Do We Believe What We Preach? July 10, 2015

I have often wondered if we really believe what we preach.  For thousands of years we have proclaimed the importance of human life.  Our sages have proclaimed the importance of every individual. They went so far as to say that if one life is prematurely ended an entire world is destroyed.  The rabbis tell us we can violate almost every commandment for Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of a life.  Nothing, our Tradition, teaches us, is more sacrosanct than human life.

We teach that a spark of God resides in each human being, that we are all created in God’s image, and that each person is precious to God. While God has an eternal covenant with the Jewish people, all of us, regardless of race or religion, gender or ethnicity, are God’s children.  Yet do we really believe this?

What makes me ask this question?  A simple statistic.  In May, 42 people were murdered in Baltimore.  In June, another 31 were killed.  Has an enraged Jewish community demanded change in the Baltimore Police Department?  Have we pressured the Mayor to replace the police commissioner?  Have we done anything but shake our heads and said, “This is really terrible?”  No, we have not.  We rationalize that most of these victims were involved in the drug trade, that they were selling the drugs stolen from looted pharmacies in April’s riot, and that the world is better off without them.  Let me let you in on an ugly secret.  All of these murder victims were black.  I sincerely believe that if 73 white citizens of Baltimore were murdered in this same period the police commissioner would have been fired long ago, the mayor would have been recalled, and the governor would have sent in the National Guard and declared martial law.  The truth is that we do not value the lives of inner city black residents.  Perhaps I am being unfair.  Yet where are the Jewish voices calling for change?  Why are we not on the barricades demanding that the police crackdown on crime?  Frankly, I am very disappointed in us.

Are there reasons for our apathy?  Of course there are.  In the 1968 riots, the Jewish community was devastated.  Many of our people owned small businesses in the City that were destroyed by rioters.  Livelihoods and lives were snuffed out.  Jews fled to the County and, with the exception of those who have moved to the trendy neighborhoods of Roland Park, Canton, and Federal Hill, we have practically abandoned the City.  Our lives are now suburban- and so are our concerns.  Many of us have so little contact with Baltimore City that, as far as we are concerned, the recent Baltimore riot could have taken place in another country.

So why am I speaking of this tonight?  There are three very important reasons why we must be involved in the life of Baltimore City and work to improve the lives of its impoverished residents.  The first is purely selfish:  When Baltimore grows, the entire metropolitan region grows with it.  Baltimore is the economic engine of Maryland.  When lives improve in Baltimore, when more kids graduate from school, when more people are working, when more neighborhoods are safe, we are all better off.  People need decent jobs in which they can earn enough to buy a house and support a family.  We should be working with BUILD and every other organization, institution, and company to create meaningful jobs in Baltimore.  Two:  If we are to be true to ourselves, true to our raison de’tre as Jews, we need to actually put our words into action.  Is Judaism a string of meaningless cliches’ or do our beliefs stir us to make our community a better place?  Does our sacred Tradition motivate us towards Tikun Olam, repair of the world, or does it simply call for holiday and life cycle celebrations?  What does God want of Jewish people?  While God has not recently spoken to me, I know that God wants us to work on behalf of those who are in need.  Three:  Before there were Jews, before Avram and Sarai, there was Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God said to him (Genesis 4:9), “Cain, where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God did not need to answer the rhetorical question because the answer is obvious- we are our brothers and sisters keepers!  We are responsible for the wellbeing of others in addition to our own. God does not care if people are white, black or purple. To ignore our responsibility for the welfare of others is to ignore what it means to be a human being created in the image of God.

So what do I want of us?  I want us to not just care more, but to work harder.  I want us to work with other like minded people to make Baltimore a healthier, safer, and more productive city. We, as individuals, cannot do this alone.  We need to be part of something greater than ourselves that advocates for change.

Give me a few moments to educate our Har Sinai friends.  Oheb Shalom is the only synagogue in Baltimore to belong to BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development is a broad-based community power organization, rooted in Baltimore’s neighborhoods and congregations. BUILD is a non-partisan, interfaith, multiracial organization dedicated to making our city a better place for all Baltimoreans thrive. For more than 38 years, BUILD has worked to improve housing, increase job opportunities, and rebuild schools.   BUILD is composed of more than forty congregations who listen to their members and discover their concerns. In March of 2014, BUILD completed the largest listening campaign in its history. Through individual and small group conversations with over 5,240 people who live, work, and worship in Baltimore, BUILD identified four top issues that will guide our work in the coming years:

  1. Jobs and Employment
  2. Crime and Safety
  3. Youth Opportunities
  4. Schools and Education

What I find so interesting is that last March, our BUILD committee listened to 150 Oheb Shalom members.  Our concerns were exactly the same as those of other congregations.

Months ago, BUILD called for the Mayor and Police Commissioner Batts to meet with residents of Sandtown-Winchester to learn about their concerns and to generate relationships.  They refused.  They never walked the neighborhood. Trust between the Baltimore police and the residents of West Baltimore broke down as there was an absence of relationship.  For the last several years, the Western District has only had interim commanders, none of whom stayed around long enough to create a relationship with the community.  Have you ever wondered why the April riot was concentrated on Baltimore’s West Side, with little spilling over to the rest of the City?  It is not only because that is the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested and died.  It is because residents in other parts of the City have a hard earned relationship with the police.  The trust each other and work together to help keep their neighborhoods safe.  BUILD recently called for Commissioner Batts to issue his plan to reduce violence in Baltimore.  When he did not, BUILD was the first to call for his resignation, the first time in its existence it has called for the resignation of a police commissioner.  Batts is a good man, a smart and articulate person whose heart is in the right place, but he was a leader without a constituency.  He lost the trust of his police officers and the trust of the people.  After BUILD called for his resignation, the Fraternal Order of Police issued its critical report of the commissioner.  Only then did the Mayor fire him.

I would like Har Sinai, and other progressive synagogues, to join BUILD and work with us to make life better for us all.  We will then fulfill our mission as Jews and human beings.  Are we our brother’s keeper?  Yes.  We are responsible not just for our fellow Jews, but for all human beings.  Let us be consistent in both word- and deed.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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A Controversial Subject: Jews and Slavery, Sermon for July 3, 2015

What a wonderful tradition this is as our two congregations perpetuate what is an almost one hundred year old custom of holding summer services together.  I still regret that Baltimore Hebrew and Temple Emanuel are no longer part of this venerable practice.  In any case, I am delighted to be sharing the pulpit with Cantor Gerber of Har Sinai.  It is also a pleasure to have Wally Ford back once again as our accompanist.

It is my habit to give sermons of a historical note on significant American holidays such as Memorial Day and Independence Day.  Given the recent tragedy in Charleston and the renewed emphasis on the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and oppression, I thought it appropriate to shed some light on a rather controversial subject- the role of American Jews and slavery.  I do this because almost twenty five years, the Nation of Islam published a notorious tomb called The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews in which the anonymous author made outrageous claims that Jews dominated the both the transatlantic and ante-bellum slave trade in this country.  Both claims have been proved to be patently false, but the suspicion still lingers that our American ancestors had an outsized role in maintaining and perpetuating slavery.  In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Allow to me take the next few minutes to explain.

Prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was no such entity as American Jewry.  There were individual Jews and separate Jewish communities.  There were no national organizations or spokesmen for the Jews.  There was no Jewish hierarchy.  The vast majority of Jews in this country before the Civil War, and we estimate between 200,000 and 250,000 of us were here, the majority in the Northern states, were recent immigrants from Germany who were just trying to make a living and assimilate into American life.  We took on the cultural colorings of the regions in which we lived.  We became Midwestern or Southern Jews, New England or Mid-Atlantic Jews.  We adopted the life styles, loyalties, and traditions of the areas in which we settled.  Some Jews owned slaves, most of whom were urban Jews who owned one or two house slaves as did most home owners in Southern cities, including Baltimore.  There were hardly any Jewish plantation owners anywhere in the South.  In fact, statistic tell us that free blacks owned many more slaves than did Jews.

Virginia and Maryland were the epicenter of the American slave trade.  When it was legal to import slaves, most came through Charleston. After 1808, when importing slaves was made a crime, these two states sent 300,000 slaves to the Deep South, most to work on cotton plantations.  Of the thirty-four companies in Richmond that sold slaves, only one was owned by Jews.  There were three Jews among seventy-four slave traders.  There was little room for Jews in the highly controlled power structure of these colonies and then states.   In an 1830 census, there were fifty two known Jewish families in the entire State of Virginia who owned 121 slaves between them, just 1.6% of the entire slave population of Virginia.

Maryland did not welcome Jews and few were here before the middle of the 18th century.  By 1790, there were no more than fifty Jews in all of Maryland, most residing in Baltimore.  These Jews owned a total of three slaves between them. In 1820, seven of Baltimore’s twenty-one Jewish households owned a grand total of eleven slaves.  On the eve of the Civil War, approximately 7,000 Jews lived in Maryland, 5,000 in Baltimore.  Many of them, among whom were the founders of our congregations, were clothiers and merchants.  By this time, given the increased sentiment for emancipation, only five Jewish households owned slaves among more than six hundred Baltimore slave owners. [1] Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai, who preached in German, reviled slavery and denounced the institution in the most loathsome of terms.  His congregants had to escort him out of Baltimore for his own safety in April, 1861, because of his fiery rhetoric.  He was the only rabbi who had the courage to say that slavery was morally wrong and an abomination which should be abolished.  It seemed that most Jews agreed with him.

The most well-known Southern Jews were Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, and David Yulee, the senator from Florida.  Both of them married Christian women and raised their children in that faith.  Neither of them wanted to be identified as Jews.  David Yulee was original David Levy and changed it to be more Southern and less Jewish.  Judah Benjamin castigated his parents for giving him such a recognizably Jewish name.  While there were several thousands of Jews who fought for the Confederacy, some of whom were well regarded officers, is was very hard to be a Jew in the South as anti-Semitism was rampant.  Jews were just grateful to be white. Many openly spoke of how difficult it would be for them as relative outsiders in the closed Southern society without blacks acting as lightning rods for White Southern hatred.  Blacks acted as an escape valve in Southern society. Jews had no collective power anywhere in the Confederacy.  “The choice for Jews in the South was either to emigrate or assimilate and accept the institutions of this society.”[2]  The noted author Eli Evans wrote, “No one crossed the Southerner in his native land.  The Jew was conditioned to fear authority from the boot of the tsar and the emperor; he knew his place- the perpetual visitor, tentative and unaccepted, his primary concern to remain and survive.  Subconsciously, the South would stake a claim to a corner of his soul, for he too was white and would become like them in many ways.  Yet he was conscious of the differences, of the permissible boundaries of attitude and act, of just how far was too far, and protective enough of his own body and time to take on whatever colors were necessary to get through the day.”[3]

In conclusion, a few Jews owned slaves.  Where ever statistics are available, in the major cities of Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, and New Orleans, Jews owned less than 2% of all slaves in the community.  My first senior rabbi, Bertram Korn, the great American Jewish historian and first rabbi to be an Admiral in the Navy, wrote, “The history of slavery would not have differed one whit from historic reality if no single Jew had been resident in the South. Other whites would have owned slaves; other traders and auctioneers would have bought and sold them.”[4]  Thus closes a shameful chapter in American history, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. The Confederate flag, which is a symbol of slavery and degradation, should not be displayed on public property anywhere in the United States of America.  Today, we know better than to flaunt the racism of our past.

Amen and Shabbat shalom.

[1] Friedman, Saul, Jews in the American Slave Trade, page 140.

[2] Ibid, page 216.

[3] Ibid, page 217.

[4] Korn, Bertram, W., Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, page 68.

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Remarks on Debra Mogul’s Retirement, June 26, 2015

How does one express her love for Jewish life?  Fortunately, there are many ways to do so.  She can attend Shabbat services on a regular basis, study our sacred texts, and attend the daily minyan.  She can participate in congregational and community life.  She can volunteer in any number of capacities.  She can give tsedakah to her synagogue, federation, and other worthy causes.  She can also make the synagogue her life’s work as did our own Debra Mogul.

Debra Mogul is an institution at Oheb Shalom.  Her tenure with us spans four decades.  To put her time with us in context, she began her storied career when Ronald Reagan was President!  As Rabbi Berlin so eloquently said, we will talk about Debra for decades to come as she is part of the very fabric of Oheb Shalom.  I think, though, that Debra is even more than that.  She is one of the pillars that holds up this sacred congregation.  No one has been more devoted to Oheb Shalom than Debra.  No one has been more motivated to serve our congregants.  No one could have been a more loyal assistant to Jesse and Ken.  A fount of institution knowledge, it will truly be impossible to replace her.  We will eventually have someone to fill her position, but no one will supplant her.  There will never be another Debra.

I cannot tell you how many times I have received compliments about Debra from congregants, renters, and vendors.  Debra has always been polite, efficient, and accurate.  She represents us so well to the Baltimore community.  Debra takes night and weekend calls from Levinsons and works with families when they are most vulnerable.  Her soothing words and comforting manner seem to make the saddest of circumstances more endurable.  There will never be another Debra.

Always beautiful dressed and well appointed, Debra has a most youthful appearance and demeanor.  She sets the office standard for dress.  She is always mindful of a new outfit or recent haircut.  She pays attention to the smallest detail and is free with her compliments.  We always part from an interaction with Debra feeling better about ourselves.  Perhaps that is because we know that Debra truly cares about us.  She is dedicated to our well-being and always makes us look our best to others.  There will never be another Debra.

While Debra is not leaving our community, her role will certainly change.  We welcome her back on her terms, in whatever capacity she would like to be part of Oheb Shalom.  She has at least another third of her life to live.  We hope that she will always include us within it.

Debra, would you now please come up so that Cantor Braun and I may offer you a blessing?

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A What If Anniversary, June 12, 2015

We mark several important historical anniversaries in 2015.  It is the 200th anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.  Each of these events was commemorated by appropriate remembrances during this year.  One crucial event that we Americans will not solemnize is the Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 2015, just south of Brussels in Belgium.  Much to the consternation of the French, the Belgian government just issued a 2.5 Euro coin to commemorate the Allied victory over the Napoleon.  Needless to say, it is not legal tender in France.

While each of these events is quite significant in and of itself, perhaps none had such a lasting impact upon the Jewish people as did the Battle of Waterloo.  Napoleon’s final defeat spelled the end of equality for Jews in Europe for another 60 years.  What would have happened to us if Napoleon defeated the Allied armies at Waterloo and re-established the French Empire throughout Europe?  The “What ifs” will occupy us for the next few minutes as I offer you three competing scenarios for what might have been our alternative future.  Before that, however, I must give you a little background.

The French Revolution of 1789 soon spawned Napoleon’s dictatorship.  As Napoleon’s victories over France’s enemies increased, he was proclaimed Emperor.  Napoleon abolished the old aristocracy and created an aristocracy of merit.  Anyone, even a Jew, could become a leader in the new French Empire.  The franchise of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity was extended to all French Jews in 1792.  Where ever French armies marched, the doors to the ghettos were opened and Jews were made citizens of the respective nation-states.  It is no wonder that Jewish men flocked to the French colors to fight for their emancipation and civic equality.  Napoleon was eventually defeated by the Russian winter and exiled in 1814 to Elba, from which he escaped in March, 1815.  He made his way to Paris where he reunited the veterans of his Grand Armee, who had been earlier repatriated to France.  Napoleon had the complete support of his soldiers as he attempted to free France from the Allied yoke and to re-establish his empire.

His army of 74,000 men and 250 guns marched to Waterloo where, on June 18, 2015, they faced 77,000 British, Belgian, Dutch, German, and Prussian soldiers under the command of the Duke of Wellington.  In a day long, horrific battle, the French were defeated and Napoleon was forced from the field, only to be hunted down, re-arrested and sent to exile in St. Helena, a tiny island in the South Atlantic.  The Allies abolished all the republics Napoleon created, re-established the French monarchy, and rescinded equality for Jews outside of France.  Jews of Germany, Italy, Austria and Poland would now have to wait three generations to become citizens of their countries.

So what might have happened to the Jewish people if Napoleon defeated the Allies and re-established his Empire?  In the first scenario, Jewish citizenship is restored.  Jews no longer must observe Jewish law and are obligated to observe the laws of the state.  Rabbis no longer have legal authority over the community.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews imbibe from the well of secular culture, shedding their Jewish identities and becoming French, German, Dutch, and Polish citizens, speaking the language of their country and completely assimilating, becoming nominal Christians in the process.  Stunned by this rampant abandonment of Judaism, Jewish leaders adopt massive changes to the liturgy and theology of Judaism to make it more attractive to modern European Jews.  Thus, Reform Judaism has its beginnings.  The largest ethnically Jewish population, the Jews of the Pale of Settlement in the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic countries also rush through the gates of freedom.  No longer constrained by the Russian Bear, they educate their children in secular studies, close yeshivot, and even stop speaking Yiddish to their children.  The wellspring of Jews who formed the American Jewish community had no reason to leave Europe.  The Jews of America remained a small minority which eventually dissipated through intermarriage and assimilation without the replenishment of two million Eastern European Jews.  Only a tiny Reform Jewish community ultimately exists in Europe, saving the remnant of the Jewish people from oblivion.

In a second scenario, Napoleon re-conquers Egypt and Palestine from the Ottoman Turks.  This is necessary so that France can threaten England’s grip on India.  Napoleon needs help in holding Palestine for France, so he invites the Rothschilds to visit him.  Napoleon, understanding the Jewish people’s love for the land of Israel, orders the Rothschilds to lead, and fund, the Jewish people’s return to Zion.  Thousands upon thousands of young Jews make aliyah from all over the French Empire, drawing especially upon the Jews of the Pale of Settlement.  They are given economic incentives to move to Israel as well as exemption from serving in the French military.  They move to Israel where they create farming settlements and a local militia in order to protect themselves. They employ local Arabs and teach those around them the most modern practices of French agriculture.  Israel once again becomes self-sufficient as a food producer.  Its vineyards become celebrated all over the world for the quality of their wine.  The Jewish homeland in Palestine under French protection prospers and continues to grow through the twentieth and twenty first centuries, never having to endure constant warfare with the Arabs to secure its existence.  Since Jews and Arabs live under French protection in the Middle East, French troops put down any and all Arab rebellions.

The third scenario is perhaps the most realistic and depressing.  Recognizing that nationalism is the most potent force in the world next to religion, the reconstituted French Empire would have eventually come apart at the seams, split by competing German, Polish, Russian, Italian and other European nationalisms.  A new Germany, recently united under the banner of Der Volk, would exclude from citizenship all those who were not part of the ancestral Germanic nation.  Jews, cosmopolitan and European to the core, were certainly not part of the Volk and immediately lost their German citizenship.  Similar processes occurred throughout Russia, Poland, and the smaller Eastern European countries which excluded Jews from their midst.  Loss of citizenship eventually led to statelessness.  Not being able to immigrate to the United States which closed its borders to refugees, Jews became expendable.  In the inevitable wars of expansion that followed, Jews were enslaved by the various powers, using their labor for the benefit of their militaries.  Decimated by hunger, disease, and overwork, the Jewish population of Europe dwindled to a microcosm of its previous self.  The remainder of Europe’s Jews attempted to enter France or flee the continent.  Except for the land of Napoleon, there was not a safe place in Europe to live as a Jew.

So, in retrospect, perhaps it was   better for Napoleon to have been defeated at Waterloo.  Yet the alternative futures are fascinating, Ne serait-il pas?

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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Why Do We Care So Much? May 22, 2015

Since Freddie Gray’s death on April 12, Baltimore has been churning.  We witnessed the first civil insurrection since the 1968 riots.  Since Freddie Gray died while in the custody of Baltimore Police, 39 people have been murdered, almost all in drug killings.  During the same time period, arrests have gone done by half compared to this time last year.  The police in the Western District, the area that contains Sandtown-Winchester, are engaging in a Baltimore version of an “Italian strike,” meaning they show up for work but don’t respond to calls in a timely manner.  Police complain that neighborhood residents surround them and record everything they do, not allowing them to do their jobs.  Residents claim the police cannot be trusted to do their job without proper oversight.  What this indicates is that trust between police and residents in the Western District has completely broken down.  The City’s political leadership has neither a vision nor a comprehensive plan to deal with the Westside.  What happens if the six police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death are not convicted?  What happens if the prosecutors lose the case?  City authorities do not have a plan to deal with the riots that will inevitably follow.

So, dear friends, my question is, “Why do we care so much?”  None of us live on the Westside or anywhere near the Westside. Few of us were seriously impacted by the riots and the ensuing destruction. My neighbor’s athletic shoe store was looted.  He is heartbroken but will recover due to having insurance coverage.  Why do we care so much about what happens in Baltimore City?

Baltimore is our home.  Many of us were born and raised in the City and are the product of City schools.  We work in the City and depend upon it for our livelihoods.  Baltimore is the economic and cultural center around which we revolve.  We understand that without a healthy city, all of us will suffer.  The name of our synagogue is Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City.  We have been located in the City of Baltimore for 162 years and have no plans to leave.  We, as Jews, have a vested stake in a vigorous and strong Baltimore.

I think, however, that there is even more to this answer than that.  Tomorrow night we join with Jews around the world as we begin our celebration of Shavuot, when we mark Mattan HaTorah, the giving of Torah to the Jewish people. God chose what had been an insignificant people and gave us the Torah. “On the first day of Shavuot, we read in Exodus 19 that God declares to the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai: “If you obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples…. you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that God has spoken we will do.’”

To this very day, before reading the Torah, we bless God “who chose us from among all the nations.”  God entered into a brit, a covenant with us which, no matter how much we violate it, is eternal and indestructible.  “Chosenness is not about merit; it is about responsibility. Jews live with the ever-present and inescapable discomfort caused by the conscience of a people expected by God – or by whatever inner force drives us – to be at the creative and moral vanguard of humankind (Aron Hirt-Mannheimer, 10 Minutes of Torah, May 22, 2015).”  Dear friends, the reason we care so much about our City is because the City, and all who live in it, are our responsibility.  While we cannot make life better for each individual, we must ceaselessly work for systemic change, to break the cycle of poverty, of drug use, of joblessness, and especially of hopelessness.  That is our obligation as Jewish human beings.  To be Jewish is to care, and to act, in a positive manner, upon our feelings.  Chosenness yields no special privileges, only responsibility.  We continually live with the guilt that we could do more.

As part of the BUILD clergy, I met yesterday with the team of US attorneys from the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Division.  This team from the Civil Rights Division is investigating the Baltimore Police Department for misconduct, for the systematic violation of citizens’ Constitutional rights.  They will look at the department’s training, hiring, promotion, equipment and leadership structure.  They will interview hundreds of citizens in Baltimore as well as hundreds of police and, in the next year to two years, make recommendations on the reform of the Baltimore Police Department.  We heard yesterday from the residents of Sandtown that police abuses are neither black nor white.  Officers of both races engage in mistreatment of residents.  These Department of Justice attorneys want to hear directly from those who have personally experienced mistreatment by police.  If you know of anyone who has, please let me know and I will give you the necessary contact information.

Changing the culture of the Baltimore Police Department is crucial, but it is only the first step.  The residents of Sandtown, Oliver, Cherry Hill, Park Heights, and other city neighborhoods need jobs and the opportunity to improve their lives.   Delegate Dr. Dan Morheim wrote in today’s Baltimore Sun that a necessary ingredient for peace in our cities is reform of our drug laws.  We need to treat drug addiction not as a crime, but as a disease.  We need to do away with mandatory drug sentencing for users and get them into drug treatment.  While we will never completely do away with drug abuse, by reforming the system we can make a huge difference.

That is the key- making a difference.  As Jews, our obligation is to leave the world better than we found it.  Let us work together to make Baltimore a healthier and stronger city.  This is what God requires of us.

Amen- Shabbat shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach

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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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