Messages from the Rabbi


On Death and Mourning

In Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s (z”l) poignant and highly regarded book, “How We Die,” he described the physical process that human beings go through during their last struggles between life and death. With sensitivity, yet truthfulness, this man of science sought to expose how the human body, of which he held enormous respect and awe, descended into death.

What continues to challenge us is how those left behind are to deal with the aftermath of the process. Kubler-Ross wrote of the stages of grief — of grief and anger and finally acceptance. Later she retracted the formality of these human responses. People, it seems, are not machines whose reactions are always direct and quantifiable. People simply mourn differently.

Ever since the garden of Eden, humans have dealt with questions of death. Recently, a front page article in the Style section of New York Times was entitled “A Generation Redefines Mourning.” The author claimed, “Millennials have begun projecting their own digitalized sensibilities onto rituals and discussions surrounding death.”

While we do find on-line support groups, funerals that are live-streamed to family and friends absent from the service, and on-line shivah minyans (perhaps for families without 10 Jewish friends!) nevertheless, there is nothing new historically here. We know that mourning customs have changed over the centuries. In fact, what the customs became reflected the beliefs, fears and hopes of each generation.

For example, several hundred years ago, people experienced a loved one being pronounced “dead” only to be retrieved from the unconscious state in which they were in. It was later discovered in caskets that a hole had been made with a string that led above ground, to a bell, should the deceased awake and need to call attention to their plight! Just as in the Egyptian tombs, we found that family members, pets and even food had been buried along with the deceased since they expected the dead to live again. In the same way, to this day, traditionally Jews are buried facing East with dirt from Jerusalem in order to prepare their way to Israel upon the Messiah’s arrival.

These customs and traditions gave solace and comfort to those suffering a loss. And yet, they were not made out of whole cloth. For deep within the traditions were timeless and profound ideas about the nature of death and of mourning. The necessity for a grieving family member to require a religious quorum (minyan) in order to recite the mourner’s prayer (kaddish) emphasized the importance of a community’s obligation to be present in times of loss.

As a synagogue community, we will explore the changes that have occurred over the centuries and seek to discover, at the same time, the eternal verities that Judaism provides. Please join me for a discussion of these issues.

Return to top



Talk to Me, Please!

The flap over guidelines that the national college Hillel has developed over who can and cannot speak on campus under Hillel auspices opened a can of worms. On one hand, the Jewish community had strenuously objected to the American Studies Association’s (ASA) passage of a boycott of Israeli colleges and universities as well as their faculty since the boycott supporters see these institutions as the very ideological heart of the “apartheid” treatment of Palestinians in Israel and in the territories. The Jewish community’s response was that academic boycotts are not only counterproductive, but they go against what such institutions stand for, mainly the open and vigorous debate–the free flow of ideas–all in an attempt to discover solutions to the problems our society and our world face.

At the same time, the Jewish community, as represented by Hillel and supported by such organizations as AIPAC is arguing that some ideas, mainly Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and what is legitimate or illegitimate ways to counter the situation of Palestinians in the territories is out of bounds for the academic arena. After all, the Jewish community contends, at heart is really a smoldering anti-Israel which is simply a more socially acceptable formulation of anti-semitism. Calling for a boycott (BDS-boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) of Israel is a form of delegitimizing Israel’s right as a Jewish nation.

Make no mistake, there are certainly members of the BDS movement in Europe and here in the US (though less in my view) who are anti-semites. But some are not and here in the US, many are not. In fact, many of these same individuals and groups are allies of the Jewish community on so many progressive social and justice issues and remain so. They are not “ignorant” or “wolves in lamb’s clothing” and for the Jewish community to view them in these ways is unbecoming, self defeating and simply wrong.

I personally oppose BDS because I believe that in the end, the effect will be at least as punitive on Palestinian workers for Israeli companies in the territories as on the Israeli companies. Palestinian workers make 400% of what they can earn in their own West Bank companies. Israelis will simply move their production centers. What the free world needs to do is to find ways to invest in Palestinian productivity and make it a win-win all around.

Such solutions can only be sought in open and free environments. We Jews can’t have it both ways when it comes to Israel. Either academia is an avenue for the rigors of thought and speech or it is not. It would be hypocritical if it were otherwise. Just as the ASA suggested it stood for open debate, while providing only a one sided, pro Palestinian argument for affirming an academic boycott, so Jewish organizations which try to prohibit other voices from speaking at Hillel’s across the country. The absurdity of this was underscored when a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset was denied the right to appear at a Hillel House because of his pro peace positions.

Synagogues, our synagogue has, not only a right, but an obligation to bring voices from many different points of view. While many of you know what my positions are regarding Israel, as well as other moral issues of the day. What you should also know is that we learn from Jewish history is how we thrived after the Roman conquest of Judea because the rabbis, in searching for solutions were open to all points of view. Many of these can be found in their most important work over the centuries, the Talmud. Eilu v’eilu, divrei elohim chayim “These and these are the words of a living God.”

Our cause is just (the survival of a democratic, Jewish State). The time is short (negotiations are going on as we speak). We must make every effort to find and explore Darkei Shalom “the paths to peace.”

Return to top



Reflections on Pope Francis

In 2001, I had the privilege of studying at Gregorian University at the Vatican in Rome. Most of my work was with an order of nuns – the Sisters of Sion – who maintained the largest library of Jewish-Christian relations, mostly in Italian, Hebrew and English. (The Order was originally from French Canada and it made my work that much easier.)

Being in Rome and at the Vatican was a special privilege. I was constantly reminded of the difference a generation makes. The promulgation of Vatican II in 1965 was a radical departure from earlier church teachings. The section on the Jews was downright revolutionary. Since then, the relationship continues to grow. While the growth has been uneven at times, nonetheless we would have missed enormous positive changes. Eventually the Vatican, after many decades recognized the State of Israel, exchanging ambassadors – the Vatican is its own State – and in 1987, the Pope entered Tempio Majove – The Great Synagogue in Rome for the first time…ever! He acknowledged Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, as ‘my elder brother.’ It was an extraordinary historical moment.

In the Middle Ages, a new Pope would meet the rabbi of Rome in the bridge over the Tiber. The rabbi would express words of tribute, turn around, bend over and the Pope would kick him in the rear end. It was symbolic of accepting the authority of the Holy See.

How different it is. The new Pope, Francis (real name Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is from Argentina. He is known to be a humble man of the people and ever since his election, he has shown over and over, a respect for all humanity. He has called for ‘renewal’ of Vatican II, for the Church to be of the world. And Pope Francis’ relationship with the Jews is an especially powerful and personal one. I recently was invited to meet with Rabbi Skorka, a colleague of the Pope from Buenos Aires. The rabbi and Father Bergoglio spent many days together and co-authored several books on interfaith dialogue and the importance dialogue plays in human understanding. The rabbi told how, after the vote by the College of Cardinals, electing him Pope, he telephoned the rabbi, “Help, I’m a prisoner in the Vatican. They won’t let me out. They elected me Pope!”

A warm engaging loving man – we all wish him well with his new responsibilities. The priests with whom I have spoken are universally enthusiastic about the new breath of fresh air he may bring and hopefully be a blessing, not only to his beloved church, but to all of humankind. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed, “There are moments when we all stand together and see our faces in the mirror: the anguish of humanity and its helplessness; the perplexity of the individual and the need of the divine guidance; being called to praise…”

We join with our Catholic brothers and sisters in praying for the success and well being of Pope Francis.

Return to top



“Revolutionizing” Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation

Despite the fact that some members of CMI think the New York Times is the modern equivalent of sacred scripture (gospel), I rarely respond to articles found there. But the day before Rosh Hashanah, an article appeared about the Union of Reform Judaism suggesting that the Reform movement was in the process of revolutionizing Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation and its ceremony. Charging that Reform synagogues had become “Religious School Industrial Complexes” whose sole motivation was to enlarge membership and increase our “income stream,” the “new” focus, it was reported, would be on Tikkun Olam. Officials of the URJ wondered aloud why we would teach 13 year olds to study Hebrew and read from the Torah when they did not understand a word of either. Rather – despite anticipated objections from Cantors (!) we should spend our energies doing acts of social justice.

Several members of CMI asked me over the Holy Days if we were contemplating this “change.” My answer is a resounding “NO!” The charge that we have prepared students for Bar/Bat Mitzvah requiring at best 3 to 4 years of Hebrew School to enlarge our income is spurious, especially coming from an organization asking higher dues from us! Of course we hope that the ceremony will be an emotionally moving event. We hope that families will emerge feeling that they have marked an important Jewish stepping stone in their child’s life. Of course, 13 years of age is too young to end the progress of growing Jewishly, and some families do see it as an exit rather than entrance into adult Jewish life. But many also continue (50% of members have belonged to CMI longer than 25 years) and for those who don’t, we believe that once having had a meaningful Jewish experience, they will find their way back at some future time.

As for the focus on Hebrew and Torah reading, in my opinion it is those very symbolic acts that ground whatever else they do in Jewish tradition especially Tikkun Olam. To move away from the focus on Hebrew and Torah reading would be like cutting off a tree from its roots and expecting the branches to flourish on their own. We would become no different than ethical monotheists, and the early 20th century Jewish experience of many who tried this eventually lost their way completely.

Finally, the focus on ethical deeds – This is and has been in most congregations a major focus of the event marking what it is that makes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah – the doing of Mitzvot. There is nothing new here and the URJ should know better. “New” for the sake of different is poor policy. In our case it would be turning to the past not the future. That we could do a better job teaching Hebrew is a given. Let’s figure out ways to improve there and build upon the efforts and energies that continue to promote our community and the proud tradition we hope to grow.

Return to top



Too Much Cynicism

Secretary of State John Kerry recently called on members of the American Jewish community to push for and support his efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the peace table. The silence of almost every major Jewish organization was deafening. Now, we are told, progress has been made and yet most of what we hear is “Here we go again.” There is just too much cynicism. Too many in our community think the status quo is just fine. Let the Arab-Muslim world worry about Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Maybe they won’t pay any attention to the Jewish State. But the absence of war is not peace. In fact, let me suggest that this maybe the best time to pursue peace.

In August, both the Jewish community and the Muslim community entered a sacred time in their yearly observances. For Muslims, the month of RAMADAN is the time when the prophet Mohammed began to hear the revelation of Quran. It is a time of fasting and turning one’s attention from the physical to the spiritual. It is a time to cleanse the soul of impurities. It is a time to listen to the Divine word and strive to help those in need and reach for justice.

For Jews, we began the Hebrew month of AV, when we observe the desecration and destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians followed by the Romans six centuries later. Yet our tradition reminds us that it was sinat chinam, senseless hatred that caused the Temples to fall and only ahavat chinam, love that will help repair and restore the Divine place on earth. It is therefore a time to listen to our brethren and reach for justice. And now is the time leading up to the New Year, when we focus on the good that is in us, and discard the negative.

Both Jews and Muslims thus share, in their unique ways, the hope for a time of restoration and peace. While the Middle East and much of the world is in turmoil, our common Abrahamic roots, as well as this season, beckons us to turn our spiritual attention toward a future that can be hopeful and different. We both look to a time when the hope for each of us will come true, RAMADAN MUBARECK, a blessed Ramadan, and a Shalom Bayit, a peaceful home that we build for ourselves and for all humankind.

Once again it appears – as of this writing – that Israelis and Palestinians will meet to begin what is hoped will lead to a period of reconciliation and peace. Most Jews (and Arabs) are skeptical. But there is no room for cynicism in our hearts – rather let this be a time for a serious search for the peace that we all long for and the lessons of our past, rather than leading us down the path of war and hate, rather instruct us in the ways of reconciliation and peace.

Return to top



Dealing with Danger

The bombings in Boston have set off a frenzy of fear. Two obscure brothers managed to elude Federal agents, watch hate propaganda on the internet, purchase enough fireworks to extract the powder, turn them into bombs and kill 3 people and injure over 200. And they were able to do this in the middle of the marathon with scores of thousands of people around.

It appears that danger is now exacerbated. When you least expect it , in the midst of a glorious day, a day of glory, we were suddenly attacked. And it was not “by land or sea,” or even by air. These days the enemy will be by a loner or two dissatisfied or disaffected with access to a computer and a “mad-on.”

And that is what has us most frightened. It seems impossible to defend against. Iron dome missiles are ineffective. A larger army will not be able to prevent such acts. Three hundred million people cannot be monitored. And we cannot be turned into a police state with neighbors against neighbors.

And yet, there are things we can do. First, there will be closer scrutinizing of hate filled web sites. Secondly, we can do more outreach into those communities, often political and religious, proven to be sources for the disaffected. The leaders of such communities often collaborate with authorities in singling out people prone to disaffection. Thirdly, as citizens, we can be alert to suspicious activity. “If you see something, say something,” has been very effective in places like Israel that has dealt with terrorist threats. Finally, we can encourage public dialogue, in schools and college campuses that allows for group frustrations to be expressed, examined and discussed. Sometimes we try to silence debate, fearing that it can incite. But the danger lies in automized individuals or small groups closed off from public discourse.

These are but a few ways we can counter the threats we face. But the fear is more urgent. I am being told, “I’ll never go on the subway again!” “We must avoid public places!” “Nothing feels safe anymore!” And I recall the words of David Ben Gurion who faced, on behalf of the Jewish people, enormous challenges. He wrote:

“Courage is a special kind of knowledge: The knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.”

It was upon his courage that the Jewish State came to be. Fear begets its own failure. It is an important lesson of the future.

Best wishes for a safe and joyful summer.

Return to top



“Go Down Moses”

“Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land…” A seder staple I remember from the time of my childhood and sung to this very day. Obviously a Jewish liturgical piece! Actually it turns out to be a “Black American Spiritual.”

This is the history as I understand it. The story of the song begins in the early days of the Civil War. In 1861, three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory were sent to the Confederate Army to help with construction. They escaped at night and rowed across the harbor from Norfolk, VA to Union-held Fort Monroe. They presented themselves to Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, risking being returned to their enslavers and facing horrible punishment, as dictated by the law in effect before the war. Butler refused to return them, classifying them as a “contraband of war.” Laws were soon passed prohibiting returning them to enslavers. The Contrabands at Fort Monroe built housing from burned ruins. Their community came to be known as Grand Contraband Camp. Defying a Virginia law against educating slaves, the African-American Mary Peake taught both adults and children to read and write. Inspired by this opportunity for freedom (albeit partial and haphazard) many escaped and made their way to Fort Monroe. By the end of the war, less than four year later, there were Contraband camps and thousands of Contrabands.

A song that some of the Contrabands sang when they arrived at Fort Monroe was recorded and published by a chaplain, the Rev. L.C. Lockwood, as “The Song of the Contrabands: O Let My People Go.” President Lincoln visited Contraband camps frequently and on one documented occasion joined a prayer meeting and sang along, often overcome with emotion, to “Go Down Moses” and other songs.

In a later celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Contraband camp in Washington, D.C., a woman improvised the immediately popular verse “Go down/Abraham/Way down in Dixie’s land/Tell Jeff Davis to/Let my people go.”

So now you know the real story! Once again proof that the Torah is a living document generation after generation. And each year we celebrate it and keep alive an amazing tradition.

Return to top



Jew vs. Jew

There are many lessons that we might learn which arise out of the Jewish historical experience. One such lesson is, as our tradition teaches, Gam Zeh Ya’avor, “this too shall pass.” Over and over again, on the shadow of tragedy, Jews have managed to overcome their circumstances. “Never give up and never give in” – we are pursuers of hope. At the same time, when circumstances are good, “this too shall pass.” It is the height of folly to take the good for granted, to accept the good, but always with humility.

Another lesson is the importance, the necessity, of creativity, and a “go with the flow” attitude. Something rigid is soon and easily broken. When the Temples were destroyed and sacrifices came to an end, the community mourned and then wrote poems praising God as they gathered in houses of study. Their efforts were to keep the tradition alive through memorializing the tragedy and moving on. They created new institutions – the synagogue, for example, became the clew to survival.

And a third lesson is how sinat chinam, internal hatreds, led to the tragedy. The rabbis of old (Note: NOT old rabbis) taught that the destruction of the Temple was less attributable to the Babylonians and later the Romans, then to the dissension that arose between the Jews themselves. We are often defeated by our own inability to listen and work with others with whom we may not agree. It is as if it is all a zero score game – you either win or lose. Klal Yisrael, the “community” of Israel, implies its “unity.” This is not to insist on uniformity – but at its heart is the realization that we are dependent on one another. The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued over fundamental Jewish issues, but in our traditional accounting both sides are acknowledged. Based on the declaration of Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim, “These and those are the words of the living God.”

Today our community is fractured. With bitter irony, it is over Israel where the conflict arises. Those who believe that Israel must do all in its power to defend itself first and foremost and that the land of Israel is held in sacred and absolute trust. Others believe that Israel must do all in its power to achieve peace for only then will it be secure and able to fulfill its eternal promise. This group suggests that for the sake of peace, no piece of God’s earth should be so important that others need to die for it.

On our congregational visit this year, the group from CMI saw the impact of 65 years of what could be accomplished. Cities rising out of sand dunes; hospitals, built over rocks, now places of healing; science centers that were once swamps and flowering farms once habitable only by jackals. Jews came together from the old world and the new, from the East and the West and in just 65 years created this phoenix nation. It was, for me, a reminder of what we can do together. Let it also be a warning, of what could be destroyed if we fail to continue the common dream. We must continue to reason and work together.

Return to top



Welcoming the Stranger

While it is said that Abraham was chosen as the first of the Patriarchs of Israel because he broke his father’s idols, none of this is found in the Torah. What we do learn about his virtues was that he welcomed the strangers that would pass by his tent. The rabbis will later note the importance of such an act. Literally scores of Biblical deeds emphasize how the Israelites were to treat the stranger, “…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It is clear that descendants of Abraham are to show hospitality to others. The very word, “hospitality” is derived from the Latin word for both stranger and shelter. Originally such places as hospitals and hospices were places where travelers could find rest, comfort, and safety.

For Jews, the stranger was to be offered the same rights as the “native.” It was this very idea that gave birth to the New Haven project known as Abraham’s Tent when four years ago, it became clear that the number of homeless, the “strangers” in our community, was growing while resources to provide for them was shrinking. Then members of the religious community and staff from the Columbus House met to seek some solutions – at least in the immediate sense. I shared with the group the story of Abraham and the lessons our rabbis derived from it. It was decided that focusing on the resources we did have, namely our buildings and the cadre of volunteer help in our congregations, we would undertake to house some of the overflow shelter. Abraham’s Tent was born.
It is estimated that 900 volunteers from 19 congregations from across the religious spectrum are involved. It is interfaith and interaction at its best.

Just as we did on that very first winter, this year we undertook to host the first week, December 3 – 10, 2012. The program will conclude at the end of March.

This is but one contribution the CMI community is involved in. It is what we call, “practical theology.” While belief plays a role in Judaism, it is in the “doing” that we believe our success is recorded. To Harvey Cheskis and Peter Alpert and their Life Is Delicious group who prepared the dinners, to Karen Baar and Rick Molot from our Social Action Committee who organized the overnight volunteers and to Gary Mitchell and his crew of merry folks who provided a hot breakfast – we salute you. You represent the best of our tradition and our congregation.
May this New Year find you all enjoying the blessings as Abraham was rewarded – family and fortune and most of all, a heritage worthy to pass on to the generations that will come after us.

Return to top


Comments are closed.