Breakfast with the German Ambassador

Three and a half years ago, when I started at Temple Sinai, I was invited to become involved with the American Jewish Committee and their young adult chapter, Access.  I attended one event and fount it to be lovely; it was a Sukkot program and I awkwardly met thirty or so people before heading home early, a swirl of names in my head.

Over the next three months I had no contact, officially, with the AJC, but did regularly bump into the people I met that evening.  It was inspiring to know that the Access group members were involved- not just with AJC work but all around the Jewish community.  And they were easy to spot: remember, I came from Cincinnati, where the median age of participants in the Jewish community was 65.  So being in Atlanta and seeing people of all ages participating (and I am not slamming 65 year olds; I’m just saying…) was delightfully refreshing.

In March, 2007, I received a call that someone at the AJC felt that I would be a good Steering Committee member.  This call was not expected but very much appreciated; in my time as a rabbi I had not been invited into a communal leadership position.  I accepted, with the caveat that my participation may be limited my first year but that I would step up each subsequent year of my involvement.

I am now in my second term as a Steering Committee member and love my involvement with the AJC.  I have been able to sit on Film Festival selection committees, attended and spoken at lunch programs honoring giants in the Jewish and secular world of Atlanta, and have been able to have private meals with visiting dignitaries.  I have participated in interfaith programming unique to the mission of the AJC and have met other Jewish leaders and soon-to-be leaders.  My involvement has led to many weddings and increased membership at Temple Sinai and I can honestly say that I am a more fulfilled rabbi due to my involvement with the AJC.

This morning I was one of 20 people sitting around a table having a private audience with the German Ambassador to the United States.  In Atlanta for meetings and a few speaking engagements, he held a conversation with leaders of the AJC, taking our questions and offering candid answers on the role that Germany plays on the international stage and our role as lay leaders in the political process.  It was not always an easy conversation, but it was meaningful and inspiring.

I am proud of my involvement with the AJC, though I am elated at the work of this incredible organization.  I highly encourage you to check out their website (ajc.org) and get involved with one of their initiatives.   You will not be sorry.

Published in: on January 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hope For Haiti Now

Stranded- a phenomenal song, and one I shared this morning with the 6th graders at Temple Sinai.

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Listening to My Pope

I’ve been struggling with blogging for some time.  Until this year, I did not read with any regularity a blog, believing them to be largely self-serving or, even worse, distributors of incorrect information.  And so it was with skepticism that I listened to a friend who challenged me to blog… and encouraged me to discover the voice of my blog.

I turned to Tools for Shuls, a great blog that discusses on a regular basis the role of rabbis in a technological world.  I read with fascination the posts- in fact, I read them as articles before even connecting them to Rabbi Herring’s blog.  Could I write about technology?  Could I discuss the texts I am reading or the articles I’ve explored or the sermons with which I am struggling?  I did not— and still do not— have the answer to these questions.

I also looked to a friend whose blog I read with regularity.  He posted music he was listening to, he posted his thoughts about the world, he posted about his process toward conversion to Judaism.  I loved that blog, and have added it to my blogroll on the right column.  His level of introspection was touching and my hope is that my blog will be as sensitive and deep; less on observations and more about how I see the world.

I also reviewed texts which suggested that a CEO posting to a blog should direct people to the company.  In my case, though not a CEO, my blog should (in theory) be another tool of communication for Temple Sinai Atlanta- a way to direct people to the website, or to the congregation.  It could highlight upcoming activities and encourage people to take advantage of services offered through the congregation.  It sounds right, but somehow seemed insincere to use each post as a “commercial” for an upcoming program or event.

But today my answer came.  And the direction from my blog came from a most unlikely source: the Pope.

On Saturday, Pope Benedict challenged priests around the world to increase their digital footprint.  He charged them: go forth and blog.

“The spread of multimedia communications and its rich ‘menu of options’ might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web,” but priests are “challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources,” he said.  “However,” he added, “priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ.”

As I continue to find my own voice, whether these posts reflect introspection or simply my take on a world or local event, or whether I highlight that for which I am most proud in my congregation, or in my family, I will at least stay true to me.

And it’s always good to be one step ahead of the Vatican.

The full article can be found here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100123/ap_on_re_eu/eu_pope_cyberpriests

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dreams

In the midst of elections and Haiti and concerts extolling hope for Haiti and news about the economy, I have been uncharacteristically focused on one thing: Conan O’Brien.  I would click “refresh” on my entertainment news regularly, I have been reading secondary and tertiary sources for updates on the conflict between Conan and NBC, who was fully enabled by Jay Leno.

I don’t know Jay Leno- I’ve never been a fan.  Mr. Nice Guy he was until he conned and manipulated his way past David Letterman in the early 90s.  I imagine I know exactly who Jay Leno really is and I will enjoy NOT watching his show.

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why I was drawn so closely to this story.  I was a fan of Conan, but I did not watch his show with any consistency.  I just assumed that I was looking for a little distraction from the news that been on the front pages.  But then it hit me, and I have now figured out why I have been so caught up with this story:

It is sad to watch Conan lose his dream.

Dreams are treasures; we all have them and, sadly, most of us discard them when we need to grow up.  I would argue that for many of us the loss of our dreams comes gradually, trading a greater vision or purpose for ourselves for the contentment of a career, the illusion of security, one step at a time.  It starts with the dangerous feeling of contentment and is hard to ever move beyond.

Which is why many of us are so fascinated when others around us actually accomplish their dreams, and why we can’t turn away in the instances where people pay a price for their success.  Conan dreamed of doing nothing besides The Tonight Show.  He paid his dues, he worked hard, and he had the talent to do it.  And for seven months, he was happy- and so were we.

How sad, then, that NBC, with the partnership and consent of Jay Leno, engaged in an action that would remove his joy and, subsequently, remove Conan from our airwaves (at last for now).

I am writing this as I watch Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs with my daughter.  She sees this as a story of an inventor who had dreams and saw them come true.  How wonderful that she will go to sleep tonight reflecting on this story instead of the harshness of the world in which we live.  And how much more my challenge to keep her dreaming.

Conan, I wish you well, and I thank you for allowing us all to fulfill our dreams vicariously through you… if only for a short while.

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  

My First Canadian

It was a long Sunday and I was about to go and visit the mother of a congregant and friend who had just been admitted to Hospice a few weeks earlier.  The call came in that I should come quickly- there was not much time left.

I first checked in with the Sinai member in the lobby, where he greeted me and we spent some time in a side room.  I sat with him while he told me about his mother- how strong she is, how funny she is.  She did not have an easy life, but she laughed often and was supported by a loving family.

We then walked into Barbara’s room.  I only spend a half-hour with her, but those thirty minutes were powerful.  She had lost the ability to control her speech- sometimes she made sounds, sometimes she began to speak but recoiled at forgetting what she was about to say.  I was able to sit with Earl while he interacted with his mother, and I was able to grasp Barbara’s hand and to listen closely for verbal or non-verbal cues that would help give me direction.

As I was about to leave her room, she motioned for me to move closer.  As I leaned in, with Earl standing at my side, she spoke her final words: take care of my kids.

There are moments when I feel up to this job- singing songs with kids, working on a program, offering guidance to a couple about to be married or offering words of comfort after someone has died.

Take care of my kids.

Then there are moments when I am wowed by the sheer gravity of what I do, of how I spend my days.  Being present for people.  Listening.  Helping.  Sometimes offering guidance, sometimes offering the warmth of embrace.

Take care of my kids.

Barbara passed away soon after our meeting.  It was not a sad death, more a release.  And Earl and his family chose to mourn her in a very fitting way: in the form of a celebration of her life.  I have just returned from her memorial service, where it was almost like a roast of Barbara.  What comfort there is in celebration. At the end of the short service, her loved ones all raised a glass and drank Barbara’s favorite drink- Canadian Club.  And, in tribute to Barbara’s life, I toasted a l’chayim as well.  My first sip of Canadian Club.

May all of our lives be worthy of celebration.  May all of our loved ones greet our passing with the knowledge that we cared for them, that we wish them well, that they mattered to us.  I learned from Barbara the gift that can come from closure.  I learned from Earl what it means to be a good son.

Take care of my kids.  Barbara, though you are not with us in body anymore, I fully realize that you will still take care of your kids throughout their lifetime.

Barbara Wasserman.  May her memory be a blessing.

Amen.

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm  Comments (4)  

Southern Man

I admit that I had more learning to do than I first anticipated to find success in the south.  Moving to Atlanta from Ohio, I had actually only lived in the north- Ohio, New York, New Jersey.  I spent summers in Indiana and vacationed, occasionally, to Washington DC.  My student pulpit was in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  While not the north, it is considered by northern transplants to be a suburb of DC.  Granted, it takes between 45 minutes and hour to get back and forth.  Southerners consider Fredericksburg to be one of the northernmost cities punished in the Great War of Northern Aggression.

That was another one I had to get used to- I grew up learning about the Civil War, often wondering aloud what was so civil about that particular war.  I took great personal pride when George Carlin came up with a routine about that very issue.  Moving to the south, though, the war is clearly the War of Northern Aggression.  I’ve been to Stone Mountain.  I’ve been in attendance when the music blares and the people rise to their feet, calling out that “The South Will Rise Again!”  In those moments, I feel like quite the northerner.

On the eve of our move south, a member of The Valley Temple, the congregation I was priveleged to serve as an intern, taught me how to say “you” in the south- “y’all.”  And the plural?  “All y’all.”

Yes, I have dozens of fish-out-of-water stories.  Cheese grits.  Front patios on the houses.  Sweet tea.  And while each story illustrates a humorous disconnect, there is one area in which I am quite proud of my new southern identity: MLK, his life and his legacy.

Growing up, I learned about the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.  I learned of his sacrifice and became familiar with his most famous speeches.  I was able to identity with his struggle and I could not understand why others didn’t.  But it wasn’t until moving to Atlanta that I gained a newfound appreciation for the man, his fight, and his legacy.

Much has been written about that time when a movement came into being whose goal was to free African Americans from discrimination and racism.  Though African-Americans were the prime architects of this movement that was founded on religion and faith and hope, the battle for freedom would have taken longer, and been more torturous, if not for the participation of people who were not black and who put their lives on the line to help African Americans.  No black figure of the period received as much allegiance from people sympathetic to civil rights as did MLK, jr.  And no segment of the white community provided as much and as consistent support for King as did the Jewish community.

Jewish support for King and for civil rights is fairly widely known.  It is a story worth telling fully.  But little has been discussed about King’s support for issues that almost exclusively concerned the Jewish community, such as easing discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union and assuring the safety and security of the State of Israel.  He spoke out against anti-Semitism in the US, especially when that virus erupted among blacks.  Though his most public pronouncements was almost wholly consumed, as it should have been, with the fight for African Americans to secure full human rights in this country, the fact is that was a two-way street between King and the Jewish community.  He did what he could for the Jewish people within the limits of his role as an advocate for his own people, and within the limits of his own political and moral power.  He understood that a people who fought for their rights were only as honorable as was their concern for the rights of all people.

We should be proud of our participation in the civil rights struggle.  We should hold that up as an inspiration to all generations, for it is emblematic of our mandate for Tikkun Olam, the reparation of the world.

But King’s reciprocation shows his full humanity and, hopefully, inspires us.  By reciprocating, he risked chastisement from within his own community, especially from the growing Black Power movement, with its shadings of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.  His empathy and outspokenness show the bravery of his conscience, and the reality of his dream.  For the dream was not Dr. King’s alone- it was as rooted in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam as it was in the Baptist vineyards where Dr. King preached and prayed, and where he did his work for God in the terrible yet victorious battlefields of Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham.  And most sadly, of course, in Memphis, where 42 years ago an assassin succeeded in killing a man but failed to extinguish a dream.  For the last 40 years, it has been up to us to carry on the legacy of Dr. King.  For the last 42 years it has been up to us to build that bridge, to travel up that mountain.  For the last 42 years, it has been up to us to repair the world for the terrible deed done against this man who had struggled so hard, as had the prophet Amos, for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

At Temple Sinai this past weekend, we hosted our friends from Providence Missionary Baptist Church.  We have long had a partnership with the church and every year on the Shabbat preceding MLK Day our two choirs and senior clergy members share the bima.  It was a night filled with energy and spirit and cooperation and I just loved it.  The next morning, I led services and included a mention of the weekend.  Instead of singing Mi Chamocha, we sang a Negro Spiritual- Oh Freedom. Check it out: http://templesinaiatlanta.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=620&Itemid=352.

There are moments where I am so proud of the decisions I have made.  This weekend filled me with such joy over coming to Atlanta.  I know that I am a better person- and a better rabbi- for having done so.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 7:01 am  Comments (2)  

Perspective

Admittedly, it was not my best night.  I was already running late, which was the story of the entire day yesterday.  Not too late, mind you- just enough lateness to make sure that I would not have time to use the restroom between meetings.  Which meant that I was running late and feeling a bit… uncomfortable.

So, I’m running late, trying to get to a congregant’s house to lead a mourner’s service.  And of course I was stuck in traffic, sitting on hold with customer service, and getting frustrated that I would start the service- you guessed it- just a few minutes late.  Which meant that I would be late returning to the synagogue to teach my class last night.  Which means that I will have to wait at least two and a half hours to go to the restroom.  I was agitated, I was upset, and my anxiety was at a high.

I think what upset me the most was feeling out of control.  Here, others were depending upon me and I would be letting them down, through no direct fault of my own.  I take comfort in the controls I set up during the day- I rely upon the extra padding of a few minutes here and there to keep me calm.  And most days I can maintain the illusion that I actually am in control of my schedule and, therefore, my general disposition.

So while I was feeling upset and angry and probably driving a bit more aggressively than I should have been, my customer service call dropped.  And after cursing, I turned on the radio.  Just in time to pick up the middle of a story:

A 7.0 earthquake in Haiti.  Hundreds of thousands dead.  Bodies piling up.  Building falling down.  A nation in turmoil.

My heart sank.  I realized at that moment how wrapped up in the little things I had allowed myself to become.  I realized how pedantic my illusion of control really was.  Suddenly, my perspective shifted.  And just as suddenly, I began to tear.

It is a shame that it occasionally takes a catastrophe for us to understand what my senior rabbi has taught for several years now: if it’s not a matter of life and death… it just isn’t a matter of life and death.

My prayers go out to the people of Haiti, and to all of us who rush to their aid.

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 4:28 pm  Comments (1)  

More Than Meets The Eye

I was once, and have aspirations to be again, a movie buff.  I recall that a personal high was the weekend before my daughter (now 4.5 years old) was born, I had finally seen every single movie on the shelves of my neighborhood Blockbuster.  Yep, every one.  Including the Community Service videos, which means that I know how to give myself a breast cancer exam and am well versed in strategies to say “no” to crack.

Since her birth, my movie watching went down-hill.  I attribute it to two factors: the first, that it became increasingly difficult to carve out two-hours or so to watch a movie, with most films being interrupted several times by a crying child or a phone call or any number of other annoyances.  And the second is that, in a post-child world, I found that my attention span is now restricted to 20-30 minute bursts of attentiveness.  It has become difficult to sit still and focus on movies.

I’ve gotten better over the years and did not have a similar backslide when my son was born 8 months ago.  I can sit through a good movie now and, while at times a bit antsy, I am now able to sit down to watch movies late at night without interruption.

The current film, thanks to the good folks at Netflix, is the second Transformers movie, The Rise of the Fallen.  While not a very good movie, I was struck by an exchange of dialogue early in the film.  Optimus Prime is asking for help from the main human character in a fight against the Decepticons.  The human, frustrated, argues- “It’s not my fight.  It’s not my war.  I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

This got me thinking: how do we decide what causes merit our attention and action?  With so many valid moral and ethical causes with which to get involved, or to which we could contribute financial support, I wonder how we decide what our issues will be and what issues will be left to others.

It is impossible to be sincerely active in every cause that comes across our plates.  I remember in college there those on my campus referred to as “Causeheads”- people who jumped on the bandwagon of whichever cause was protesting that week or whichever cause was on the front page of the NY Times.  These people did not receive much respect or validation when they stand on their soapbox and shed tears each week.  They were, in fact, held in only slightly higher regard than the “Mactavist”, the person who got involved in a cause to impress a potential sexual partner.

I receive in my email inbox two or three “alerts” each week (and two or three a day through Facebook), asking for my involvement and appealing to my sense of morality and fairness.  And while I read each one carefully, I classify them in the following manner: Level 1- issues of an immediate concern with which I am already passionate toward; Level 2- issues of an immediate concern with which I have had little to no previous involvement and where my participation is not likely to make much of an impact; and Level 3- issues that I have no desire to be involved with, even though I agree in spirit with the call to action. Any cause in Level 3 gets an immediate delete, and most in the Level 2 category eventually find a similar fate.

I wish I felt more guilty about deleting these messages.

Whatever fights we have chosen to be ours, whichever wars we have offered our time and finances and hearts to fight, we should constantly do an emotional check.  Are we involved the way we need to be?  Do we still feel compelled by the cause or are we now participating out of a sense of obligation or habit?

As we move through 2010, there will no doubt be many areas and issues with which we could get involved.  May we know who or what we are fighting, how we are fighting, and whether the fight is still ours.  And if the answer to any of these questions leaves us wanting, may we re-examine our priorities and devote ourselves to areas that can fill us with passion.

Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 2:12 am  Comments (1)  

It’s All In The Name

This Shabbat, Jews around the world will read the start of the book of Shemot, or Exodus.  Contained in this portion of scripture is the first mention of a person named “Moses.”  We are taught that Moses received his name because Pharaoh’s daughter pulled him from the waters, Moses being the translation of “pulled from the waters.”

We learn, however, that “M’s’s” is an Egyptian name and means, effectively, “fatherless.”  That is to say when Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in a basket floating on the Nile, she names the child, “I don’t know who the father is.”  Ramses is named “Son of Ra” and Tutmoses is “Son of Tut”.  Moses, then is the “Son of- well, gosh, we just kind of found him”.

So that would mean that Moses grows up in the Egyptian court being constantly reminded of his bizarre origins, the adopted grandson of Pharaoh through his (presumably unmarried) daughter.  No wonder he decides to explore his origins.

And we should be thankful for his restlessness.

Shabbat Shalom.

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 12:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Soundrack to January

I can tell a great deal about my mood by the music to which I choose to listen.  I have music I play when I need to be inspired, music that serves as background noise, and music that just makes me smile.  I imagine we are all alike in this regard.  What I noticed, however, is that my music can be quite intuitive about my mood, even when I don’t realize it.

My grandfather-in-law passed away this week.  I had thought that I was doing just fine with it- I had moments of sadness but those were quickly tempered and I was able to move on.  Or so I thought.  I realized just a few moments ago that I have had Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” on near repeat since hearing of Papa’s death.  The album is quite, solemn and reflective.  Clearly, though my mind wants to move on, my soul is suggesting a pause.

I have never appreciated the power of music the way that I do now.  I frame important moments with music and remember songs played at key times in my life.  I recall dancing to U2 throughout highschool.  I reflect upon long road trips listening to REM.  I remember dancing to Louis Armstrong at my wedding and I remember the songs, and their order, that my wife and I selected to burn onto a disk to play in the hospital when our first child was born.

As a rabbi, I have come to connect music with a successful- or unsuccessful- spiritual moment.  When the music in the service is good, our prayers are almost uplifted as we sing and sway and, sometimes, hold the hands of the people sitting next to us.  Similarly, when the music is off, the spiritual uplift is stifled and we long for a quick ending to a long service.

This month is a very musical month.  The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) 10th Anniversary Gala was this past week, featuring familiar scores from Jewish films played by the Atlanta Orchestra.  I went with my wife on a date-night- it was inspired and wonderful!  And the venue was packed!  This Friday we have another Rock Shabbat, a Shabbat service with the liturgy being delivered through the use of a full rock band.  The next week (January 15) we will host a black Baptist choir in our congregation for Friday night services, and then just two weeks later we will have Beth Schafer as an Artist In Residence, filling a weekend with song and capping off a month of music.

It makes me smile.  Just thinking about these opportunities makes me smile.  But I’m not ready to silence Bruce just yet.

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment