which they are suffering “mental illness” which still, unfortunately, has a terrible stigma attached to it, as if we lived in the 19th century and confined our mentally ill to an asylum called Bedlam. “It is time we stopped thinking about mental illness in pejorative way. It is time we acknowledged that a disease in the brain is just as physical as a disease in the heart, the lungs, or the liver. The fact that it is more complicated, less understood and not well studied, does not mean we can ignore this fact. In truth, it means the exact opposite: that mental health needs to be treated with urgency. Our society needs to start treating its illnesses as every bit as deadly and malicious as other ailments”
We were shocked less than two months ago when we learned that Robin Williams had died. We were even more horrified by the news that he had killed himself. In truth, Robin Williams did not kill himself. His disease, his mental illness, killed him, just as if he had been felled by cancer. Robin Williams suffered from depression, a darkness so thick that it distorted his reality, causing him to think that death was preferable to life. Robin Williams, despite his comedic genius and lovable personality, was so ill that he wanted to die. It may be hard for us to imagine, considering that he was brilliant, beloved, and wealthy, but that did matter to him. His illness made him want to die.
It comes as a surprise to some that Robin Williams was not Jewish.
Growing up in a Protestant home in suburban Detroit, attending bar and bat mitzvahs weekly, Williams felt completely at home with our people. He sprinkled his speech with Yiddishisms and was Billy Crystal’s best friend. He solidified his Jewish “creds” when a German reporter interviewed him asking, “Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?” Without skipping a beat, Williams replied, “Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?”
Jews practically invented psychiatry and defined the study of illnesses of the mind. That is not a coincidence, considering that we have more than our share of mental illness. “Early 20th century studies observed more diagnoses of depression and bipolar disorder in Jews than non-Jews, but the effect might have been due to a greater tendency of Jews to seek psychiatric help. To avoid that bias, a larger study conducted twenty years ago by the National Institute of Mental Health determined that Jewish men had higher rates of depression than non-Jewish men while Jewish women suffered from depression similarly to non-Jewish women. I am not going to touch that one. Whatever I say can only get me in trouble.
Researchers are looking for a genetic determinant to mental illness but evidence is still elusive. Whether or not we experience more mental illness than others, we are certainly more sensitive to it, considering the large number of Jewish mental health practitioners and the number of us who are in therapy.
The Jewish experience throughout history has been molded by oppression. Constant oppression has caused overwhelming stress which is a component in the formation of mental illness. After thousands of years of wandering, pogroms, and persecution, it is a wonder that so many of us still are in the spectrum of normality. God commands us to remember our pain so that we can be sensitive to the widow, orphan, and stranger, the disenfranchised and different among us. Generations of suffering has enabled us to be empathic to the most vulnerable in our society.
There is, however, a dark side to remembering pain. Neuroscience has joined with the therapeutic professions to teach us that we participate in creating our reality. Our experiences and the ways we think about them-our insights and reflections-change the neural connections that make up our brains. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel writes, “This revelation is based on one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last twenty years: How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.” According to the writer, Diane Ackerman, “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”
Our memories, emotional responses, and primal narratives become encoded deep within us, forming our sense of who we are. When we are not aware of the ways we frame the world, these primal responses can wreak havoc in our lives. A most painful example is that those who were abused as children are at risk of becoming abusers themselves. We are what we remember. But we can choose how we remember. We need to transform our pain into empathy, our fear into courage, and our mourning into joy. Suffering does not have to lead to darkness and death. We can use our pain to become kinder, more caring human beings.”
Just a few days ago, I visited one of our congregants in the hospital. She had overdosed on pills and if her husband had not called 911, I would have officiated at her funeral. She realizes that she has everything to live for but, after struggling with depression for many years and dealing with stressful family circumstances, life, for a short time, seemed overwhelmingly bleak. When I entered the room the first thing she said was, “I wanted to call you. I guess I should have picked up the phone.” I said, “So do I…so do I.” Perhaps I could have talked her through her blackness or at least gotten her the immediate help she needed.
My message to you tonight is that we do not have to suffer alone. Our congregation is particularly sensitive to mental illness as we have, through the generosity of private donors, a congregational nurse, Beth Philipson, and social worker, Robin Lumpkin, on staff. I would like them to stand so that you know who they are. Their help is available to you at no cost, just because you are members of Oheb Shalom. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only congregation in North America to be able to offer this help to our congregants. All you have to do is call them or email them and they, along with all of us, are here to help. We call this our Shleimut program, from the Hebrew word shalom. In addition to its simple meaning of “hello and goodbye,” shalom at its essence means “wholeness.” The name of the program was chosen because we care about you as a whole person. We are concerned not just about your Jewish identity or your attendance at services or religious school. We care about your physical and mental health. We will do all we can to avail you of the help you need to get well.
We do not believe that suffering is ennobling. We certainly do not believe that God wants us to suffer. What we do believe is that suffering does make us more empathetic and makes us grateful for the times when we are not in pain. It causes us to understand that we are not, ultimately, in control of our lives. Suffering reminds us of our limitations. We should always remember that we should not suffer alone. We reach out to family, friends, and clergy for support. We seek medical help. We call or email Robin or Beth. Someone is there to help.
Ultimately, we believe that God is with us at all times, that God is particularly sensitive to our hurt. One of God’s one hundred names is “HaRachaman,” the Compassionate One. While God cannot cure us or alleviate our pain, God embraces us and has compassion on all those who call upon Him. When we are hurting, when the darkness blots out the light, we call upon God and those who care for us to help.
The Midrash is replete with references to God’s redemptive power. The rabbis tell us we should never lose hope or faith. They tell us, “If you have hoped and have not been saved, hope and hope again. God has pleasure not in burnt offerings, peace offerings or sacrifices but in hope of the human heart.” God, the rabbis write, hearkens to all people simultaneously. While a human ruler can only listen to two or three people at a time, God’s ears are never satiated with hearing. God never gets tired of listening to our prayers. The ancient sage, Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani said, “If you have directed your heart in prayer, be assured that you will be heard by God.” While God may not be able to directly intervene in our lives, God does hear our prayers. God does love us and will also be present in our lives if we let Him in. When God is with us we are never alone. We need not suffer alone…We need not suffer alone.


Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah
Ten Minutes of Torah, September 2, 2014
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 40:1
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 65:2
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 108:1

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