Thursday, April 15, 2021

In This Moment, April 16: Yom Ha-atzmaut - a Wistful Hope; Bye, Bye Bernie; American Idle - Being a Bystander in a Digital Age; Reflecting on the Past Year

In This Moment

The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Rebekah and Liran Raz in honor of their son, Liam, becoming a Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat morning.

As we bid adieu to our scheduled Zoom-only services (though weather may impact some Friday nights including this one), here are some photos from last Shabbat. My thanks to all those who have made every service an oasis of calm and warmth at a harrowing time. We've often been graced with the presence of Hazzan Rabinowitz, who last week led the Torah service (while I carried the Torah "from out of Zion," in the split screen, with Jerusalem as my background). It will be the last opportunity for him to lead a service here for a while, since we are returning to the sanctuary, which made it a special thrill. You can watch the video here. As a bonus, you can also watch our discussion about why pigs are taboo, found later in the service.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Yom Ha'atzmaut.

Mazal tov to Liam Raz, whose bar mitzvah will be celebrated in the sanctuary this Shabbat!
ישראל חוגגת 73: שידור ישיר מטקס הדלקת המשואות
צפו: הכרזת המדינה - בצבעים חיים
Click on the video above to the right to watch a unique colorized version of David Ben Gurion declaring the state in 1948. Above on the left you'll find the full Independence Day Ceremony on Mt Herzl. Some highlights: At 23:45 - musician Idan Raichel sings his song "Longing" ("Ga'agua"), assisted by young singers impacted by loss from terror or war; 36:30 - Koolulam stages one of it's patented mass sing alongs, this time with medical professionals singing the song "Teta'aru Lachem," "Imagine to Yourselves" by Shlomo Artzi, one of my favorites; expressing not the defiant, utopian idealism of John Lennon's "Imagine," which has it's place, but a more wistful Israeli version, replete with the scars of loss, but hopeful nonetheless - the perfect song for now.

Imagine a beautiful world
less sad than what it is
and we walk in it
with suns in our pockets
imagine a beautiful world
A city in the darkness
a simple world
imagine a little happiness

It was a lovely ceremony, upbeat and confident, befitting the first country in the world to reach the almost-end of the pandemic. And it was surprisingly apolitical (there was an uncomfortable political moment earlier in the day, when the Prime Minister was chastised by a bereaved father. Read more about it here). As always, Israel is a complicated place, but last night's ceremony reminds us that this mishmash of resiliency is somehow thriving, with suns in their pockets - Jewish, Arab, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Ethiopian, Orthodox and Secular, all the tribes, It's a mishmash, but it's our mishmash, and we cherish it.

To gain a better understanding of the stakes raised by the current Netanyahu trial, listen to this podcast, which describes the undermining of Israel's free press.

Bye, Bye Bernie

The death of Bernie Madoff brings to mind a destructive and humiliation chapter of American Jewish history. At the time of his arrest in 2008 I made some waves by advocating his excommunication from Jewish life. You can read my original open letter here - and you can read some of the reaction here and here and here and here. (See the reaction of other rabbis, in today's Forward)The damage caused by this man can never be understated. He nearly single handedly destroyed Jewish philanthropy. As i told the Jerusalem Post in an interview at the time..

"My synagogue's teens received free Israel trips three years ago because of the generosity of the Lappin Foundation in Boston, but because that money had all been 'invested' in Madoff's fund, that gift that we received was in essence stolen money. . . Even those organizations not directly impacted may have profited in some manner from this money that was stolen from innocent people. Every penny that Madoff ever donated is dirty money."

Returning to the Sanctuary...
Reflecting on the Past Year

As we anticipate our return to in-person / hybrid services, let's look back and pay tribute to the Zoom services and events that sustained us for these many months. ones, and which are continuing on weekdays and Sundays at 1. You can watch videos of many of our services and other key events, which have been collected at this website.

The Torah implores us to choose life. At a time when we have hit a wall and feel so fried at the duration of this pandemic, isolation seems to be creeping ever upon us like the afternoon shadows. And that's where only people can save us. Not places. People. TBE is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of its human parts. And those human parts have come through this year for one another. I am so happy that this long nightmare is coming to an end, But Zoom services were not part of the illness - at their best, they were part of what helped us to heal. We chose life.

Hope Stanger has written a lovely tribute to our still-ongoing daily Zoom minyan, which she has given me permission to share:

When Rabbi Hammerman asked our congregation on Shabbat morning if we dress differently for Shabbat on Zoom services, I said jokingly that I do dress differently for Shabbat, because I think about our daily minyan group seeing me in the same Brooklyn, NY sweatshirt on multiple occasions, and what they might think; it made me laugh and cringe that someone might say: Does she only own one piece of clothing?? 

The truth is that Shabbat signifies a new sacredness given to us each week, and I want to honor that by wearing something a little more festive.

Over the course of two months, between mid-August and late October, both my brother and my mother passed away. I sat two shivas, almost back-to-back; each quite different from the other; both without the usual gatherings of family and friends. Post-shiva, I went through an extraordinary level of grief, and through that, what held constant in my healing process was knowing I was signing onto afternoon minyan. Each day, I felt my hands being held and my heart being soothed as I chanted the familiar prayers and supported others who their lost loved ones. Having this available to me every day was invaluable. I could just be myself; be wherever I needed to be; and have the support and love of the people in our minyan knowing I was suffering and holding me close.

It’s been a very unique experience being a part of this virtual yet intimately connected group. Because of Covid necessitating a new format for synagogue prayer, we come together on small screens instead of in a chapel; connecting through energy, chat boxes and words rather than in person, and precisely because of this, we have become a minyan family. And my minyan family holds a sacred space in my heart every day. Being able to meet on Zoom was one of the biggest gifts during a truly difficult year for everyone. As a therapist, I was able to schedule my days with the space for daily minyan; this has allowed me to say the Mourner’s Kaddish every day, which would not have been likely pre-Covid. When my dad passed away in 2007, I came once a week for a year to say Kaddish. Now I get to say it every day, and I know that’s just what I've needed to heal and to honor my family.

What touches me the most is that during minyan, we write in the names of those in our lives who need healing, and we say the prayer for refuah shlemah in the middle of the Amidah. Each day, I pause and focus my energy and attention on the names I write as well as all the names and initials that any member of our minyan family writes in. I envision each person thriving in their lives with whole health and well being. With those I know, I physically picture them happy, healthy and free, and with others’ names, I send them healing and energy and imagine them so happy in their lives. I can share that a dear friend of mine who has been dealing with metastatic cancer had a clear PET scan after being held in our chat prayer box. I know that we all hold the prayers and intentions for each other, and this means the world to me; to both give and receive.

As life readjusts and we slowly come back to our in-person synagogue life, I still look forward to the privilege of being with our minyan family at one o’clock every weekday.

Thank you, Hope, for articulating what we are all feeing, as we now are approaching reached the end - of the beginning.
How Have We Changed?
And so we ask, how have we changed? And what have we learned?

  • Not “Back to Normal.” Better!
  • Reaffirming a bevy of classic Jewish values, starting with Pikuakh Nefesh, the sacrosanct supremacy of saving lives. Also including humility, kindness, patience, justice and community.
  • Everything Is Connected
  • Take the Long View

"From racial justice to health improvements to ecological sustainability, our work is rendered imperative by the awful reality of COVID-19."
American Idle
What does it mean to be a bystander in a digital age?
Next week Jews around the world will read in the Torah (Lev. 19:16) the commandment not to stand idly by the blood our neighbor. 

There is no question that the sources stand on the side of active intervention rather than passivity. As the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 73a), “Whence do we know that if a man sees his neighbor drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him? From the verse, ‘Thou shalt not stand by the blood of thy neighbor.'”     

But recent events are demonstrating that idleness is no longer an option, now that most onlookers carry in their pockets small, hand-held instant-justice machines that can make star witnesses out of nine-year-olds. When a crime happens and you are there, either your cellphone camera is on or you are in someone else’s has you in the frame. Either way, you will be found – and you will be involved.

What does it mean to be a bystander in a digital age?

We’ve been asking that question a lot lately. The riveting testimony of the trial for the murder of George Floyd has been marked by emotion, especially from the mouths of the youngest bystanders. 

Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the viral video of Floyd’s arrest, said during her cross-examination that there have been nights when she has stayed up and apologized to Floyd for not doing more to save his life.

“(Floyd) looked like he was fighting to breathe,” said another teen witness, Alyssa Nicole Funari, 18, who was outside Cup Foods during the arrest. Funari took a moment before proceeding, leading the prosecutor to ask whether she was having difficulty recounting the incident.

“It was difficult because I felt like there really wasn’t anything I could do as a bystander,” Funari said. “The highest power was there and I felt like I was failing — like, failing to do anything.” “Technically I could have done something; but I couldn’t do, physically, what I wanted to do,” Funari said, because police were ordering bystanders to stay back.

Again and again, we heard the voices of the bystanders, like off duty firefighter who wanted to give CPR. They’re now stepping up to take responsibility for their inaction. But was it inaction? 

At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen bystanders fail to respond correctly to recent hate crimes directed against people of Asian descent. Two New York City apartment building workers were fired for failing to help a 65 year old Asian American woman as she was being violently attacked on the sidewalk outside. As she was being physically and verbally attacked, cameras show these workers not only failing to intervene but then then closing the door on the woman. 

In Orange County, CA., an Olympic hopeful was in a park training for the summer games when a man targeted her in an incident that she captured on video. She became, in effect, her own corroborating witness, victim and bystander all in one.

Research shows that most people are more than willing to intervene and help someone.
A whole branch of psychology has grown from this question, based on the famous 1964 Queens stabbing attack on Kitty Genovese that was ostensibly witnessed by 38 passive onlookers who did nothing to stop it. It later was shown that the numbers were inflated, and that in fact New Yorkers did not deserve the reputation for apathy that has been given them.

But recent events force us to ask ourselves, if we were outside of that Manhattan apartment building or Cup Foods in Minneapolis, what would we have done? And how has digital technology changed the equation since 1964?

Or since biblical times. When the young Moses went out and saw his fellow Israelite being beaten, as he was about to strike the taskmaster the text says “he turned this way and that…” Perhaps he saw no potential witnesses and figured it was okay to strike. Or perhaps he saw lots of people around, but they all looked haggard and weary – like slaves – and he calculated that no one would have the strength to testify against him. Moses understood that moral paralysis is the mark of enslavement; the people had been cowed into complicity – to idleness – indifferent to the plight of their fellow and unlikely to get involved. So Moses got involved.

In Leviticus 9:22, an older Moses is once again a bystander as Aaron blessed the people.  But then, curiously, in the very next verse, Moses joins Aaron in a blessing do-over, and this time “the glory of G-d appeared to the entire people.” 
According to Rashi, Aaron’s initial blessing was a misfire. And Aaron, afraid he was not in God’s good graces, appealed to Moses, who immediately leapt once again and joined his brother in a renewed appeal to God, who this time responded with an appearance.

The Baal Shem Tov takes from this the lesson that we are bystanders for a reason; not to stand in judgment -- and Moses did not -- but to share the burden. From that perspective of humility, Moses did not judge Aaron. He simply seized the moment when his moment arrived, and he ran to assist. 
Those people in Minneapolis waited for their moment, having no idea that their moment to act would be delayed for nearly a year. That’s a lot of bystanding, but not a minute of idleness. They may not have been able to save George Floyd, but through their testimony, they may save the integrity of the American justice system. These heroic bystanders witnesses in Minnesota heard the clarion call of Elie Wiesel: “Don’t stand idly by if you witness injustice. You must intervene. You must interfere.”
Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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