Happy Purim!

Purim is known as the holiday of nes nistar– the hidden miracle.  Unlike the plagues and the splitting of the sea throughout Pesach, or the smoke and fire at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, or the oil during Chanukah, God’s miraculous presence is not experienced during Purim.  In fact, God is not mentioned even once in Megilot Esther– the scroll that we read during the holiday.  This is not to suggest that the Purim story is not miraculous.  Rather, I believe that the Purim story is a wonderful reminder that miracles sometimes come at the hands of ordinary human beings like Mordecai, and Esther, and you, and me.

At the end of the megillah, a commandment is given to us regarding the observance of Purim.  I am referring to the obligation of Mishloach Manot- to give gifts of food to at least one person.  The tradition is that one should give these gifts not only to one’s friends, but also to those who are new in the community, those who would experience some uplift from receiving such a gift, and those who are needy.  To that end, our Second Helpings volunteers have been alarmed by the scarcity of food supplies at our receiving agencies.  Though Sinai participation is “up” in Second Helpings, the need in our Sandy Springs community is escalating anew.  Please go to our website to learn more about Second Helpings (templesinaiatlanta.org) and drop me an email if you would like to volunteer (blevenberg@templesinaiatlanta.org).

Purim is certainly a joyful holiday.  But hidden amongst the backdrop of the levity observed through carnivals – ours is Sunday morning — and Adult Spiels- ours is Sunday night- is the reminder that the future can sometimes depend on the presence or absence of a single gesture.  By refusing to bow down to Haman, Mordecai unknowingly put the entire Jewish community in danger.  At the same time, when King Ahashverosh allows Esther to come into his presence by raising his scepter, it is the first step towards the rescue of the community.  By taking one small step ourselves during Purim, by learning more about Second Helpings and the mitzvah of Mishloach Manot, we, too, participate in the future of our community.

We are a Kehillah Kadosha- a holy community.  This is how we help.  This is how we give.  This is how we pray, this is how we heal, and this is indeed how we live.  Chag Purim Samayach.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 7:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Is It Worth The Time?

A primary topic of conversation throughout these last few weeks has centered around toys.  My wife and I are in the process of teaching my daughter that, just because one walks into Target or Kroger or the mall does not mean that one immediately receives a toy.  We are trying to teach her not only to be patient but to be grateful for what she has.  And so Rebecca and I strategize how to be proactive, we discuss how we will react when our strategy fails, and we regroup the first chance we get to evaluate.

I believe the lesson is difficult to teach, at least for me, for one very important reason: I have not learned its value.  I have found myself, over the last few years, justifying my own “toy” purchases by explaining that they are tools needed for work.  An iphone?  Absolutely.  A car charger that also transmits music on a radio frequency?  Needed.  A keurig coffee maker on my desk at work?  How on earth could I function without it!

I know that I am not alone: technology people like myself love technology, and the tech industry is driven by innovation and planned obsolescence.  New products are released at a dizzying pace; new versions of existing tools and gadgets appear just a few short months after the previous model.  As technology increasingly orients itself around the consumer, the focus turns to wants over needs (“Yeah, my iPhone works fine, but have you seen the one that just came out?”).

The rapid pace of change that makes technology so exciting  to me (and frustrating to many others) is also evident in other areas as well.  We are a culture of the quick fix.  We prize hard work and due diligence but those often come secondary to a hard deadline.  We turn over projects faster than ever, we are more reachable and connected than ever in our history, we have even learned to outsource to ensure that 24 potential workable hours are, in fact, hours filled with work.

None of this to me is a bad thing.  Okay, the lack of boundaries is challenging, I’ll give you that one.  But the problem isn’t the quick pace that governs much of our lives.  The problem is the frustration that ensues when the quick pace, or quick fix, does not apply to EVERY FACET of our lives.  We look for calm and decompression at the end of a day (or, sometimes, in the middle of one!) and get upset if we don’t attain it during the course of a half-hour show which, by the way, we use DVRs or Tivos to zip through the commercials so that a 30 minute show is 22 minutes; 30 minutes of zoning out is reduced to 22 minutes.  The same can be applied to waiting at the doctor or in the carpool line with kids; to the checkout line at the supermarket or sitting in traffic.

And I have lately found that frustration creeping into our spiritual lives as well.  A Sinai member a few weeks ago expressed disappointment that she did not experience that “ah-ha” moment at every service.  When it was not present, she felt a tremendous let-down which, she said, ruins her night.

Some things are worth waiting for, are worth seeking out.  And while some of us might buy the iPad, knowing full well that we will purchase the second generation only a few months later, we also must learn that the same ease with which we part with our hard-earned dollar cannot be applied to things that hold true meaning.  We had to learn to be a parent (and are still learning how to do so!).  We had to learn how to be a good spouse, a good friend.  We had to invest the time.  We had to realize that we was willing to trade the quick fix for lasting growth.

What in your life is worth the time?

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Are We There Yet?

“Are we there yet?”

We’ve all experienced a road trip adventure.  My definition of a road trip is a car ride that lasts at least 10 hours.  For a vacation to qualify as a road trip, the drive has to be long enough to question the wisdom of doing it in one day.  And it has to have at least one restroom stop.  And preferably two or three fast-food stops.

On a road trip, there is a driver and passengers.  The driver knows where we are and how much longer the trip is going to take.  The passengers, particularly those in the backseat, lack most of the navigational information and are at the mercy of the driver.  In our household, the driver also gets to control the music.  Driving comes with much responsibility.

Other differences are just as profound between the driver and backseat passengers.  The passengers don’t have the same view as the driver, they can’t see the gauges, they can’t see the iPhone map.  Inevitably, this leads to several oft-repeated questions.  Are we there yet?  How much longer?  Where are we?  Are we going to get something to eat soon?

One may think that answering these questions would be sufficient, but it doesn’t work.  The car seems to be a catalyst for short-term memory loss, because no one can recall any answers fifteen minutes later.  What the passengers are actually looking for is a constant stream of updates- the automotive equivalent of the Headline News ticker.

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

I imagine that many of us could ask the same question about our Jewish identity.  Have I arrived?  Is this all it is?  Is there more?  What are my beliefs?  When am I going to know?  The challenge is to understand that, when exploring religion, we are each simultaneously the driver and passenger, we have the map (Torah) and the vehicle (our own sense of wonder and questions).

I think it’s time that we stop looking for someone else to drive.

Or, to quote from Incubus:

Sometimes, I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And I can’t help but ask myself how much I let the fear
Take the wheel and steer
It’s driven me before
And it seems to have a vague, haunting mass appeal
But lately I’m beginning to find that I
Should be the one behind the wheel.

Are we there yet?  Only we can answer that question.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jewish Disability Awareness Month

Temple Sinai observed Jewish Disability Awareness Month tonight at our Shabbat service.  In addition to having a wonderful service, we welcomed a very special speaker- Evan Wertheim from Chimes, Israel.  Check out the service and his very special sermon, “People with Disabilities Can Reach the Highest Levels.”

Isaiah 56:7: God said, “My House Shall Be A House Of Prayer For All Peoples.”


Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 4:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Do You Have A Favorite Story?

I love the story of how two Stanford graduate students spend endless nights in their dorm room creating a website where you could search the internet in an unprecedented way.  While the site that they created had an odd address, google.com changed how we find, catalogue, and use information.

I love the story about how Apple Computer started with two people in a Silicon Valley garage and eight years later changed the world of computing forever with the original Macintosh.

I love the story of how the governor of a small state became president of the United States with a campaign driven by three simple themes: change versus more of the same; It’s the economy, stupid; and Don’t forget health care.

I love the story of how a few guys, sitting in their college dorm room late at night trying to figure out a way to meet girls, created a social networking phenomenon.  I learn bout more lifecycle events- marriages, divorce, new jobs, new moves, new pregnancies, new births- from facebook in any given week than I do from all the hours of meeting and greeting before and after Shabbat services.

And I love our story, the Temple Sinai story.  In the late 1960s, a handful of people wanted a congregation where they could practice Reform Judaism and still have their children enjoy the lifecycle rituals traditionally abandoned by the Reform movement in the decades preceding.  In 1968, ten families signed a charter and, a few months later, assembled 200 friends and family members to create Temple Sinai.

Originally capped, Temple Sinai started out as a small congregation whose membership would not exceed 250 families.  Over the course of time, that number eased up to 400, then 550, and then 625.  In 1998 the congregation voted to lift the cap and open membership.  Over the next 12 years, Temple Sinai doubled in size, with a membership hovering at 1,250 families, or close to 5,000 individuals.

Though the growth itself is a nice story, my favorite part of the story is the byproduct of the swiftness of the membership growth: we are now a large congregation, with the resources and staff and programming to support a large membership, while still feeling more comfortable as a small congregation, where members take the time to get to know each other, where visitors will be welcomed with a smile.

We are a large metropolis that doesn’t know how to behave like anything other than a small town.

Temple Sinai truly is a special place: a place where people come to see old friends and make new ones; a place where worship and learning are fun and engaging and spiritual and uplifting.  Temple Sinai is a place of stories: we tell our communal story and we listen to each others stories.

Do you have a story to tell?

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 12:58 pm  Comments (1)  

Views of Jewish History

Funny story: in the 1800s, two different people published books by the same title and on the same subject.  Heinrich Graetz and Salo Baron each published a multi-volume encyclopedia on the History of the Jewish People.  Their texts were nearly identical in length and writing style, and each set discussed the same events.  The difference, however, could not be more pronounced: Graetz took a lachrymose view of Jewish history while Baron did not.

Graetz’s encyclopedia highlighted events of tragedy for the Jewish people; his thesis, essentially, pointing that our saga was a negative one in which others are often out to get us.  These tragic moments are interrupted, occasionally, by moments of calm and brilliance.  Baron’s view was the opposite- that the Jewish experience was an altogether positive one with occasional negative events dotting the historical landscape.

Or, to illustrate the argument with a question I recently asked my daughter: is the zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

I have paid special attention lately to how we as a people today view our situation.  I was able to listen while our Artist In Residence spoke about shining a light through the darkness of history and I managed to overhear another teacher mention the Holocaust as “a tragedy that we have had no choice but to move on from, to not only survive but to come back even stronger and more united as a people.”  I’m not so sure I agree with the facts in the second statement, but I agree with the principle: we have had to rebound and to assimilate tragic events into the complexity of the Jewish experience.

In the end, it goes well beyond whether one is an optimist or a pessimist.  Religious affiliation, theological expression, belief and practice are too important to try to restrict to one side or the other.  I can’t imagine going through life blind to the negative historical events, or even the negative contemporary exchanges, that cast a shadow over the Jewish experience.  But I also cannot accept a view of Jewish history in which there are rare moments of negativity when so much of what has happened to us is positive.

Reality is somewhere in between.  And the issue is complex and, dare I say it, fun to ponder.

By the way, may 4 and a half year old answered my zebra question with the following answer: maybe God used black and white striped paint.

She clearly takes after her mother.

Shabbat Shalom.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)  

Not All Jewish Heroes are Jewish

I have been asked quite a bit lately about interfaith marriage.  I guess this most recent round of questions came about after an invitation I accepted to teach a program at Kennesaw State’s Hillel, where I was able to engage in a dialogue with six or seven students about their thoughts on the the topic.  I had prepared a text study (which fell flat) that would unpack some of the complexities around the issue but they really wanted a frank and honest assessment of the reasons why to officiate and why to decline officiation at interfaith weddings.

My own journey on this matter was not complex.  At one point in my rabbinical studies I had been a staunch opponent of interfaith officiation, declaring that my job was to leverage my authority within the Jewish people to sanctify a marriage.  I would hold no authority in the eyes of the non-Jewish partner and therefore could not do the wedding. I know, I know- but it was my policy.

I had the great joy of working at The Valley Temple, a synagogue in Cincinnati, during my final years in school.  What I experienced at Valley changed my own thoughts on the issue, as the congregation was comprised of about 40% interfaith families.  Over my two-year internship I met with the congregants and I learned their stories.  I listened when they told me, over and over again, that the rabbi of the congregation agreeing to officiate at their wedding ceremony saved them to Judaism.  For many of them, they had already approached one or more rabbis who declined to participate; the Jewish partner felt daunted and often upset.  When Rabbi Greenberg agreed to officiate, a good number of the people with whom I spoke immediately joined the congregation.  And they have subsequently become active members, Jewishly nurturing their children within the walls of the institution that nurtured them in a time of transition.

Staring at the faces of the success stories, I could no longer deny that the issue was far more complex than I had assumed.

I studied the arguments in favor and the arguments against, seeing validity in the arguments of both sides, and came to one conclusion near the end of my studies: this issue is the most important issue of modern Judaism.  And while my own position was malleable, I adopted the policy that, when ordained a rabbi, I would mirror the policy of my senior rabbi.  I would not allow my role in the congregation to create conflict for my supervisor.

Boy am I glad that Rabbi Segal officiates at interfaith weddings.  Throughout my four years at Temple Sinai I have been present for nearly three dozen interfaith weddings, many of whom have joined the congregation.  I imagine that some of the non-Jewish partners will convert but many will not.

And I learned another important lesson: not all Jewish heroes are Jewish.  Non-Jewish parents who sacrifice their own religious identity to raise Jewish children are most certainly heroes.  Non-Jewish parents who sit patiently while they observe and absorb another faith’s traditions, remaining steadfast and supportive in front of the kids are most certainly heroes.  The sacrifice, the challenge- Judaism owes them a debt of gratitude.

On March 12 Temple Sinai will invite non-Jewish parents who are raising Jewish children to the bima for a blessing of thanksgiving.  We will dedicate a service to their choice.  We will affirm their commitment.

Not all superheroes wear a mask.  Sometimes they just offer a hug.

Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 11:05 pm  Comments (1)