Tag Archives: Chag Sameach

No Siloes at Sinai

It seems trite at this point to observe that, lately, every challenge rapidly descends into bickering for partisan ideological gain. To cite just one example in the Jewish community: There are many forms of anti-Semitism that are on the rise, from both the left and from the right, driven by many factors including anti-Israelism and American nativism. These challenge and threaten us all. Can’t we agree that rather than diluting our efforts by demonizing other Jews with whom we differ ideologically, we are best served by working as one against anti-Semitism in all its forms? Sadly, apparently not.

This is part and parcel of the broader divisions that are fracturing our political and civic discourse. Polling and public surveys consistently identify increased ideological sorting and social separation.

There is less and less ideological overlap between those who identify as Democrat and those who identify as Republican. Intense partisan animosities have grown to the point where large numbers of Americans believe that those who identify with the party other than their own are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” We are more likely to choose our home communities and our closest friends based on shared political views. And, we’re becoming more predictable in our partisan divisions across multiple issues.

These behaviors, and others, make it increasingly impossible to find common ground. It becomes more inevitable by the day that every concern and challenge will devolve into ideological and partisan brow-beating.

This weekend Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, marking the experience at Mount Sinai. For me, this celebration reminds us of a Jewish way of thinking about our times - an approach that invites and challenges us to bridge the ideological gap between competing values and ideas.

Shavuot is a holiday that sits in direct relationship with Passover, some seven weeks earlier. They are connected in Jewish tradition by a period of time called the Omer with its own rituals for marking the connection between these two celebrations and their core themes.  

Passover represents freedom, the individual liberty from the tyranny of slavery in Egypt. Shavuot is the establishment of law. This weekend we celebrate the presentation of a social contract between the Divine Being and the People, but also – and more importantly – among the people. And these holidays are connected because the gift of freedom is incomplete without the gift of law.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, explains it thus:

“If freedom means only that I can do what I want, then my freedom will inevitably conflict with yours. If I am free to steal, you are not free to own... That is why Judaism sees the exodus as the beginning, not the end, of the journey to freedom. The culmination came in the giving of the Law. The biblical vision is of a society in which no one will be at the mercy of others. Its rules and institutions aim at creating a social order of independent human beings linked by bonds of kinship and compassion....The freedom to do what we want creates individuals. It does not create a free society.”

This is our approach: Two values, freedom and order, not in opposition to each other, but rather in conversation. Our competing values live in dynamic tension. Each may be of greater import to many of us – some or all of the time. But neither is fully developed without its relationship to the other.

So too, we may offer a different and deeply Jewish approach to our ideologically siloed and divided society: To resist the temptation to define competing values as necessarily opposing ones and to refuse to be bullied into rejecting the concerns and beliefs of those with whom we disagree solely because they identify elsewhere on the ideological spectrum.

Rather, we can insist that what are defined as ‘their’ values and ‘our’ values, ‘their’ ideas and ‘our’ ideas’, exist in dynamic tension and conversation with each other. We can promote a radical idea – to hold the center and honor the whole – by embracing the holy space between competing ideas, beliefs, and values.

Together, as the People did in the wilderness as they journeyed from the split sea to Sinai, we can begin the work of a renewed society, enriched by all our members, informed by all our ideas, walking together on a path to a greater future.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,


Zeresh, Hagar, & the Stories Not Told

Participation in the Jewish community is a very personal experience. For some, it involves regular attendance at Sabbath services. For others, it may be keeping up with Jewish news from online sources and weekly newspapers. But for Jews around the world, we are all conscious of a pattern of Jewish life as we go through the year – certain holidays, seasonal rituals and foods.

One way we mark the cycle of the Jewish year is through the selections from the Torah – the Five Books of Moses – that are read in synagogues every week.

This cycle is renewed each year on the holiday of Simchat Torah that we celebrate this coming week, when we will start selections from the book of Genesis anew.

In the middle of my fifth decade of life, I find myself challenged to keep the stories fresh in the retelling. How many times can one read about the expulsion from Eden, endless lists of names, Exodus and Sinai, the design of the sacred vessels in the Sanctuary, and so forth?

I recently finished, and highly recommend to you, a wonderful new collection of short stories, After Abel, by Michal Lemberger. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Torah too has ‘minor’ voices with their own stories to tell; people who probably didn’t think of themselves as minor at all. Lemberger builds on the perspective of women in the Bible, often overlooked and even at times unnamed, despite the major roles they play in some stories (like “Lot’s Wife,” she of the salty pillar).

These often stunning stories follow in the ancient tradition of midrash, non-textual elaborations on the written word of the Bible, offering insight and perspective, expanding our understanding and experience. Lemberger, in the tradition of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, serves up the canon with a twist as she brings these women center-stage, allowing us to see events as they might have.

To immerse oneself in these selections – Eve, who had no one else to guide her as the first mother in bearing and losing a child; Hagar, mother of Ishmael, who was separated from her people and abused by her mistress; Zeresh, widow of Haman, mother of ten executed sons - is to become aware that no matter how familiar we may be with any subject, our understanding is formed by our own perspective on the events. In lifting up these voices, we can attempt to see the old through their eyes, experiencing even the most familiar of events in new ways. It is refreshing to approach the experience of the cycle of Torah readings with a fresh layer of understanding. 

As we complete a season of Jewish renewal, our country enters a season of political renewal when we prepare to select our next President. This process easily becomes defined by the largest and loudest voices, those few – candidates, pundits, constituencies - that yell the loudest, amplify some challenges while ignoring others, and define the debate with limiting perspectives. As we approach this cycle, let us commit to seek out and lift up other stories from those voices that aren’t easily heard in our political discourse and who have different perspectives on familiar debates. It is in their stories that we might bring new understanding and fresh insight into the dilemmas we face together.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,


Our Wilderness Moment

With apologies to Bostonians… the great New York catcher/manager Yogi Berra, who passed away this week, used to say that “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

With regard to the debate on the Iran nuclear deal, I’d offer that, “It’s all but over, but the work has not even barely begun.”
I must admit that I was a bit naïve this summer.
I honestly thought that reasonable people with differing political perspectives could have a serious conversation about the flaws in the Iran nuclear deal, identify ways to address them, and together, take corrective action before Congress voted on the agreement. That’s why we at JCRC worked to convey our concerns about the deal, reflecting questions articulated by a range of bipartisan experts, some of whom ultimately came down on each side of the deal.
But that didn’t happen.
The debate became as much about the winning of the argument as the merits of the deal itself. Our political environment didn’t allow for a substantive negotiation about how to move beyond a binary choice between accepting and rejecting this deal.
So now it’s all but over. We have an agreement that will, with virtual certainty, become a reality of the international diplomatic realm come mid-October.
But it also isn’t over. Not by a long shot.
We’ve got to pick up the pieces in an American-Jewish community that is in some ways deeply fractured; not necessarily because of this debate, but rather because of existing rifts that this debate illuminated and exacerbated.  We’ve got to deal with a U.S.-Israel partnership that has been severely strained. And we’ve got the reality of this agreement, flaws and all.
As we head into the holiday of Sukkot, I’m reminded of the state of impermanence that defined our ancestors in the wilderness.  Their first formative generation as a free Israelite nation was experienced in tents of wandering. Their shared identity was not as much one nation as many tribes headed in a common direction. They experienced second-guessing, divisions, revolts. All the while – in this state of unrootedness– they were laying down a system of laws that could only be enacted in a future state of stability.
We too – I certainly hope – are in an impermanent moment. Many question whether we are ‘A’ Jewish community, with a common vision and purpose.  We are second guessing, we are focused on our divisions. We are acting in some ways as disparate tribes rather than as one People.
We have to make sure that this moment doesn’t lead to more such moments. We must focus our energies on efforts that unite us in our love and support of Israel even though we may not share the same aspirations for what her future holds. We can’t allow those who benefit from driving wedges among us to exacerbate our differences or act to foster a partisan divide in support for Israel.
And, we have to sustain our focus on the Iran deal; realizing the opportunity to rebuild our unity through this work. While fifteen years isn’t permanent, it is longer than the standard political attention span of our nation.  If it works as promised, this deal will come – in most parts - to a conclusion.  When it does, absent regime change in Iran, we’ll have challenging realities to confront.
Whether you were for it or against it, whether you had deep reservations or absolute certitude - all of us who share a deep held conviction that Iran can never be allowed to pose a nuclear threat now need to come together to ensure that this agreement works, and, if it doesn’t that there is room for an alternative approach to the threat. We’ve got to work together to support reasonable, bi-partisan efforts to strengthen effective implementation while building a consensus of support for the U.S.-Israel partnership in a shifting region.
We have the opportunity and the responsibility to make this moment impermanent. We can take steps now and in the years to come so that when we look back and remember this, we will think of it as our wilderness moment - when we once again began the hard work of forming a new and united People from our tribes, heading in the same direction, with common purpose. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,


For This First Week of School, My Summer Book Report

Last week President Obama was in Alaska where he restored Mount McKinley to its earlier native name, Denali. Me? I was sitting on a beach devouring a pile of books.  Allow me a moment to recommend three of them. 

  • Sylvia Engdahl’s young adult science fiction novel This Star Shall Abide had a profound impact on me when I first read it in the mid 1970’s. I go back to it every few years. It is the story of a young man who challenges the restrictive religious practices of his world. In becoming a heretic, he discovers the origins of his people’s faith and traditions. In examining the truth of his people’s narratives, he comes to embrace his role and purpose in his society.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill tells the story of a small group of radicals who, before most American patriots were ready to break from their identity as loyal subjects of King George III, invited an armed conflict that would lead to revolution. It is also the story of how a slave owning Southerner, George Washington, came to Cambridge to start knitting these disparate militias into one shared national identity- leading up to the victory we in Boston celebrate as Evacuation Day.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is an incisive and challenging meditation on the American experience in the form of a letter to his teenage son. As he seeks to make sense of racial injustice in our country, he lays out a critique of “the dreamers.” Our national narrative of the American Dream, with all of its aspirations and hopes, is built on another national experience, the destruction of the black body. He tells his son that it is not his burden to solve racism, but rather that “the Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.” 

Naming places. Finding truths. Creating identity. Understanding narratives.
These aren’t fixed points in history. They are long arcs of evolving and complex experiences that we mold and nurture. To grapple with them is to understand there’s often a “truth” behind a story that evolves into a cherished memory, and in this truth an explanation - such as why we commemorate as such the battle in Charlestown that didn’t even happen on Bunker Hill, or why Alaskans embraced Denali while Ohioans – in an equally bipartisan response - were in uproar.
To understand the experience of others is not to reject our own experiences. To insist that others honor our narratives doesn’t mean we expect them to deny their own.  Long before there was a West Bank of Trans-Jordan in 1948, there was Roman Syria Palestina and, before that, a Judea and Samaria. We can say this without rejecting Palestinian national identity, and we can honor Palestinian identity without denying our formed identity as a Jewish People with a homeland, albeit shared.
We can embrace and celebrate our love of country, while also recognizing that the United States, like all nations, has deep flaws – some of which come from our inability to address the ways in which our national narrative was formed, or who has been left out of that formation and its retelling over centuries.
In examining our stories, our myths, and how we made them, we can better honor and celebrate our own identities and those of others. Only in doing so can we build relationships of mutual respect and understanding and thereby, together, address the challenges that face us all in a shared world.

Shabbat Shalom,


Our First Fruits

Today as Americans, we head into a long holiday weekend as we mark Memorial Day and honor all those who gave their lives in defense of our nation and our national values. As Jews, we also will celebrate Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. As Passover tells the story of our delivery from slavery, Shavuot reveals the meaning of our redemption, as we truly become a people by entering into a covenantal relationship with the Divine and each other. It is the day on which our ancestors committed themselves to a social contract that defined a society that could build upon their personal liberation seven week earlier in the Exodus.

While Shavuot is best known for the experience at Sinai, it is also infused with the agricultural practices that gave ethical and spiritual meaning to the ancient nation of Israel in their homeland. A primary mitzvah of Shavuot in the Temple Era was for the people to bring up to Jerusalem their Bikkurim, an offering of first fruits, as a gift to the priests and an acknowledgement of the Divine generosity that provides the bounty we enjoy. And we are taught to act with the same generosity in ensuring that the bounty of our resources is shared with all. In both the Torah portion and the Book of Ruth, which we read this weekend, we discover that our agricultural practices also provide for the poor by requiring us to leave a portion of our harvest to them. Jewish farmers were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and to refrain from collecting fallen ears of grain. These mitzvot were not intended merely to feed the poor, but also to provide a Jewish ethical grounding to an agricultural society by establishing ongoing habits of empathy, kindness and generosity.

In a modern urban society like ours, what are our equivalent practices that develop habits of empathy and generosity? What actions can we take and commit to, that remind us of the need to share the abundance we enjoy? I believe that part of the answer lies in the practice of service with and to others, acts that address unmet needs with dignity and respect and teach us to acknowledge inequality and injustice. I’m proud that at JCRC we are committed to nurturing these habits by engaging participants in practices of service, through three programs, TELEM, the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL), and ReachOut!

I’m proud that we’ve nurtured the habits of teens like Devin Lightman, who will receive this year’s Fran Litner TELEM Service Award for his outstanding commitment to service. An active TELEM participant for the past five years, Devin will be entering college in the fall. His teachers recall that Devin was a rather challenging and rebellious young child who has matured into an active volunteer and mentor to the younger boys in the TELEM program. He has made lifelong bonds with the residents at the Simon C Fireman House, where he volunteered and has learned as much from the residents as they have from him. At the last TELEM session of the year, Devin asked, “When I come home from college, can I still volunteer with TELEM?”

I’m proud of the practices of GBJCL volunteers like Barry Sugarman, who is described by Sandy Mitchell-Woods, principal of the Nathan Hale School in Roxbury, as her “right hand.” Having begun as a tutor at the Hale over ten years ago, Barry is a cherished volunteer at the school – which has an ambitious vision but a small staff and limited resources. So Barry is on hand to help however he can; most recently by being the school photographer and starting the first ever school yearbook with students.

I’m proud of the commitment of our young adult ReachOut! volunteers who developed a new partnership this year with St. Stephens Youth Programs in Boston’s South End, which provides young people from some of Boston's most disadvantaged communities with year-round, out-of-school time academic enrichment. Curious about Jewish practice, many of the students recently surprised our volunteers by joining them for their Shabbat services and dinner, marking the end of the twelve week Spring Cycle. Two of the students, Esperanta and Myriam Iralien, reflected on the impact of their relationship with the ReachOut! volunteers. Having arrived from Haiti only two years ago and being the first in their family to attend college, their initial adjustment wasn’t easy. They explained that regular and reliable volunteer support was a key factor in their success in their first year at Bunker Hill Community College.

These are the Bikkurim, the first fruits we offer – the acts of service that help others access the bounty of our nation’s blessings. I look forward to working with you to expand our offerings in the years to come.

Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Shavuot Sameach,


Is This Seder Different from All Others?

Those of you who follow me on social media know that over the past week I had the pleasure of attending Passover sedarim hosted by three of our member organizations; AJC, ADL and the Jewish Labor Committee. I Facebooked, Instragrammed and Tweeted from each of them but since many folks aren’t on those platforms, I decided to write about the experience as well.

Here’s a taste of what I wrote:

Excerpted from TheJewishAdvocate.com

Each haggadah took the traditional 10 plagues and added a modern interpretation, whether ADL’s “prejudice, racism and homophobia,” JLC’s “teaching violence, neglect of human needs, and fomenting vice” or AJC’s “antidotes to plagues of our time” including “equality, coexistence and democracy.”

Each reading called upon personal testimony from participants to make the same essential point: that we honor the Passover experience by connecting ourselves to the struggles of our own time and that Jewish memory, rooted in Egypt and Exodus, binds us to all who are strangers, downtrodden, overlooked and ignored in our world today.

I hope you’ll take the time to read my entire column in this week’s The Jewish Advocate.

As most of us prepare to celebrate a seder of our own tonight – whether it’s your first of the season, your fourth, or something in between – I hope you’ll join me in considering a simple idea that sits at the center of JCRC’s work in the public square: that our Jewish experiences, along with our connection to communities around us, shapes our perceptions of the issues our world faces today and enables us to understand what we must do to meet those challenges.

Wishing you a joyous Passover and a meaningful Seder,