Powerful Women

May 2017

At the beginning of the book of Exodus there is a story about two midwives who refuse to follow Pharoah’s command to destroy the first born Israelite children. Because of their wisdom and bravery Moses is saved and our people’s future is ensured. I find it amazing that the entire narrative of the Exodus, the entire narrative of our people, is set into motion because of the strength of these women. Even more powerful is that these women do not share the Israelite heritage of the babies they rescue.

 

We have many righteous women among us who perform countless acts of generosity, wisdom and bravery each and every day. And like the biblical midwives, many of them come from faith traditions different from our own.  However they cast their lot with our Jewish community and through their good works and generosity, ensure our communal future.

 

Margaret Cort is a treasure of this congregation and one of the righteous in our midst.  Margaret likes to tell me that she and her husband Bob Cort (also a mensch and a half) joined Beth Chaim back in the day when Moby Dick was a goldfish. I think that is her colorful way of saying, that the Cort family has a long history with Beth Chaim. We are so blessed to have Margaret and Bob as a part of our congregation. Bob is a past president and currently one of the most dedicated and active leaders I have seen in any community I have served.  Margaret too is an unsung hero.  A woman of wisdom, and strength, and modesty. I know that she will hate this article, but I am writing it anyway because of the huge impact she has made here at Beth Chaim.

 

In the past, Margaret has led Sisterhood, been active in the leadership of our religious school, and galas galore, but more recently she stepped in when our administrator Diana was injured in a car accident. She worked for weeks without compensation because she has a deep and abiding respect and love for this faith community. She came on board as our administrator after Diana needed to take leave, and she became a fantastic professional partner both for me personally and our staff and our board.  She is truly a giver, sharing her intelligence, skill for solving problems and establishing new systems, spending countless hours focused on projects always working for the sake of this sacred community.

 

Though Margaret was born Margaret Mary and hails from a Catholic family, there is no one I know with a greater respect for our Jewish tradition. Her mother-in-law, Bob’s mom, was a survivor of the Shoah.  Margaret keeps her memory alive and honors her in every act she does to sustain the Jewish traditions in her own family, and in our congregational family of families.  I am so grateful to Margaret personally for her generosity in serving this congregation as administrator for this past year.  Though she has chosen to step aside and look toward new challenges, she has also generously offered to support and transition our new administrator Robyn Resnick as she learns the ropes. Like the midwives of old, Margaret continues to use her wisdom and ingenuity to move the narrative of this congregation forward.  I hope the next time you see her you will offer your personal thanks and blessings for her service to Beth Chaim.  This congregation owes her a debt of gratitude for her faith and service. 

 

 

 

Confirmation and Shavuot

Confirmation is one of our youngest Jewish life cycle rituals. The first confirmation took place only about 200 years ago in 1810 when Israel Jacob- son, a wealthy German businessman took over $100,000 of his personal funds to build a synagogue in Seesen, Germany. He wanted this synagogue to be a place where Judaism would be relevant to moderns, a place where men and women could sit and worship together, and a place where new rituals could be created and claimed.

We celebrate confirmation in conjunction with Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, because within the confirmation ritual our young people are affirming their strong inner ties to Judaism. On June 2, Ella Newell and Max Tribulski will have the opportunity to make this affirma- tion surrounded and supported by confirmation classmates, teachers and family members. Each of us has a unique path and tie to our sacred tradition. For some the entry way is through social justice. For others it is through prayer and ritual. For still others it is through sacred text, music, food or community. But how would we ever get a chance to make those connections without beloved educators?

This spring we celebrate three wonderful educators. Narda Oz is a treasure in our midst. She has been teaching at BCRC for over 14 years now and has come to call this congregation her home. When we were in a tight spot last year and needed to find an interim educator, Narda stepped in to run our school. She has the respect of our teachers because she herself is a master in the classroom. Though her love of Judaism and the Hebrew language seeps from her every pore, it is also evident in her ready smile. Almost weekly, when I work with B’nei Mitzvah students they turn to me and confide that they really did not think that they would ever make it through the process, that is until they met Narda. She meets each student where they are and sharing her love for Judaism, helps to empower them to learn at a very high level. Narda is ex- acting and her students shine because of her love and care. How fortunate we are that our students continue to acquire such a profound sense of self as young Jewish adults because of all her time, care, and wisdom. We owe Narda a huge thanks for her sacrifice this past year. She poured her heart and soul into our school as our interim director. Working with her each and every day was, and will continue to be, a personal honor. I am personally grateful that she will continue to teach and inspire as perhaps the most valued member of the Beth Chaim educational faculty.

And then there are Jack Diebler and Marcy McGee. Jack and Marcy have been teaching Confirmation together for 14 years now. During this time, they have worked with hundreds of young adults to help them define and explore their personal connections to Judaism. They teach in a beautiful tag team style, riffing off of one another, and genuinely tuning in to the needs of their students. Theirs is a class which is one of the most beloved in our school, because of the person- al connection they make with the students. That takes an incredible amount of time and devotion. Before they were a team in Confirmation, Marcy was the founding director of our religious school and has shared her ex- pertise as an educator in so many fantastic ways. She is also the co-founder of our resident youth theater com- pany, Shmata Productions. Jack too has dedicated himself to our congregation as a past President and has also taught in the school since its earliest days. A few months ago, they both decided that they want to step away from Confirmation next year. Yet we know that they will always be here to advise and add their special talents to our developing youth programming.

Beth Chaim is a place were we ask ourselves difficult questions

Even during times that are trying, inspiration abounds. Last month, I had the honor of attending a talk by the gifted scholar Eboo Patel sponsored by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.  I was moved by Eboo’s message and was proud that 8 members of Beth Chaim were on hand to hear this incredible speaker.  

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization which inspired the Interfaith Center of Greater Philly to establish the Walking the Walk Youth fellowship, through which our Beth Chaim teens meet other Jewish, Bahai, Christian, Quaker, Muslim or teens from other religious traditions and bridge difference through face to face discussion, service, and experience.  

Eboo spoke to the challenges our community faces today, a rise in antisemetic attacks, obstacles to racial justice, Islamaphobia, and gave us a reality check. He reminded us that the United States is likely the most religiously diverse civilization to ever exist in human kind.  He also pointed out that we are amongst the most religiously devout nations in the Western Hemisphere.  With these two challenging features, it is no wonder it is difficult to nurture a healthy and religiously diverse democracy. 

I am proud that Beth Chaim is a place were we ask ourselves difficult questions. We understand that Judaism is not only about ritual concerns but about the fierce urgency of now.  We have inherited a tradition that implores us to welcome the stranger. How might we create relationships both in our own synagogue and beyond our walls to help to bridge the many divides that persist? Those behind the recent antiSemitic attacks want us to become angry and frightened, to isolate ourselves. But we will not let hatred drive us inward, for we are the inheritors of a religious tradition that demands that we extend our tent pegs. And of course, we are blessed to live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was envisioned by William Penn as a place to embrace religious freedom.  

The day after Eboo’s talk, I was honored to speak on the steps of the historic Chester County Courthouse during a vigil organized by the Chester County Kehillah/Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia (see image above). Behind me were 30 members of the clergy from many different faith traditions. In front, I had the blessing of seeing so many members of Beth Chaim surrounded by community members of a dazzling array of faiths.  

Marilynne Robinson writes that, “Democracy, in its essence and genius is imaginative love for an identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.” We may not agree with our neighbors on everything, but with many we share the commandment to build bridges of love. There is strength and communion in that common purpose. We have needed strengthening these past weeks, and it has been powerful that so many have stepped forward to stand with us against hate of any kind. May our interfaith work go from strength to strength, especially in this challenging moment.

Purim the fun and the Hard Work

Sure Purim is full of fun and silliness. You can get by with a little help from your friends this year at our Strawberry Fields fractured Shabbat Service and Beatles themed Purim Spiel (Friday March 10, at6:15pm - NOTE SPECIAL TIME), but Purim is more than just crazy costumes and rabbis making fools of themselves.  
Rabbi Arnie Eisen reminds us to look at the Torah portion and prophetic readings for Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately before Purim, in order to understand the holiday’s full significance.  Shabbat Zachor translates as the Shabbat of Remembrance. We read that we are supposed to remember the evil Amalek, the enemy who attacked even the weakest people who lagged behind as the people went free from Egypt. And in this remembering, we are also paradoxically reminded that we are supposed to blot out Amalek’s name.  Then we read the Haftarah about King Saul, asking who forgot to remember that very enemy.  Saul failed to execute the Amalekite king Agag, and later the job was finished by the prophet Samuel.  There is a connection between Mordechai and Saul, as they are botht hought to be from the tribe of Benjamin.  Haman, according to our tradition is descended from the evil King Agag, and also traces his lineage back to the ancient enemy of Israel, as an Amalekite.  
On Purim, we embrace the silliness and joy, but we are also commanded “zachor” - 
remember. The only true way to eliminate the memory of Amalek is to work for social justice. We are told that we should be perfecting the world so that the evil achieved by Amalek would be impossible to imagine.
 Is it possible that the fate of a people could have been decided as it was in the book of Esther by one queen’s failure to show up to entertain the king in front of her courtiers?  Or perhaps by another’s success in a beauty contest? Did the Jewish people survive by mitzvah? By divine intervention? Or as Arnie Eisen points out, perhaps in the Purim they are just at the right place at the right time and survive quite by chance.
 We drown out the voice of Amalek, as we scream as loud as we canto mask Haman’s name. We celebrate with joy, the time when quite by chance, we were victorious over Haman and in turn Amalek.
 We mark this easy day by returning to the HARD work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Chance is perhaps a once in a lifetime (or a once in our history occurrence). After we imbibe, and spiel scribe, and dance and jibe to the tunes of the Beatles, we will get back to the hard work. Ours is not a world that is secured by chance. Rather we must blot out the memory of Amalek, insuring a world of justice and love through the small and large acts of repair we do each and every day.

Jewish Identity and Camp

There is an old story that I love, about a boy who gets a few dollars for his birthday. With that money, he runs to buy a brand new kite. He unfurls the kite to sky and spends the afternoon holding it tight as it flies high.  At one point in the afternoon, a man in a suit comes by and asks the boy what he is doing.  The boy explains that he is fly-ing a kite, but the kite has been un-furled so far, you can’t even see it through the clouds. How does he know it is still there, the man asks?  The boy answers, “I can feel the tug.”  We want our kids to feel the tug of Jewish identity, connection with our Jewish tradition, people, a connection with the wider Jewish world.  We want them to feel that tug, wherever they are.  That is why, even though it is February, and the weather is chilly, I am thinking about summer. I serve as a camp rabbi each summer not only because I find that it helps me to energize and refresh my teaching skills,but mostly because I believe it its power. Jewish camps gives young people a strong sense of Jewish identity. It allows them to feel that tug.

And while I think that camp is important for all, because we have a one day a week Hebrew school at Beth Chaim, few weeks spent at camp living completely in Jewish time is the perfect summer complement to our program. Please join us for our Camp Shabbat and Mini Camp Fair on the evening ofFebruary 10th.  Young families will gather for a fun in-door ‘campfire’ service at 6pm, and this will be followed with a congregational potluck dinner organized by Sarah Caroll. Our main "campfire’ service will begin at 7:30 and our 3rd and 4th graders will be featured leaders.  At the oneg, we will sponsor a mini camp fair and be joined by representatives from Camp Harlam (Day Camp and Overnight), Galil, and Camps Airy, and Louise. Wear your camp shirts and bring your ruach (spirit!).  We will also have info on the great $1000 One Happy CamperGrants available to families through the Foundation for Jewish Camping and Jewish Federation.  Still feel the tug?  Want your young person to establish a lifelong connection? THINK

CAMP!

Truthiness vs Emet...Discerning the Truth

 

In a classic segment defining his concept of truthiness, Stephen Colbert, fully in character on the Colbert Report, explains that book knowledge is outdated. What do I need with Britannica? They tell me that the Panama Ca- nal was finished in 1914. If I want to say that it was finished in 1941, that is my right.

The Oxford Dictionary just declared the truthy equivalent term, post-truth,” as the world of the year for 2016. This word is an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opin- ion than emotional appeals. Due to the onslaught of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, Colberts satire is now our new truthy” reality. It is becoming so difficult to locate the truth.

In Jewish life, we are taught not to accept the truth, but to wrestle with the facts in order to uncover reality. Ours is a tradition without a prescriptive catechism. That is, we derive our beliefs from the Jewish rites and rituals that we experience. When the Torah was present- ed to Israel, the people said Naaseh...vnishmah. We will experience it first, and carry out its commandments, then we will understand. From this we learn that emet, or truth in Hebrew, must be tested against experience. Finding truth is only possible through a process of discernment.

Denial,” the new film details the true story of Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Lipstadt is a scholar of Jewish History from Atlantas Emory University. She wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust which took those who challenged the veracity of the Shoah to task. In 1996, a sup- posed scholar who falsified history to argue that the Holocaust never happened took Dr. Lipstadt to court in the UK accusing her of libel. Here in the US, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, but in this UK libel suit, the burden of proof was on Dr. Lipstadt herself.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film showed survivors of the Holocaust, imploring Lipstadt to put them on the stand. Having lived through the tragedy of the Shoah, the survivors were outraged that an intellectual discussion full of false facts could supplant the truth of their lived experience. As Dr. Lipstadt says, it is important for people who change facts, to do so as long as you call their fact changing an opinion. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but opinion is not truth. In the context of this excellent movie, it is clear that falsely calling an opinion truth is a perver- sion of justice.

This is indeed a confusing time. As we read over the posts and articles that are pouring forth from our over active media, it is incumbent upon us to ask questions, and to be dili gent and discerning in our pursuit of truth. 

Digging for the True Meaning of the Covenant

On the Arch of Titus in Rome, there is a relief of Roman Soldiers carrying implements they looted from the Second Temple in Jerusalem. In this picture you can clearly see the seven branched menorah which was in the Temple 2,000 years ago and is today the symbol of the modern state of Israel.  How then can UNESCO resolve that the State of Israel and the Jewish People have no connection or claim to the Western Wall or the Temple Mount? 
Dr. Yuval Baruch of Hebrew University has said that he feels embarrassed as a scholar to even have to offer comment on the recent resolution.  According to Baruch, an archeologist who has spent his entire career studying Jerusalem and its history, having to justify theJewish link to the Temple Mount is “like demanding the ancient stone walls surroundingJerusalem standing to this day, are the ancient stone walls surrounding Jerusalem.”
Our tradition champions truth as a worthy pursuit. When the Torah was given to our

people the Torah records that the people responded ‘naaseh v’nishmah’ ....we will do and then we will understand.  When the Torah was given it was new and the people had to accept it on faith, but through discernment and experience, they committed themselves to digging for the true meaning of the covenant. We are the people of the book and we dig still. We value science, and history, and of course archeology. Today, the truth seems to be a relativist pursuit. Because of social media and the 24hour news cycle, people twist and mold the truth in their own image.  But to our people, people committed to discerning the truth, this is abhorrent.
We must stand up and condemn the recent resolution by UNESCO that Israel and the Jewish People have no historical connection to the Temple Mount. The connections to Jerusalem are complicated. It is a historic and spiritual center for the three major faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  This political theater seeks to simplify this thorny problem in favor  of Palestinian claims. This is unjust.  
You cannot rewrite history.  The future of Jerusalem cannot be negotiated on a falsehoods because political forces what to champion their own version of the truth.  We are fortunate our government opposes this vote. We cannot stand for it.
Please join us the weekend of December 2-4 as we welcome RabbiNeal Gold for a scholar in residence weekend.  Rabbi Gold is a fantastic speaker and is the Program Director for ARZA(Association of Reform Zionists of America). Rabbi Gold will address this very issue, current events in Israel and will also speak about the importance of Zionism today. The weekend will kickoff with an important program following our 7:30 pm Friday evening service on the 2nd. Please mark your calendar for this very enlightening Shabbat.

Avinu Malkeinu, Renew Us!

September 2016

 

 

 

 

Ever seen master straight man Carl Reiner question Mel Brooks’ two-thousand year old man? Reiner asks the sage to describe how religion first developed. “It was like this,” Brooks replies,  “When I was a kid there was a guy in the neigboring tribe who was twice as big and strong as anyone else - his name was Phil.  Everybody was afraid of Phil when he came into our camp, because if he was in a bad mood he would beat people up as he went along.  We used to pray, ‘Please don’t be mad at us, Phil.  Please don’t step on us or break our arms...O great and powerful, Phil!”

 

“One day it started raining really hard. As Phil came over the hill, a bolt of lightening flashed down from the sky and knocked him dead in his tracks.  It was then we knew: there was someone bigger than Phil!”

 

The great awesome Phil has only one name, but when we think of God in Judaism, our God is so powerful, so unique in the eyes of individual Jews, that there are countless names for the Divine.  But on the High Holy days, two names stand out.

Avinu! Malkeinu! .....Our Father! Our King!

 

It is strange, because the rest of the year, I don’t really think of God as father, and I certainly don’t resonate personally with the image of God as a masculine monarch.  But what would the High Holy Days be without Avinu Malkeinu?

 

In fact, Avinu Malkeinu contains multitudes.  Malkeinu is a name for a Divine ruler, God of Judgement sitting on the high and holy throne of heaven.  And yet the image of Avinu is a kind parent...caring, compassionate, intimate, not distant from us, but near as can be. The reason we will repeat Avinu Malkeinu so many times throughout this holy season is that our liturgy is designed not only to helps us move the Divine from the throne of judgement, to the seat of mercy, but also to help ourselves surrender our judgemental side in order to rediscover our own compassion.  Not only in the ways we relate to ourselves, but in the way we interact with our buisiness associates, friends and family.

 

It would be so much easier of Phil could just wave his strong hands and make miracles happen. However, we refer to our God as Avinu Malkeinu, a God who according to Rabbi Karen Kedar, “is beyond reach and can only be understood in pictures that are diverse and rich. God is father-like, and mother-like, God is like a king, but in actuality, God is none of the above.” God is the ineffable, impossible to name force that challenges us to raise our game, and to turn from our default stance of rigor and judgement towards one another in empathy and love. 

1 Thanks to Rabbi Lawrence Englander for sharing this story in his essay “Re-imagining God,” in Naming God from Jewish Lights Publishing 2015.

 2. Thanks to Rabbi Edwin Goldberg editor of Mishkan HaNefesh for highlighting this teaching in Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, p.13

 3. Rabbi Karen Kedar in her essay “Why We Say Things We Don’t Believe,” from Naming God, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014.

How do we know that God also gardens?

From the Psalms, for its ays that  “tiny plants in God’s house, in God’s backyard, will flourish.”* 

Where ever the summer takes you I hope you will be planting and nurturing.  July is a time for friends and family, a time to nourish ourselves in the sun, to rest and recharge.  Summer is a time when we can plant and harvest and taste the whole world in a strawberry or a tomato or even a zucchini that we pick from our gardens.
Social Action Chair Elaine Goldhammer has proposed that we pool our extra garden produce and donate the fresh harvest to our local food pantries.  She calls this new initiative the Beth Chaim “Zucchini Squad.”  Reach out to her through the directory or through our office if you have extra bounty that you would like to share with those in Chester County with limited access to fresh produce.
I will be out of the office in July but there will be services led by Denise Moser and Julie Robertson, to nurture body and soul.  There will always be a rabbi on call for emergencies. I am grateful to the board for this time to sow my own seeds of creativity for next year as we look forward to more wonderful community building and spirit filled innovation at Beth Chaim.  I will also be traveling to Camp Harlam to spend a full 10 days out of doors on faculty with our young people in the most innovative, loving, and beautiful Reform Jewish Camp setting.
Here is a kavanah for your summer planting. Whether you are planting a new garden or sowing seeds for harvest in the the fall:
I have planted my garden with hope and trust. Let me be awake to the wonder of this garden. As I tend to this garden, let me tend to my own capacity to sustain life.*Happy Planting Beth Chaim! Rabbi Michelle Pearlman
*Modern Midrash and prayer from CLAL in their wonderful Book ofJewish Sacred Practices published by Jewish Lights

The right time for God to find us

With the holiday of Shavuot fast approaching I find myself thinking a lot about God and the gift of revelation. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a famous book called God in Search of Man.  So many of my conversations with people center around the search for God. Some find God on a mountain top, others are able to access the Divine in a moment of prayer or in acts of caring for another human being.  
More often than not, I have conversations with people who are angry and even frustrated that their search for God leaves them feeling empty. For many, God does not seem to be in the expected places. 
But what if what Heschel writes is true? What if we have it backwards?  Perhaps we are not the only one who is searching.  If we are truly in a relationship with the Divine, perhaps God needs each one of us and is searching too.
When Moses discovered the burning bush, he was not looking for Divine connection; he stumbled upon it.  Prophets like Jonah are great examples of people who did everything in their power to run in the other direction, but somehow they were not able to escape God’s call.  Even Jacob, when running away from his brother Esau, laid his head down on a stone pillow and was awakened to a ladder, a host of angels.  Jacob was surprised by the holiness he found in an unexpected place, one that he did not know.
A few weeks ago, I had the blessing of going to a seminar on the new High Holiday prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh.  The words Mishkan HaNefesh mean sanctuary of the soul.  I was really taken with a statement by Rabbi Edwin Goldberg who was explaining  why the new book contained so many different texts providing different theological lenses on commonprayers. For example, for the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, a beloved text that focuses on God’s parental sovereignty. Of course there are translations that affirm God’s supremacy, but there is also a counter text on a facing page that poses a deep human question to God. “Are you there...do you care?“ Rabbi Goldberg explained that to have a text and a countertext across the page from one another is not a conflict. 
The goal of any prayer book, he suggests, is not always to help us find God.  The prayerbook is also there to help us find ourselves. There is space enough for the sceptic, or the angry, or the searcher, along side one imbued with faith. Judaism’s theological tent is large enough for each one of us to find our place without feeling claustrophobic.  Perhaps when we find ourselves in the text, we truly find our place in the community. Maybe then we place ourselves in the right place, and at the right time, for God to find us. 

And Love is Love is Love

 

Though there are many voices weighing in on the tragedy in Orlando, the poetic voice of Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda soared above the rest on Sunday evening's Tony broadcast: 

 

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

 

That nothing here is promised, not one day

 

This show is proof that history remembers

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

 

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, rembrances that hope and love last longer

 

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love

cannot be killed or swept aside....

 

This terror attack was a hate crime. There were 49 victims present in the night club. The concentric circles of sadness,fear and terror radiates out to victims around the world.

 

When our politicians focus immediately on the a political implications, they divert us from the real work. We are to mourn, the dead and care for the victims. There is also a danger of collateral damage as anti-Muslim bias in our country increases.

 

Last weekend we stood at Sinai as we observed the holiday of Shavuot. We connected ourselves one to one to all, across thousands of years. We were standing there at the moment God gave Moses the tablets to pass on to the people. We were there with all who were and all who are yet to be.

 

Let us stand now with the families of those who were killed, the LGBT community, and our Muslim neighbors. Let us stand against all who would increase hatred in our world, and who commit violence in the name of God.

 

In deep sadness,

 

Rabbi Michelle Pearlman

Art of Interfaith Understanding

Art of Interfaith Understanding

Interfaith community dialogue is one of my passions.  Last month, I was invited by the Inter-faith Center of Greater Philadelphia to attend a dialogue session for clergy at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.  The dialogue session was in the form of a tour led by All Rev.John B. Hougen, PhD,  a consultant with the Interfaith Center and a volunteer guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Our clergy group included Rabbis, Imams, Christian clergy, and teachers of the Bahai faith.  I was blessed to join Rabbi Larry Troster from Kesher Israel and Rev John Woodcock from the Church of the Loving Shepherd,  Rev Annalie Korengal and Pam Murphy from our local Bahai community. We proudly represented our area at the program. We began by exploring art from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition.  After our tour, we broke up in discussion groups and were asked to look at one painting in depth. My group focused on the painting The Liberation of The Peon byDiego Rivera. It was enlightening to hear the perspectives of fellow clergy, a Protestant, and a Mennonite minister. We shared perspectives on the compassion shown in the painting, by the rebels. This painting was created in the1930s around the time of the Mexican Revolution. While homes are being burned in the background, the foreground shows the rebels liberating a man who has been beaten and bound.  We were struck by the juxtaposition of violence and compassion.  The men wear ammunition around their necks which helps to convey their hardened and violent lives, but they are drawn with soft lines and shown in muted colors.  Their faces and postures are full of compassion as they incline forward to take care of their fallen comrade.  We all agreed that the horses in the background are glaring at the viewer, challenging us to take action.  It was fascinating to wrestle with the juxtaposition of war and compassion, hardness and softness, revolution and human response, through the lens of different theologies.  Our teens are involved this year in the Walking the Walk interfaith fellowship this year.  As we continue to be touched by the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia and their programs, my hope is that we can expand our teen participation and begin to get some of our adults involved. My experience with the center and their programming has been an incredible introduction to the richest hat our wider community has to offer.

 

Joy, Meaning, Connection, Covenant? It all Starts with Relationships....

I am often asked why I became a rabbi. I always reply, "I became a rabbi because I treasure relationships." One of my favorite rabbinic texts teaches that when two people are together and share words of Torah, the Shechinah, God's presence, is suddenly in that room with them.  When I think about this teaching, I translate Torah as personal stories or teachings that guide our lives. That is, when we are together and truly connecting with one another, sharing our stories, our most precious wisdom, in relationship, then God is there too.

When we were in Jerusalem recently, our congregational group created our own service for Shabbat in our hotel.  Instead of a sermon that evening, I asked people to share some wisdom or realization that they had gleaned in small moments on our journey. One man shared what it meant to him to be in Israel during the yahrtzeit of his father. He was remembering his parents and thinking about how much it might have meant to them to know that their son had finally made it home.  Another woman was raised in another faith, married a Jewish man and raised her son Jewish. For her, a trip to the Western Wall helped her to understand that the difficult sacrifice she had made was the right decision. Needless to say there was not a dry eye in the room by the end of the service. Many remarked afterward that the open exchange and hearts confirmed that God was in that place that Shabbat. 

This is the reason I love Judaism. It is a faith tradition most authentically realized in relationship.  Consider the concept of the minyan.  We need 10 people in order to say kaddish for a loved one.  Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh, we are taught.  As members of the covenant of Israel, we are responsible for one another.  We have an obligation to know one another and to take care of one another.

This is why I was delighted to read David Brooks' recent column "How Covenants Make Us" (New York Times, April 5, 2016).  In it Brooks acknowledges that we live in a society that venerates the individual, but that we pay a price for our autonomy.  He writes about the forces that lead some alienated young men to join terrorist organizations like ISIS just to feel a sense of belonging.  All too often, we feel powerless, according to Brooks.  "The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are - when they have firm identities."

As a congregational rabbi, helping members of my community firm up their identity is what I do every day.  Brooks writes that "people in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts."  That service in Jerusalem took place towards the end of our trip.  We had ridden planes, and busses with one another.  We had woken up early and navigated culture shock and jet lag, but what we were forging was a stronger relationship with one another. Through those relationships we were also safe to share the truths which began to emerge, through shared experience about our own personal identities. Out of these covenantal moments came incredible gifts, like the tender truths which were revealed during that service.

Brooks again, "These days the social fabric will be repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants - widening the circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides."

Forging and deepening relationships, creating and forming covenants, caring for one another, sharing intimate truths, inviting God's presence to dwell in our midst, and repairing our world....What an incredible and unique value proposition synagogue life has to offer. That is why, for me, the joy of Judaism is here at Beth Chaim. It truly is all in the relationships.

Please join us this Sunday at 2pm when we welcome Dr. Ron Wolfson to Beth Chaim to speak about his incredible book Relational Judaism. Dr. Wolfson is an inspiring teacher and his wisdom guides my rabbinate. We are fortunate to present this program because of our relationships with many partner organizations in Chester County.  This is truly a community event that should not be missed.

 

From Oats and Empty Pages, to Mystery, Inclusivity and Deep Meaning

 

There is an old story about a gambler. The man takes a bet, believing that he can teach his horse to pray. So, he hides oats in the pages of the prayerbook and trains the horse to turn the pages. Easy right?

Unfortunately, prayer is one of those things that looks easy, but is really very complex. As individuals we have to find our way into prayer, beyond the oats and the turning of the pages. Prayer is both an intellectual and spiritual pursuit in which the words and themes of prayerbook must mirror the truth and mystery of our modern lives. But all too often there are barriers. Our current High Holiday prayerbook, for example, was published in 1978. The face of American Judaism has changed drastically since the late 70s, but that book has remained static. Fortunatately, our movement has developed a new High Holiday Prayerbook called Mishkan Ha Nefesh, which more accurately mirrors the truth of our lives in 2016. It contains transliteration of every prayer for those who come from other faith traditions, or who were born Jewish but do not yet feel completely comfortable with the Hebrew. In addition, it contains texts which are more inclusive of women and LGBTQ Jews. God is not only referred to in the masculine, but the female images of God which are found in our Jewish tradition are also invoked. Likewise there is a passage that translates the more gender exclusive language of bride and groom’ into the more gender-neutral translation of couple.’ In addition, in one option for the Torah Blessings, gender read out entirely so that transgender people can feel comfortable being called forward for an aliyah. Shouldnt everyone have a voice in Gods choir?To expand on the theme of inclusion, the new book also contains different theological perspectives. Over the years I have had many challenging conversations with people who were alienated from Judaism during the High Holiday services, by prayers like Unetaneh Tokef” which depict God as judge and arbiter deciding “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water.” In Mishkan HaNefesh, this traditional text is juxtaposed with counter texts’ which present alternate Jewish perspectives on prayer themes. In Mishkan HaNefesh, a poem entitled The Power of this Day” is positioned just opposite Unetaneh Tokef” and it reads ...

"An empty page, an open book, nothing is written and nothing is sealed. Flesh and blood, frail creatures, our lives are fleeting and subject to chance. Yet this we possess; the strength to per- sist, to prevail, to comfort one another in the dark. Prayer, right action, a turning toward the good - these give us hope to bear the pain of life." 

A beautiful feature of this new prayer book is just as in Judaism itself, the ancient and modern are set side by side, and many theological traditions are represented.   I am proud that our ritual committee and board have agreed that it is time to update our High Holiday ritual practice and adopt this new book so that we can be more inclusive. In the pages of this newsletter, you will find information about our new campaign to bring Mishkan HaNefesh to our congregation. Since we provide a prayerbook to each member and guest at Beth Chaim, we are raising money to buy over 450 copies of this new High Holiday machzor for our congregation.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all human beings...Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” 

With your help we will bring this new prayerbook to our community. Prayer alienates when it amounts only to oats and the turning of pages. May this new prayerbook allow us to develop an even more diverse and nuanced prayer language, as we enlarge our tent, and invite many more to contemplate lifes surprising mysteries here in our sanctuary. 

Why We Need Purim Now More than Ever

Beth Chaim travelers marking our first ever trip to Israel with a visit to the Western Wall

What a trip it has been!  Our first ever Beth Chaim Reform Congregation trip to Israel is now complete. While in Israel, I purchased a beautiful necklace inscribed with the words from Mishna Avot 2:5, wisdom from Rabbi Hillel. They translate as follows: In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be human. 

I needed this trip.  I needed a break from the vitriol and hate speech that has characterized our presidential election cycle.  I will wear Rabbi Hillel's words like a reminder around my neck, to remind myself that it is my Jewish obligation to stand up for those who are marginalized in our country, to use my voice to cry out against hate. 

I also needed to be in Israel, with these 25 travelers, most of whom who were there for the very first time. It was a joy to see them discover Israel and Israelis on their own terms. To be with them when they began to wrestle with the complexity of the land, and the political situation not through the eyes of the media, but through their own eyes. Too many times, in our media, Israel is portrayed as a place where there are no human beings.  That is, the Israelis are unfairly portrayed as oppressors with no regard for human rights.  When we were in Israel, walking the streets, dealing directly with the issues, meeting the people, learning the history, our travelers were able to see that Israel and Israelis do not live in a world of choices that are black and white. They have to work extremely hard to live by democratic values in a Middle Eastern neighborhood that too often is incredibly dangerous and inhospitable.  Rabbi Hillel's injunction to treat people humanely, especially in a place where too often others are not acting with humanity in mind, is really put to the test today in modern Israel.

And then of course, there is Purim.  We were fortunate to be in Jerusalem in the days just before Purim, the holiday which is full of fun and frivolity, but really has a very serious message.  Haman was ready to exterminate all of the Jews of Shushan.  Esther and her cousin Mordechai found themselves in a place where humanity was devalued, and they were called to stand up and speak truth to power, striving to affirm the humanity of a people that were threatened.  It was not easy for Esther to surrender her place of comfort, and to take action. But she understood that she had been chosen just for this important task.

In a place where people are not acting humanely, we must all strive to be human.  These days after the explosions in Belgium, Paris, San Bernadino are scary days. We understand what Israelis feel every day. There are evil people in our world, who would rob innocents of their lives, and have us live in fear.  We also have forces in our own country who would trade upon that fear, using scapegoating tactics to seduce us into hating others. But we are taught that each person is a human being, created in the image of God. Our fear and hatred cannot blind us to that truth.

So we celebrate Purim with fun and silliness and with joy, for that is also a human need. But under the frivolity is a serious and important message from Rabbi Hillel.

In a place where no one is acting like human beings, our task is to strive to affirm our own humanity and the humanity of others. 

Chag Purim Sameach

What Will Future Generations Uncover and See? -from guest blogger Victoria Robinson

Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,  Adonai Tzvaot .... (Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts -Isaiah 6:3)

  • We are peeling back layers of time, history, peoplehood: traveling from modern day Tel Aviv, center of commerce, entertainment, diversity, all the way up to Lake Kinneret, better known to all as the Sea of Galilee. Like archeologists we uncover monuments and museums that bring our predecessors to life. Mayor Meir Dizengoff on his mare, Yitzchak Rabin, and the pioneers of early Israel.  They are not burried under layers of concrete, glass, WIFI, and automobile exhaust.  They began the processes that brought flowers to the desert.  They brought inchoate dreams to fruition.  They lay down foundations we can see, touch, feel and dream today. They used tools including hoes, rakes, sand and water, mosaic tiles, seeds and cuttings, military expertise and devotion, the love of Israel as they forsaw it. Modern Israel has more tools: high tech computers, medicine, and water conservation treatment.  We build on one another's efforts, work, dreams and visions. What will future generations uncover and see?

Were we "feeling it" at Tel Aviv Airport? Were the layers opening up?  What did I expect? The shepherd watching his flock at night? Someone walking over the waves?  No electric power lines?

What did we get?  The glories of the ancient world.  The sand and the sea, the rush of the waves -as did our ancestors. We get the glory of creation where it all began, the virtual blood, sweat and tears of those who made modern airports and traffic noise possible - maybe even blessings.  We are friends gathering at Kibbutz Ha Goshrim, under a stone arch, having a service to say Kaddish for dear ones, feeling it in an indescribable way.  The prayerful, "Oh my God!!" moments found in inspirations and sights. Holiness is found in our people's own land, our future, our blessings and feeling the presence of the Divine in each moment.

Shalom Aleichem from Jerusalem!  -Victoria Robinison

February 2016

With a brother 13 years my junior, I often felt like an only child. One summer, when I was very young, my parents sent me to overnight camp. I cried, as if on cue, every OTHER night.

My protective parents never urged me to re- turn.

As I grew older, my regret grew as I met friends who had been deeply changed by their Jewish camping experience. Now as a parent, Camp Harlam faculty member, and of course, a rabbi, I witness first hand what a blessing Jewish camp is for our youth.

Here are my top 10 reasons to send a young person to Jewish Camp:

10. Foster responsibility and independence:

At Harlam my two older children embrace ac- tivites that they fight at home. Two small ex- amples are how each camper has a role in nikayon, keeping the bunk clean and even setting up and cleaning up in the chadar ochel (dining hall). Why dont they fight it? It is part of camp culture couched in Jewish values.

I also love how Harlam encourages campers independence to grow while still providing a safe and structured environment. If a child is up on the adventure course, about to take a leap of faith sliding down the zipline, there are expert staff members to guide each step and loving counselors to help build courage and encourage risk taking.

9. Give a child a chance to live life on Jewish time, learning through the lens of Jewish val- ues. At Jewish camp, Jewish learning is not something our kids experience once or twice per week; it is immersive. At Harlam, each week has an ethical theme or middah. So if a child is working on climbing the tower, or slid- ing down the zipline, the middah of Ometz Lev or courage may be the focus of discussion. Shabbat is highly anticipated by campers be- cause it is celebrated in the most joyful way, through festive foods, the wearing of white, student led prayer services, and special privi- leges for the special day.

8. Best of Judaism: At camp, counselors, Jew- ish educators, cantors, and rabbis like me strive to give the children the most joyful and experiential connection with Judaism. The programs are innovative because each talent- ed staff and faculty member brings his or her best. There are also international staff mem- bers from places such as Israel who create relationships with our children and help them to widen horizons in a very personal way.

7. Safe place to explore spirituality: Where in our world is it safe to question, to talk about ones inner life, or even about God? Jewish summer camp. With a grant from the Jim Jo- seph Foundation Harlam also upped its inclusion game last summer with a full time inclusion specialist for students with special needs. This insures that Harlam is a safe place for children of diverse backgrounds and learning styles. The conversation about spirituality is always richer when every- one feels accepted and safe.

6. Creative Tefilah: Imagine praying in an outdoor sanctuary, the trunk of a tree the natural cradle or ark for the Torah. Each Mon- day, faculty and staff create something called Monday modalities, which is a creative (sometimes off the wall) prayer experiences for our youth. My colleague Rabbi Ellie Miller calls her play dough based service, PRAY DOUGH. My offering last summer was a service consisting only of Top 40 pop music related to the themes of the prayerbook. Can you imagine the Mi Chamocha as the Israelites’ ‘Fight Song?

5. Jewish role modeling: Many of our students at BCRC are one of a few, if not the only Jewish student in their class at school. At Harlam, our students are not only surrounded by other Jewish kids, but the CITs, counselors and senior staff members are com- mitted young people, who have a passion for Judaism and are trained to interact as a mentor and a role model.

4. Feeling part of something larger. Linked to the point above, for many of our children, it is lonely to be Jewish. At Harlam there are hundreds of Jewish kids and many return summer after sum- mer for the feeling of connectedness they find there.

3. Rejuvenation: Jewish camp is a sanctuary from school and family life. Our kids are so programmed, so scheduled. At Jewish camp aside from the rest and special character of Shabbat, they really feel like they are at home in an atmosphere very different from their every day.

2. Friends. Harlams tagline: Where friends become family’ is embraced both through formal and informal moments. Counse- lors work hard on the values of kehilah (community), and chaverut (friendship). Students have a chance to disconnect from technology and take the time to connect with their fellow campers. Camp friends are truly the best friends.

1. And of course, fun! The dedicated staff at these camps are working hard now in the off season, to set the stage for our chil- dren to experience camp as joyful, silly, and monumentally fun.

My two weeks on faculty last summer have left me wanting more. I hope to be returning to Camp Harlam during the camps second session. We have Beth Chaim students attending both Harlam day and residential camps. In addition there are many other great Jewish camps. Beth Chaim students are represented at Galil, Saginaw, Camps Airy and Louise and many others. Join us for a taste of camp at Shabbat Services on February 12, 2016 (6:00 for young children/7:30 for the wider community). Wear white for Shabbat, and join us for a camp style service featuring guest speaker Eytan Graubart, Director of Harlam Day Camp. Immedi- ately following services we will have a mini-camp fair and Oneg Shabbat featuring representatives from Harlam, Camps Airy and Louise, and Camp Galil. Will the oneg feature smores? You will have to come to find out! 

January 2016 News Letter Afflicted and Uncomfortable

January 2016

AFFLICTED AND UNCOMFORTABLE

 

 When I was in rabbinical school I learned that the role of the rabbi was both to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We live in a time of great fear. Our 24-hour news cycle beams images of terrifying attacks right into our living rooms. If we have our phone in our hands, in an instant we can be watching a violent video that causes us to shake in our shoes. We want only to have peace and quiet, to be safe, to be comfortable. And yet, though our tradition champions peace and finding rest on Shab-bat, we are not supposed to sit idle. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, writes a wonderful blog that he calls Martini Judaism. With that title he teaches that we are a people who should be both shaken and stirred.  Abraham, Rab-bi Salkin teaches was the first on the path not only to monotheism, but also in his will-ingness to challenge the status quo. Abraham was a breaker of idols and we too, are called upon not to become complacent. Eli Weisel gave an eloquent speech at the White House in 1999, entitled “The Perils of Indifference.”  Drawing on his youth in Nazi German, Weisel is our Jewish conscience. His observation in 1999 was that we were living in a time full of violence. This is even more true in 2016. But though there is violence in the world, instead of searching for a way to combat it, we search instead for a safe place to hide out. Our normal default is indifference.  Wiesel teaches that the etymological root of indifference is ‘no difference.’ Which he observes as a strange liminal state where there is no light, and yet no darkness, where there is no clear good and no clear evil. He reminds us that the most tragic prisoners of Auschwitz were called the Muselmanner.” These were the people who spent their time on the ground, reclin-ing or siting. Their stare was vacant. They did not seem to be experiencing distress; they were neither hungry or  thirsty. They were just at rest, they were numb. Their death had come and they were yet una-ware. Indifference is not a safe place to hide out in a time of conflict. Instead, Weisel teaches, it is an end. It does not benefit the individual, but rather benefits the one who is inflicting terror and causing us to freeze in our place. We have learned too much in our history to allow ourselves to be by-standers.Instead, we Jews allow ourselves to be af-flicted, and do not settle for comfort. We ask to be shaken, and of course to be stirred. Like Tevye, we might ask if God could choose someone else for a change. But perhaps challenging racism, decrying terror, and championing justice is the work for which we have been chosen.