Reflections from Turkey- Our First Days

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walk into a Hookah bar in Istanbul.  And yet, that is precisely what I experienced this evening.  But I don’t want to give anything away… so here is the backstory.

When I interviewed with Temple Sinai 4 years ago, I asked Rabbi Segal about his passions- to what was he devoting his rabbinate?  How have those passions been prioritized?  How have those interests manifested into action or policy?  And though there were many answers to these questions, one answer was particularly intriguing.  In an effort to continue to build bridges between faiths, Rabbi Segal has become an active participant, and in fact a leader, in an organization known as the World Pilgrims.

He explained to me that the World Pilgrims were based on a philosophy of active engagement and relationship building.  An equal number of Jews, Muslims and Christians, as well as one clergy person from each faith, travel to interesting destinations throughout the world.  What makes this group unique is that each day, every participant is encouraged to sit with and share meals with one person of another faith.  Pilgrims also have two roommates throughout the trip.  The idea is to get to know fellow travelers and to explore sites of religious significance through their eyes and asking for their reflections.  At the same time, each participant discusses his or her story with the group.  Past pilgrimages had been to Berlin, Israel, Cairo, Sarajevo, and other destinations.  Rabbi Segal was preparing to lead his second pilgrimage, to Jerusalem and Jordan.  Needless to say, I was intrigued and inspired.

Fast forward to a few months ago.  Jan Swanson, the head of the organization, gave me a call to see if I would be interested in being the Jewish leader on a Pilgrimage to Turkey.  I was speechless.  After checking with my calendar, and clearing it with both my family and my congregational leadership, I was able to agree to the trip.

Being a leader was initially quite challenging.  I was able to meet with the other two leaders- James Lamkin and Plemon Al-Amin, and we hit it off well.  The issue is that both of these gentleman have been to Turkey and I had not.  Further, I was to do some leg work to set up our admission to the Jewish sites and I was to recruit our Jewish travelers.  Not an easy task, even with the wonderful support I had!

Happily, on Sunday afternoon, 17 travelers boarded the plane and headed for Istanbul.  It is finally here.

The first thing I noticed after my arrival was the weather- it is beautiful here.  Upper 60s, not too sunny- the perfect climate after an 11-hour flight!

During our drive, I was able to interact with Mary Jane, a Reverend in Atlanta who has been interested in going to Turkey but could not believe she was finally here.  She is particularly interested in Ephesus and the role that city played in the foundation of Christianity.  I, too, will look forward to learning more about that.

I was able to reflect upon the ongoing political struggle between Turkey and the EU; Turkey has longed to be admitted to the EU, to be considered part of Europe, but Europe has long considered Turkey to be part of the Middle East.  The architecture is very European- cobble-stone streets, tall buildings, lots of neon.  And the people are definitely more European- tight jeans, scooters, TONS of smoking.  But their skin color is more like our siblings in Israel than in France.  And thus explains the real issue in the debate.  Couple the overt racism with the fact that Turkey is predominately Muslim and one can begin to understand (not necessarily agree with) Europe’s point.

We gathered for dinner after our trip from the airport and I was able to spend some quality time with Taqqee, my roommate for the next few days.  Within moments I began to understand the tenor of the trip, as Taqqee opened up to me about his spiritual journey over the last three years, initiated by his father’s passing and culminating in his divorce.  And he is only 30 years old!

After dinner, two of the Jewish travelers, one of the Muslims, and one of the Christians joined me on a walk around the city center- a dazzling display!  We made our way to a Hookah bar and enjoyed refreshments and some Apple tobacco.  And some truly inspiring (and laughter-inducing) conversation.

I didn’t know how little I actually know.  Reading about Islam in a book is a great way to learn the talking points, but over the last 24 hours I began to understand how our Muslim travelers make decisions about ritual, how they navigate modernity, and how they relate to Jews and Christians.  I have gotten an understanding from my Christian pilgrims about the importance of geography to the foundations of their belief that I could never glean from a book.  And I have begun to understand how hungry others are for an understanding, however basic, of Judaism.

It is by listening to their stories that I can better understand mine.  And the insights I have so far gained into my religious belief and practice are the product of my asking those questions to my new friends.

It is going to be a wonderful and moving few days!

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (1)  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 19

I am going to switch gears for the next 9 days as I blog from my trip to Turkey.

May our physical and emotional journies be blessed. May we go in peace. May the work of our hands and the intention in our hearts bring is fulfillment and joy.

Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 18

Where has this week vanished?

Is it lost forever?

Will I recover anything from it?

The joy of life, the unexpected victory, the realized hope, the task accomplished?

Will I ever be able to banish the memory of pain, the sting of defeat, the heaviness of boredom?

On this day let me keep for a while what must drift away.

On this day let me be free of the burdens that must return.

On this day, Shabbat, abide.

Help me to withdraw for a while from the flight of time.

Contain the retreat of the hours and days from the grasp of frantic life.

Let me learn to pause, if only for this day.

Let me find peace on this day.

Let me enter into a quiet world on this day.

On this day, Shabbat, abide.

Published in: on April 17, 2010 at 1:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 17

If you’ve not done so, and you are on twitter, follow @tweetingtheomer.  Another fantastic way to mark the counting of the Omer.

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 16

Thefollowing were (allegedly) written by Andy Rooney.

I’ve learned… that the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.

I’ve learned…that when you’re in love, it shows.

I’ve learned… hat just one person saying to me, “You’ve made my day!”; makes my day.

I’ve learned…that having a child fall asleep in your arms is one of the most peaceful feelings in the world.

I’ve learned… that being kind is more important than being right.

I’ve learned… that you should never say no to a gift from a child.

I’ve learned… that I can always pray for someone when I don’t have the strength to help them in some other way.

I’ve learned… that no matter how serious your life requires you to be, everyone needs a friend to act goofy with.

I’ve learned… that sometimes all a person needs is a hand to hold and a heart to understand.

I’ve learned… that simple walks with my father around the block on summer nights when I was a child did wonders for me as an adult.

I’ve learned… that life is like a roll of toilet paper ‑ the closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.

I’ve learned… that we should be glad God doesn’t give us everything we ask for.

I’ve learned… that money doesn’t buy class.

I’ve learned… that it’s those small daily happenings that make life so spectacular.

I’ve learned… that under everyone’s hard shell, is someone who wants to be appreciated and loved.

I’ve learned… that God didn’t do it all in one day ‑ What makes me think that I can?

I’ve learned… that to ignore the facts does not change the facts.

I’ve learned… that when you plan to get even with someone, you are only letting that person continue to hurt you.

I’ve learned… that love, not time, heals all wounds.

I’ve learned… that the easiest way for me to grow as a person is to surround myself with people smarter than I am.

I’ve learned… that everyone you meet deserves to be greeted with a smile.

I’ve learned… that there’s nothing sweeter than sleeping with your babies and feeling their breath on your cheek.

I’ve learned… that no one is perfect until you fall in love with them.

I’ve learned… that life is tough, but I’m tougher.

I’ve learned… that opportunities are never lost; someone will take the ones you miss.

I’ve learned… that when you harbor bitterness, happiness will dock elsewhere.

I’ve learned… that I wish I could have told my Mom that I love her one more time before she passed away.

I’ve learned… that one should keep his words both soft and tender, because tomorrow he may have to eat them.

I’ve learned… that a smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.

I’ve learned… that I can’t choose how I feel, but I can choose what I do about it.

I’ve learned… that when your newly born grandchild holds your little finger in his little fist, that you’re hooked for life.

I’ve learned… that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but that all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 15

“May I Suggest” by Susan Werner

May I suggest, may I suggest to you

May I suggest this is the best part of your life.

May I suggest this time is blessed for you

This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright

Just turn your head and you’ll begin to see

The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight

The reasons why, why I suggest to you

Why I suggest this is the best part of your life.

There is a hope that’s been expressed in you

The hope of seven generations maybe more

And this is the faith that they invest in you

Is that you’ll do one better that was done before.

Inside you know, inside you understand

Inside you know what’s yours to finally set right

And I suggest, and I suggest to you

And I suggest this is the best part of your life.

Published in: on April 14, 2010 at 1:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 14

Another- and quite meaningful- way to mark the passage of time.

“Marbles”- author unkown

A few weeks ago, I was shuffling toward the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and the morning paper in the other.  What began as a typical Saturday morning turned into one of those lessons that life seems to hand you from time to time.

Let me tell you about it.

I turned the volume up on my radio in order to listen to a Saturday morning talk show. I heard an older sounding chap with a golden voice.  You know the kind, he sounded like he should be in the broadcasting business himself.

He was talking about “a thousand marbles” to someone named “Tom”.  I was intrigued and sat down to listen to what he had to say.

“Well, Tom, it sure sounds like you’re busy with your job.  I’m sure they pay you well but it’s a shame you have to be away from home and your family so much. Hard to believe a young fellow should have to work sixty or seventy hours a week to make ends meet.  Too bad you missed your daughter’s dance recital.”  He continued, “Let me tell you something Tom, something that has helped me keep a good perspective on my own priorities.”

And that’s when he began to explain his theory of a “thousand marbles.”

“You see, I sat down one day and did a little arithmetic.  The average person lives about seventy‑five years.  I know, some live more and some live less, but on average, folks live about

seventy‑five years.  Now then, I multiplied 75 times 52 and I came up with 3900, which is the number of Saturdays that the average person has in their entire lifetime.

Now stick with me, Tom, I’m getting to the important part.”  It took me until I was fifty‑five years old to think about all this in any detail,” he went on, “and by that time I had lived through over twenty‑eight hundred Saturdays.  I got to thinking that if I lived to be seventy‑five, I only had  about a thousand of them left to enjoy.”

“So I went to a toy store and bought every single marble they had.  I ended up having to visit three toy stores to round‑up 1,000 marbles.  I took them home and put them inside of a large, clear plastic container right here in my workshop next to the radio.  Every Saturday since then, I have taken one marble out and thrown it away.”  “I found that by watching the marbles diminish, I focused more on the really important things in life. There is nothing like watching your time here on this earth run out to help get your  priorities straight.”

“Now let me tell you one last thing before I sign‑off with you and take my lovely wife out for breakfast. This morning, I took the very last marble out of the container.  I figure if I make it until next Saturday then God has blessed me with a little extra time to be with my loved ones… It was nice to talk to you Tom. I hope you spend more time with your loved ones, and I hope to meet you again someday.  Have a good morning!”

You could have heard a pin drop when he finished.  Even the show’s moderator didn’t have anything to say for a few moments.  I guess he gave us all a lot to think about.

I had planned to do some work that morning and then go to the gym.  Instead, I went upstairs and woke my wife up with a kiss.”C’mon honey, I’m taking you and the kids to breakfast.”

“What brought this on?” she asked with a smile.

“Oh, nothing special,” I said.  “It has just been a long time since we spent a Saturday together with the kids.  Hey, can we stop at a toy store while we’re out?   I need to buy some marbles.”

Published in: on April 13, 2010 at 6:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 13

A man whispered, “God, speak to me” and a meadowlark sang. But, the man did not hear.

So the man yelled “God, speak to me!” And, the thunder rolled across the sky. But, the man did not listen.

The man looked around and said, “God let me see you.” And a star shined brightly. But the man did not notice.

And the man shouted, “God show me a miracle!” And a life was born.  But, the man did not know.

So, the man cried out in despair, “Touch me God, and let me know you are here!”  Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man, but the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 12

What, in our lives, is “Beshert”- Meant to Be?

“Mom’s Last Laugh” by Robin Lee Shope

Consumed by my loss, I didn’t notice the hardness of the pew where I sat.  I was at the funeral of my dearest friend ‑ my mother.  She finally had lost her long battle with cancer.  The hurt was so intense; I found it hard to breathe at times.

Always supportive, Mother clapped loudest at my school plays, held a box of tissues while listening to my first heartbreak, comforted me when my father died, encouraged me in college, and prayed for me my entire life.

When Mother’s illness was diagnosed, my sister had a new baby and my brother had recently married his childhood sweetheart, so it fell to me, the twenty‑seven‑year‑old middle child without entanglements, to take care of her.  I counted it as an honor.

“What now, Lord?” I asked, sitting in the church.  My life stretched out before me as an empty abyss.

My brother sat stoically with his face toward the cross while clutching his wife’s hand.  My sister sat slumped against her husband’s shoulder, his arms around her as she cradled their child.  All so deeply grieving, they didn’t seem to notice that I sat alone.

My place had been with our mother, preparing her meals, helping her walk, taking her to the doctor, seeing to her medication, reading the Bible together.  Now she was with the Lord.  My work was finished, and I was alone.

I heard a door open and slam shut at the back of the church.  Quick footsteps hurried along the carpeted floor.  An exasperated young man looked around briefly and then sat next to me.  He folded his hands and placed them on his lap.  His eyes were brimming with tears.  He began to sniffle.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he explained, though no explanation was necessary.

After several eulogies, he leaned over and commented, “Why do they keep calling Mary by the name of ‘Margaret’?”

“Because Margaret was her name.  Never Mary.  No one called her ‘Mary’,” I whispered.  I wondered why this person couldn’t have sat on the other side of the church.  He kept interrupting my grieving with his tears and fidgeting.  Who was this stranger anyway?

“No, that isn’t correct,” he insisted, as several people glanced over at us whispering.  “Her name is Mary, Mary Peters.”

“That isn’t whose funeral this is.”

“Isn’t this the Lutheran church?”

“No, the Lutheran church is across the street.”


“I believe you’re at the wrong funeral, sir.”

The solemn nature of the occasion mixed with the realization of the man’s mistake bubbled up inside me and erupted as laughter.  I cupped my hands over my face, hoping the noise would be interpreted as sobs.

The creaking pew gave me away.  Sharp looks from other mourners only made the situation seem more hilarious.  I peeked at the bewildered, misguided man seated beside me.  He was laughing, too, as he glanced around; deciding it was too late for an uneventful exit.  I imagined Mother laughing.

At the final “Amen,” we darted out a door and into the parking lot.

“I do believe we’ll be the talk of the town,” he smiled.  He said his name was Rick and since he had missed his aunt’s funeral, he asked me to join him for a cup of coffee.

That afternoon began a lifelong journey for me with this man, who attended the wrong funeral, but was in the right place.  A year after our meeting, we were married at a country church where he was the assistant pastor.  This time we both arrived at the same church, right on time.

In my time of sorrow, God gave me laughter.  In place of loneliness, God gave me love.  This past June we celebrated our twenty‑second wedding anniversary.

Whenever anyone asks us how we met, Rick tells them, “Her mother and my Aunt Mary introduced us, and it’s truly a match made in heaven.”

Published in: on April 11, 2010 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Reflections for the Omer- Day 11

A Dvar Torah in Honor of Shabbat

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, starts out with a relatively detailed explanation of the process whereby the sanctuary was dedicated in the desert, with Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons doing most of the work. One would sort of expect that given the nature of the dedication of this house of worship, there should have been a whole lot of pageantry, pomp, and ceremony. There should have been major celebrations of this special event.

But that’s not the Torah portion we read. Instead, just a week after the dedication happened, just days after they finally got the cult into action, tragedy happens instead of celebration. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu each “took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before God and alien fire, which God had not commanded them to do. A fire came forth from God and consumed them. Thus they died at the instance of God.” Moses then says to Aaron: “This is what God meant when God said: ’Through those near to me I will show Myself holy, and assert My authority before all of the people.’” And Aaron was silent.

It was not much of a dedication of a house of worship.  I have three concerns with this passage:

  • · Nadav and Abihu weren’t doing anything all that bad. They were making an offering to God, even if it was the wrong one. Was this so terrible? I would love to see kids making special offerings, of any kind, to God, worshiping, struggling to understand God’s will.
  • · What’s with Moses here? His brother’s sons are consumed by fire and all he has to say to his brother is a lecture on God’s authority? Not a word of compassion, not a word of sorrow or comfort? Aaron and his sons were in fact near to God, and had the right authority. The lecture Moses gives Aaron makes no sense, especially not when you consider these were his nephews.
  • · My biggest challenge is Aaron, whose response is silence. Understanding God’s will is supposed to be a precise science to Aaron and his sons. Surely none of them knew that a simple error of some kind would be fatal. They may have offered a strange fire, but it’s not clear what made it so strange or why it was deadly. How can Aaron be silent at this moment?What could Moses say that would bring comfort to his brother? Maybe, as some commentators say, Moses is saying that God has consumed the sons in a moment when they actually come into very close contact with God, at the moment when they touched the holiness that all of us would want. Maybe that’s some comfort. Moses does what so many of us have done when we see a loved one hurt – we try to bring comfort, and sometimes we fall a bit short. All too often we talk when we shouldn’t and say things that feel like they are insensitive when we are just trying to be supportive and helpful. Maybe Moses is more like us than we would imagine.And Aaron’s silence? Well, what more is there for him to say? His silence is the silent scream of a parent who has watched the most unnatural kind of death, the death of his children, something I have become far too familiar with this year. It is the ineffable pain of recognition of dreams and hopes denied. Silence is just about the only sound he could make. He couldn’t shake his fists and rail against God; he knew better. He couldn’t curse his sons for having been stupid; they were honestly trying to do God’s will. He couldn’t appeal to Moses for fairness: they all knew there were risks in trying to physically connect with that which can’t be touched. All he could do was scream in silence. Silently accept that which he could neither change nor understand.

    As people living after the Holocaust, we know from such screams of silence. As people living at a time when terrorists kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Israel and Afghanistan and Iraq and London, we know this silence of shock and pain. As Americans in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, we know this silence of heartbreak. We know what it means to take a moment of silence in which to scream about the loss of so many of our brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, loved ones consumed by an inexplicable fire. As people who have experienced significant loss, or people who have experienced serious illness, some of us in this room have learned that sometimes the only response we can have is silence, and hope that we can find comfort somewhere in the place of silence.

    Like Moses, many people have tried to explain or to bring us comfort, to make sense out of the losses and sorrows of life. We know the struggle to understand that which cannot be understood, the mystery of God’s involvement in history and in our own lives. Whatever we say just doesn’t make any sense. But just as Aaron screamed in silence, he found a way to continue with his life, to work in the very place where his sons were killed. He learned to live with his sorrow, so that he could be productive and have a meaningful life, after disaster. He found hope and strength in the biggest disaster of his life, and to live in the shadow of that disaster.

    It has been a difficult year, as we have tried to offer comfort to those in our Temple Sinai family who have suffered the loss of a loved one, or, in some cases, loved ones.  As we remember our losses, as we experience the silent scream, may God give us the strength to rededicate ourselves to emerge from the silence, to be ready to meaningfully involve ourselves in the struggle for humanity and justice for all people. May we remember our losses and make their memories holy by our own actions. May our silence enable us to find the strength we need to make everything else possible.

Published in: on April 10, 2010 at 1:41 am  Leave a Comment