Thursday, November 16, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for November 23

Peter Kempner launching The Campaign for Temple Beth El at a kickoff dinner attended by nearly 200 people.  Excerpts from my Campaign statement are below.  

Shabbat Shalom and happy Thanksgiving!

First of all, the death notice that I just sent out contained two links to obituaries.  The one for Gladys Cohen is here.  May apologies for any confusion.

Mazal tov to Emily Goodman, as she becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning, and to Jonathan Cohen, who becomes Bar Mitzvah on Sunday, with is Rosh Hodesh Kislev.  At Shabbat morning's service, I'll also be reprising our ever popular "Great Toldot Taste Test."  This week's portion is a Jewish Foodie's paradise.  In it, food changes history, not once, but twice: first, there's Jacob's "Lentil Soup a la Ruddy" which entices Esau to sell his birthright, and then Jacob and Rebecca cook up a dinner scrumptious enough to trick Isaac into giving his younger son the big blessing.  Once again this week, we'll have a blind  taste test of four scrumptious local hallahs.  Which one is the best for this year?  Stay tuned....
Friday night we kick off our holiday week with Rock Shabbat, or in honor of Thanksgiving, Plymouth Rock Shabbat.  Our seventh graders will have their sleepover at my house and on Shabbat morning, our entire Hebrew School will be in session - plus we'll have a special Shabbabimbam for the tots, and lunch for everyone afterwards.  On Saturday night, the community comes together for Tapestry at the JCC, where my fellow rabbis and I will have a panel discussion about God.  There will be no O-Gram next week, so let me invite you now to plan to join us next Friday night when Katie Kaplan will be sitting in for Cantor Fishman, who will be away.
A Thanksgiving Assignment
Our TBE 2012 Group

If your family has never been to Israel, now is the time to plan to go, as we celebrate Israel's 70th.  Take a little time during your Thanksgiving dinner to discuss it with your friends and family.  Send them to the trip's website to see our itinerary.  While the trip doesn't leave until June 24, our registration deadline is Dec. 15, so that the group can begin to prepare in earnest and make some key decisions, including possible itinerary adjustments.  Everyone should visit Israel at least once!
Evan Hansen's Tie

I finally got to see "Dear Evan Hansen" this week, just a few days before Ben Platt's final performance this Sunday.  The show every bit as life-altering as advertised.  I still tear up when thinking about it.  I've been following DEH closely and spoke about it at length on Rosh Hashanah, but some surprises still awaited me on Tuesday night.
One surprise came during a brief scene featuring Evan and Cynthia, the mother of Connor, a teen whose suicide propels the entire plot.  Evan is about to speak at an assembly memorializing Connor, and Cynthia gives him a tie that she had purchased for her son back when he was in junior high school and all those Bar Mitzvah parties were coming up.  She then says that Connor never wore it, because he was not invited to any of the parties
It was just a throwaway line and I might have been the only one in the audience drawn to tears by it (though it's hard to tell, because there are so many other tearful moments that they tend to overlap).  But it made me think of why we are here and why I do what I do.
This Shabbat marks the final Bat Mitzvah for our current Hebrew School class.  Those kids are now in 8th grade, and they've been through quite a journey together - and "together" is the operative word.  We have a policy here that everyone from the class must be invited to every Bar/Bat mitzvah and I personally make sure that happens.  When I hear that someone has not received an invitation, I proactively contact the host parent to make sure that invitation went out.  Almost always, it's because of a mix up, and that mix up is quickly cleared up. But for this class, it was almost unnecessary for me to ask.  They came together so nicely as a group. 
We also do our best to make sure that the bonds established by the kids carry forward well beyond the Bar Mitzvah year.  Lisa Udi and Mara have personally invested many hours of time creating a program that bridges the middle school and high school years, both for our Hebrew School and day school students.  We had a wonderful trip to Manhattan last spring to see the Tenement Museum, along with Mitzvah projects, after parties and the ever-popular Friday Night sleepover at the Hammermans (this year's seventh grade sleepover is, in fact, this week).  Just last Sunday, our teen group met to collect food at Stop and Shop to donate to the JFS Kosher Food Pantry.  Yes, there are other teen groups in town and we partner with them, but for us it is absolutely essential that every TBE teen be nurtured and embraced and be able to find friends here, in their spiritual home.  We will not outsource the essential task of providing a safe and caring space for all our teens.
With that little throwaway line at the end of act one, Connor Murphy's mom sends out a huge warning signal to all of us.  If Connor's tie is never worn, we have only ourselves to blame.

Our teens' food drive, last Sunday at Stop and Shop
Are Men Pigs?
A few years ago, Time Magazine ran a cover story asking the rhetorical question, "What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs?" In the wake of the flood of scandals that have led to so many courageous victims coming forth to tell their stories, it's an increasingly relevant - and troubling - question.  How does Judaism account for this constant abuse of power by piggish men?  I answered this question a few years ago in the Jewish Week and now am adapting that response to suit this watershed moment.

Back in the quaint days when sex abuse scandals broke weekly instead of daily, both Time Magazine and The New York Times Week in Review ran cover stories equating men with pigs.  Yes, those were the quaint days before the #MeToo Revolution, when, with so many apocalyptic weather events, mass shootings and terror attacks happening, it might have seemed almost comforting to be preoccupied for a brief time by good old-fashioned lechery. But no longer is it acceptable to say "boys will be boys" or to dismiss such behavior as "locker room talk."  And it NEVER is acceptable to blame the victim, even while exercising some healthy skepticism while scrutinizing the facts.  

While there are degrees of depravity, with child molestation and rape the most extreme manifestations, all forms of harassment and abuse need to be taken seriously.  One person's office flirtation could cause deep emotional wounds for the object of those advances, and I use the term "object" intentionally.   There is no question that we live in confusing times, where rules of social interaction are being rewritten on the fly.  At a time like this, maybe the best advice is to stop treating other human beings as objects, in the office, online - anywhere

The answer to my initial question is that not all men are swine, or livestock of any sort. At the risk of sounding Nixonian, I am not a pig.  Psalm 8 makes the claim that humans are just a little lower than angels (literally it says "gods"), with dominion over sheep, oxen and beasts of the fields. One would assume that also means we potentially have dominion over ourselves - and the beasts within us.  But Judaism recognizes that we often fail to live up to that potential. David's abduction of Bathsheba (his defense attorney would probably claim, incorrectly, that it was consensual and that she seduced him by bathing on the roof) and murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12) could fit neatly into the stories that are coming out day after day. The prophet Nathan brilliantly re-calibrates David's moral compass.  Otherwise, David would not have been fit to lead.

Judaism has always seen marriage as a microcosm for all social bonds. It is the grand experiment. The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) at the wedding ceremony proclaim that marriage is our last best hope, that, to paraphrase Sinatra, if commitment can make it here, it can make it anywhere. Break trust with your spouse, and you've broken it with God. So how could you possibly expect to be trusted by anyone else?

 We've come a long way since the days of "Mad Men," when affairs were an expected perk for powerful men, including US Presidents, and everyone turned a blind eye. Now even the French seem to be getting it.  Infidelity and abuse are becoming scarlet letters for public figures - well, most public figures, at least.

But are men sexual predators by nature? The Talmudic rabbis seemed to think so, so they proceeded to create barriers to keep men from succumbing to their temptations. Unfortunately, most of those barriers came at the expense of women. More recently, in Israel we are seeing this in its most extreme forms , with segregated buses and separate shopping hours for men and women in some post offices and supermarkets. The ancient rabbis both revered and feared women (although Jewish thought also recognizes feminine characteristics in God), but this current trend toward misogyny-gone-wild indicates that what Jewish males might fear most is their own lack of self-control.

Are men pigs?  Only if we allow ourselves to be.

The Campaign for TBE
Carl Weinberg and Dana Horowitz at our Campaign Kickoff 

Last night we kicked off our new endowment/capital campaign.  Here are excerpts from the comments that I wrote for the Case Statement.  Consider these words over the coming holiday, and perhaps spend a few moments at your Thanksgiving table reflecting what TBE has meant for you.
I can recall the first time I set foot in TBE's magnificent sanctuary.  It was love at first sight, as I gazed out the windows at nature's magnificence and felt an instant communion with the world around me.  Over the years, that initial sense of wonder has never waned, as week after week, I've seen falls blazing beauty transform before my eyes into a blanket of pristine winter whiteness, followed by the explosion of new life in spring and then summer's sustained glory.  Season after season, that relationship between us and the world around us only intensifies. 
Our sanctuary tells the story: we are a congregation of windows, not walls. 
Those windows let the sun shine in and direct our aspirations outward.  Our prayers are intensified by world-class music; our learning is deepened by open, honest inquiry; our socializing is heightened by inclusiveness and true love of neighbor, and our commitment to justice and compassion are unbounded.  We are truly a synagogue without walls, and the impact of our efforts has resonated far beyond our community.
"Sustainability" has a double meaning, and each is central to this campaign. 
We want to continue to sustain the world around us, by creating a state of the art campus where every inch of the facility is designed and refitted to be as "green" as possible, as we take the commitment exemplified by our solar panel project to the next level. In addition, we look to enhance the beauty of our grounds, creating more opportunities for warm interaction and intimate worship spaces for spiritual reflection, to enrich the lives of all who come here.
At the same time, we also wish to ensure the sustainability of a congregation that is fast approaching its 100th birthday.   We are in a position of great strength, and this is absolutely the right time to make the commitment so that TBE will continue to make the world a better place for at least a hundred more, long after any of us have departed from the scene.  We have built from the stunning vision of those who came before us, and now it is our turn to take what has sustained us for so long and ensure that it can enrich the lives of our grandchildren.
We've played a unique role in forging a new vision of Jewish life, one that has our unique imprint.  Through the funds raised in this campaign, we will be able to further contribute to that developing vision.  At the same time, we can pursue efforts to create a model for a 21st century congregation for a new generation, one that is relevant to their lives, welcoming and affordable.  A significant endowment will enable us to create more innovative programming while reducing our dependence on old models of generating revenue.  At a time when fewer Jews fall into old patterns of affiliation, we will be able to reach them where they are at and draw them toward our open arms with love and acceptance.   In so many ways, this campaign will truly be our gift to the Jewish community that comes after us.
Melissa Miles Update

An update from Melissa (in photo above), whose GoFundMe project was introduced in last week's Shabbat-O-Gram

 Lillian was on the verge of tears before and after taping this video.  She could not grasp the level of kindness sent from people halfway across the world, whom she had never met before. She wanted me to let you all know that that evening she and the children who stay in the dormitory with her prayed for health and blessings for all of us. 

Yesterday, I spoke to one of the children in Primary 5 (5th grade) who told me that when she grows up she wants to be a teacher, like Lillian. Another boy told me he wants to be a doctor when he grows up, so that none of his friends will have to miss school again because they are sick from HIV/AIDS. Education is the first step to giving these wonderful children a shot at the future.

From my own experience here, I can tell you that if there is one thing that is maybe even more important than education, it is hope. And that is what you all have given to Lillian and the 200 children in her school - hope for their future. I cannot thank you enough for the support and warm wishes. I am truly overwhelmed and completely humbled by every single one of you.

An update: the land brokers have given us one more week to finish making the payments. Lillian has sold off some of the school's assets to contribute to the payments making us SO close to the finish line. If you would like to help us spread the word and try to reach our goal, please 'share' this GoFundMe page or tell one friend about Lillian's story.

There are not words to express my gratitude. THANK YOU.

How to Talk to Your Kids about God 

On Saturday night I'll be part of a panel on God at this year's Tapestry.  In light of that, and with religious holidays abounding over the next month, I'm sharing this excellent video on how to talk to your kids about God.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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