Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, September 22, 2022
In This Moment: L'Shana Tova, Charlie Brown! Uman or Not? Landmark Proclamation
This morning I was honored to join with city officials, along with AJC, UJF and synagogue leaders, to witness Mayor Caroline Simmons signing on to the AJC's Mayors United Against Antisemitism initiative, along with an added proclamation specific to this event. Thank you to all who are responsible for this major statement - and most especially to Mayor Simmons. See the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. See the city's proclamation at the bottom of this email.
Happily, I'm out of the Covid Witness Protection Program as of today and I feel fortunate to have weathered the pandemic with minimal disruption, at least in the short term. I expect to be "good to go" for Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah. Sadly, I've been preoccupied this week with funerals, among them one for a long time Beth El member, Herb Beningson. Although he moved away many years ago, he and his family made a major mark here. We extend condolences to the Beningson family.
Some quick thoughts about our services:
In the immortal words of Zazu, "I think it's time that you and I arranged a heart to heart."Mysermon on the Second Day (Tuesday) is directed especially to Millennials and Gen Z. That means, roughly, anyone who became bar or bat mitzvah between 1994 and now. (Others may eavesdrop.) While I'll have plenty of opportunities to talk to people between now and July 1, 2024, I consider this to be my valedictory address to the thousand-plus students I've seen grow to adulthood (and anyone else in that age group). If you can not be at services or watch remotely, my sermons will be also be available online shortly after the holiday.
Tashlichcan be done by small groups or individual families after the tent or main services on Monday. We will have D.I.Y. Tashlich sheets available, or you can download one here. BYOB (Bring your own breadcrumbs), or better yet, collect twigs and small pebbles on the way to the body of water, to toss into the water and be less environmentally intrusive. Here's a poem for Tashlich:
Here I am again ready to let go of my mistakes.
Help me to release myself from all the ways I’ve missed the mark
As I cast this bread upon the waters, lift my troubles off my shoulders.
Help me to know that last year is over, washed away like crumbs in the current.
Open my heart to blessing and gratitude.
Renew my soul as the dew renews the grasses. Amen.
-Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
A wonderful introductory guide to the High Holidayscan be dowloaded here. it's from 18 Doors, which specializes in outreach to blended families and those new to Judaism.
To Sing or Not to Sing?Here's what I wrote about that last year, at a time when the uncertainties about Covid were more pronounced than they are now (though things are not yet perfect in that regard). I will be masked much of the time, but also singing, using my "indoor voice." We still need to be mindful of risks, but even more than that, we need to be respectful of our neighbors. Yet we also don't want our services to be a concert and prayer cannot be unidirectional. So by all means, be an active participant, wherever you happen to be. Whether in person or at home, immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the service. Let it spur your own reflections. Be an active pray-er.
And one more thing. Be welcoming. Even with a mask on, connect with those around you. We are all ambassadors, representatives of TBE, the Jewish people, and God. I started with Zazu and will finish this message back on Broadway by paraphrasing the Lovely Boylan Sisters: "You're never fully masked without a smile."
The cartoon presents a fascinating dilemma proposed by Lucy. Are we better off scrutinizing our past errors, or should the goal of Teshuvah and the High Holidays be to leave our past behind and begin with a clean slate? We certainly should not allow our past to paralyze us, to become the prologue for defeatism. It's not good to drop a dozen fly balls and then to freeze when the next one is hit, out of fear of the inevitability of a recurring pattern.
On the other other hand, you can't possibly break the pattern unless the past becomes prologue for improvement. We must learn from our mistakes.
That is true of individuals and it is true of nations. Which is why Ken Burns' Holocaust series running this week on PBS is so important. I've studied the Shoah all my life and still learned much from it - in particular the depth of antisemitism in the US in the 1920s and '30s. It was a populist tide that no one could overcome, not even FDR (though he was hardly blameless). Public opinion can shift overnight in ominous directions even in the most secure democracy. The Germans in the photos from the Nazi rallies of the '30s - they are us. They are just regular people who were swept up in a tide of orchestrated hate. Whether before, during or even after the Holocaust, American public opinion overwhelmingly wanted to keep Jewish refugees out. Even many American Jews agreed. Scary - and required viewing for every American and every Jew.
I'd love to hear from some of you what you learned from the series that you might not have known before. One thing we all learned is that we need to learn from our imperfections, and never cover them up. A perfect lesson for the High Holidays. I think Lucy would offer the same advice.
Since 1810, Jews have made pilgrimage on Rosh Hashanah to Uman in Ukraine, to the burial place of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav. Until this year. The pilgrimage has been discouraged, given how frequently Uman has been targeted by Russian missiles. But not even Putin can keep the Jewish spirit down. Latest reports say 10,000 will be going anyway. and indeed, they are already there. Stay tuned. You'll be hearing more about Uman on Day 1. On a map, you can find it almost exactly in the middle of the country, halfway from Kyiv to Odessa on a north south axis, and from Lviv to Donetsk east to west. It is literally in the center of it all - and Putin seems to know its importance to Jews - he targeted it on the very first day of the war. As any reputable De-nazifier would do.
70% of Jewish voters approve of the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president, a 7% increase from a JEI poll in April 2022.
70% of Jewish voters would support a Democratic candidate for Congress if the election were held today while only 24% would vote for the Republican candidate, representing a 10% increase in the Democratic lead over a JEI poll in April 2022.
19% of Jewish voters hold a favorable opinion of Donald Trump
92% of Jewish voters are concerned about antisemitism, and by a 52-20% margin, trust Democrats more than Republicans to fight it.
61% of Jewish voters are more concerned about antisemitism originating from right-wing groups and individuals compared to 24% who are more concerned about antisemitism coming from left-wing groups and individuals.
82% of Jewish voters disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, with 56% saying that the decision makes them more motivated to vote.
68% of Jewish voters support the U.S. reentering the Iran nuclear deal.
The survey found near-unanimous support for gun safety measures, with 96% of Jewish voters supporting requiring comprehensive background checks for all gun purchases and 91% support raising the minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21.
Pay to pray? Not anymore. Many synagogues no longer charging for High Holiday tickets (Forward) -Two hundred synagogues across the nation responded to questions about what it costs to get in their doors on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The answers, while not necessarily representative of the 4,000-some shuls in the United States, suggest that paying a bundle for a ticket is now the exception. Most of the 200 that filled out our questionnaire said High Holiday seats are included in the price of membership, with only a handful charging a ticket fee on top of dues. About 50 said they charge non-members to attend, with prices ranging from $36 to more than $700. And many synagogues that do charge said they provide free tickets for groups including students, people under 30, prospective congregants, members of the military, people married within the last year, people involved in Jewish community service, guests of the rabbi and “anyone in financial need.” Asked why they had made attendance free, a few rabbis expressed disdain for the practice of charging Jews to pray with one another, especially on the holiest days of the year. One rabbi deemed it “repugnant.” Others said free holiday services aligned with their congregation’s desire to be as welcoming as possible. “My sense is that by having our doors wide open at the High Holidays, we are able to be a place that people can check out with a very low barrier,” Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, said in a follow up interview. She attributes her congregation’s growth — from 20 households in 1989 to almost 200 today — in part to its commitment to free High Holiday services. In the days leading to Rosh Hashanah, the UJA-Federation of New York, which funds hundreds of Jewish nonprofits, released its “Find A Service” guide, which lists 75 synagogues of all denominations. The majority charge nothing to attend virtual services. Roughly half charge for in-person services, with most prices falling between $36 and $500.
For the lockdown generation, prayer is merely code for inaction (RNS) If the lockdown generation is going to believe in God, it will always be a God who coexists with both the gunman and the ones who put the gun in his hands. Prayer, for them, will carry the stench of inaction — both parents’ prayers unanswered and the “thoughts and prayers” of nonresponsive politicians. It’s difficult to know what hope looks like in this scenario, what goodness and shalom might mean, but I am determined to figure out what it means to be the people of God when it feels like God is gone and all we have left is air.
This isBanned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. Banned Books Week 2022 will be held September 18 – 24. The theme of this year’s event is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles lists of challenged books as reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country.
Here's why banning (and burning) books and antisemitism go hand in hand (Publisher's Weekly) - Banning books like Maus erases my Jewish experience, minimizes the violence of the Holocaust, and ultimately validates Holocaust-denial rhetoric. Uncomfortable books are necessary because they preserve memories like those I’ve shared about my own family, and as a publisher, I am here to safeguard the historical record and challenge the distortion of history often expressed in contemporary antisemitism.