Thursday, February 24, 2011

Responding to the Irresponsible -- Beck PT I

The following text appeared on my facebook page today -- Thank you to Joel Wanger for posting it for his friends to see:

Jewish Funds For Justice: Glenn Beck's Apology Is "Not Enough"
February 24, 2011 12:46 pm ET by Media Matters staff

Jewish Funds For Justice today released the following response to Glenn Beck's apology for his attacks on Reform Judaism (I apologize that, as usual, the links did not transfer -- I HIGHLY recommend that you DO follow Beck's advice this far, and "do your own homework" -- go to my facebook page,, where this link is now my status; click on the link to the JFJ response, and then click on the links to find the original slur, the responses, and Beck's "apology"):


Glenn Beck's apology for comparing Reform Judaism to "Radicalized Islam" is welcome but incomplete. While we are heartened to hear him recognize his ignorance, he still has not acknowledged that the letter signed by 400 rabbis and organized by Jewish Funds for Justice represented a cross-section of denominations, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal rabbis.

Glenn Beck's characterization of Reform Judaism is in keeping with his longstanding hostility toward people who see their faith linked to pursuing the common good. This was made clear in March of 2010, when Mr. Beck advised people to leave their churches if their clergy spoke about social justice.

Mr. Beck's demonization of his political opponents is a regular feature of his radio and television shows. This problem is systemic. His remarks about Reform Jews are only the most recent example of the attacks that occur daily on Beck's show.

We reiterate our call for Rupert Murdoch to end Mr. Beck's tenure at Fox News and for Salem Communications to commit not to add his syndicated radio show to their New York stations. Anything short of this reflects an unwillingness to take seriously the harm Mr. Beck causes to many in our community and beyond.

And they are right -- he KNEW he had to apologize, and as you listen to (or even read the transcript of) his words, it is CLEAR that he is not apologizing for what he said, or slandering people in their beliefs and actions, but making excuses for himself and WHY it happened. He NEVER uses the word Reform, never makes a positive or accurate comment to countermand the lies of the other day. Contrary to his contention, this is the radio equivalent of burying it on page 2 -- if you didn't here the original or know the context, you would have no idea wtf he is apologizing FOR! In the end, he apologized to Abe Foxman!! Who was not slandered in the first place, but provided yet another subtle Beckist jab at his "favorites" if you have followed the story.

To do, accurately, what he did, possibly by mistake the other day, this "apology" is the equivalent to the bad old days when Arafat would mutter the right buzzwords in English, and the Arabic, in context, was clearly inciting his followers to keep up the good fight!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

In Their Own Words -- Again

Since I didn't preach (at least, not officially) last Shabbat, and I am trying to give my readers what to read anyway, here are two VERY different essays worthy of our thoughts and consideration.

The first is an extremely thought provoking piece about the state of life and the economy in America today, and how we got to where we are today. Regardless of whether you find this amusing or a cheap shot, I challenge you to move beyond the biases of your own positions and contemplate the data presented carefully:

The second is not as universal in scope. But it will probably hit those of you who are part of a religious community, especially a synagogue (like mine), just as hard as the first. Again, it is easy to throw counter arguments to almost every point. I would love to see some empirical evidence that embracing this philosophy in practical terms DOES lead to the desired results. But again, move past the biases and listen to the words....

And please -- the fun in blogs like today's comes from the thoughtful exchange of reactions -- it is called debate, and it leads us to fine tune our own thoughts and ideas :)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts of the Heart – A Sermon for T’rumah February 4, 2011
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Of course, it happened again. It always happens! Just never like this!

Those of you who were here last Shabbat heard my admission of a near faux pas of major proportion, when I realized, at 6 PM on Friday at the conclusion of a long and challenging week, that the sermon I had written was actually based on the WRONG Torah portion (the one we read tonight, not the one for last Shabbat!). I promised that, since the other materials I included were not time bound, that I would give that sermon this Shabbat. A sermon entitled “On Being Prepared, Not Rushing In, Gifts of the Heart, and the Power of Words.”

Shoulda known better! EVERY time I have a sermon done in advance, something comes up and makes me chuck the original right out the window. The handshake on the White House lawn. September 11. The DC sniper. But NOTHING could have prepared me for this week’s version of the Rabbi’s corollary to Murphy’s Law. NOTHING!

When the phone rang at about 1 PM on Tuesday, and Elizabeth told me it was Emily, the odds were real good that something was wrong. She was in the middle of student teaching – she shouldn’t be calling. Even with that awareness, confirmed when I heard the shaking in her voice even before I heard her say a word, the words still struck me like a ton of bricks. “Koomar just called. Mitch died this morning.”

Koomar (NOT his real name, but a beloved nickname – no slur here) is a friend from camp. Mitch is as well. The son of two Rabbis of whom I am quite fond. The best friend of Emily’s boyfriend. A really good 17 year old kid. The kind who, if they found him dead with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, and an empty pill bottle in the other, your first reaction would be to ask whose idea of a sick joke was it to put those there, rather than inferring cause and effect. NOT the subject of a sentence whose predicate is “died this morning.”

This was every parent’s nightmare; every Rabbi’s challenge. Inconceivable. Impossible. And, as I discovered after making a few phone calls as Emily drove to the Temple, absolutely true. Apparently, he was discovered unconscious that morning in his home. As the autopsy seems to have confirmed, without warning, his heart just stopped beating.

There was, plain and simply, absolutely no way to make any sense of this moment. No chance of finding words to comfort my somewhat hysterical daughter. Not as a Rabbi, anyway. I resorted to Dad mode, as I held her tight, and shared her pain, and helped her deal with the news herself, even as she tried to help Kumar and Sam deal as well. For that moment, it was all I had to offer. I hoped it was enough.

So, there I was yesterday morning, driving with Emily (and Evan and John, who also knew Mitch) to northern New Jersey to say goodbye and help bury Mitch. To help his parents and family deal with the inconceivable. To be the Rabbi Steve that the Harlam family needed me to be, and that I needed to be to get some sense of normalcy back. All while I silently struggled myself to make sense of it all, and continued to fail miserably.

The turnout was predictably overwhelming. Camp friends. Fellow Rabbis. His school friends. His parents’ work colleagues. Family friends and relatives. All, it seemed, going through the same struggle – HOW? WHY?

Major kudos to my colleague – Rabbi Steve Kushner – for handling the impossible challenge of this funeral. His eulogy was BRILLIANT – it clearly showed his close relationship and sincere affection and respect for Mitch; it started, in some small way, to put Mitch’s death, and life, into some perspective; it allowed us all to begin to heal a bit. As I said to a couple of friends afterwards, “I hope, when I grow up, to be able to deliver a eulogy that powerful – once.”

Part of his message was to tie his eulogy to our Torah portion, T’rumah. To note, very accurately, how much of Mitch’s life was a display of his willingness and ability to share freely the gifts of his heart, just as the start of our portion instructs Moses to have the Israelites bring the gifts of their hearts in order to build God’s house in our midst. In that single, insightful teaching, Rabbi Kushner also provided the ironic twist that made all the rest of his words work, that at least for me, began the process of understanding and healing, at least of providing context and an ability to believe that there could have been order in all this.

Why were there upwards of 900 people sitting and standing to hear these powerful words? Many, to be sure, were there because of the impact Mitch had had on them, even in his short life of 17 years. Many were there, offering the gifts of their hearts to his grieving family. But almost all of us were there, at least in part, seeking a sense of meaning in this tragic, inexplicable death, for ourselves.

If Judaism’s teaching is correct, and I still believe that it is, that death is simply the last act of our life on this earth – unavoidable, and not to be feared – then what more profound proof of God’s order and presence, even in the seemingly incomprehensible moments of confronting loss, than to have the circumstances of one’s death mirror how they lived their lives. If Mitch had to die at 17, after giving so much from his heart, how else should he go than by having his heart just stop? No matter how non-sensical it seems to the rest of us!

And Rabbi Kushner shared one other piece of wisdom as well. He acknowledged that many of us were mourning the premature passing of a young man with such potential for a future that now would not be. Without criticizing us, he reminded us how much Mitch had achieved, even in such a short time, and encouraged us to focus on the accomplishments that were real, rather than the fantasy of what might have been had he lived. He redirected us to Mitch’s life, not his death! And he did so as much or more with his example as with his words!

As I drove home, I pondered the power of that truth. I tried to find a way to distill that piece of wisdom out, as a valuable teaching for this Shabbat. I came up with the following:

[take out bottle] I place before us, for all to see, this bottle, with some liquid in it. Deliberately, the amount of liquid is well less than half the capacity of the bottle, lest we fall into the classic philosophical debate as to whether the bottle is half-full or half-empty. Because Kushner’s truth, demonstrated by Mitch’s life, is even more profound than that!

Most of us would either dismiss this bottle, especially if it were one of many in the refrigerator, for one of two reasons. With no label, it is unclear what the contents are. It might turn out to be a flavor we don’t like, or even, possibly, something not intended for consumption. But even more likely, most of us would dismiss this bottle, as lacking enough content to be able to serve the needs of quenching our thirst.

In the latter case, whether we realize or not, our perception of what IS in the bottle is shaped by what is not. In the former case, the inability to identify the contents is the key to our behavior. In the case of the death of a 17 year old, we naturally focus on what is not – the expected life that will not be lived – at the expense of the what is. We have difficulty fully identifying his ability to quench our thirsts and satisfy our needs for failure to comprehend exactly what he was and what he offered.

But, suppose I place this same bottle in front of a homeless person on the street, or a wanderer stranded in the desert or on a deserted island? Will either of those concerns that inhibited us from drinking the contents of this bottle apply in that case? Probably not!

We simply didn’t allow ourselves to fully recognize the gift that Mitch was in life. Not even those of us who admired and respected and knew him so well. Because none of us expected that Monday would be his last day among us! It took his death to shake our reality, and make us question so much, before we could be fully open to seeing what was in the bottle of his life as valuable. We needed Rabbi Kushner to focus us back on what was – his life, and not on what wasn’t – his death!

Wednesday night, as I taught our Confirmation class while still attempting to make sense of Mitch’s death, I was somewhat unfair to our kids. I held them up to Mitch’s example. I used his death in juxtaposition to their lives, as I asked them to try to express who they are as Jews today. Of course they came up short – because why should any of them sense the urgency of that moment? I am fairly sure Mitch didn’t spend Monday any differently than most other days. How many of us know when our last day will be? None of us! Isn’t that the point of Rabbi Hillel’s injunction to repent on the day before our death? That BECAUSE we don’t know when that will be, we should end each day with our karmic and cosmic accounts in order, in case it IS our last? And therefore, by extension, seek to accomplish all that we can each day!?

But was I really being unfair? As the Harlam family shared a meal after the service, to help each other adjust to the new reality of life after Mitch, I sat with the supervisor of our CIT program this summer – the program Mitch was in last summer. We know that we need to address Mitch’s death at some point, and how we could teach positive lessons from it. We began to form the outline of something that could keep Mitch’s memory alive and positive in the camp family.

By the time I got home, I had decided what I needed to say tonight. I needed to share with my Solel mishpachah the lesson I was blessed to learn with my Harlam family yesterday about the giving of gifts from the heart, and the beauty of being able to do so every day of our lives – for as long as we are fortunate enough to have our lives last.

But, I also remembered something else, which I offer as just ONE example of how some of us already DO both offer those gifts from our hearts, and get something back for our sharing as well. I remembered that I promised our Torah study group that I would take advantage of tonight being the night when we lap our Jewish selves for this year. When our continuing exploration of the Torah text, in serial fashion, picking up each week where we left off last week, and letting the discussion take us WHEREVER it will, is caught and passed by our annual cycle of weekly Torah readings in the sanctuary.

Because two weeks ago I challenged them to reach out, and bring even more people to the table. Not because we NEED greater numbers. But rather, because those who have become the core regulars get so much out of our participation, and we recognize the value of what we gain and its potential to empower others in our family, and seek to share.

For me, the beauty and power of our Torah study group is its mechanics. A group of us get together every Shabbat morning, and sit around a selection from our sacred text tradition. We do not listen to our Rabbi spout his wisdom (or demonstrate his lack thereof). Rather, we each bring to the discussion our own knowledge, experience, and world view. We do not always all agree. We do, however, all respect the opinions of the others, and their knowledge and experience – the gifts of their hearts and minds that they freely share with us. Our ultimate understandings, and our ability to apply what we learn to the lives we are trying to live, are shaped far more by these gifts brought by the group members, than they are by those specifically brought by me.

This example, this model, is powerful in its own right – hence our desire to share the experience with others. Please, do not let the fact that there is a core of regulars scare you off! Do not be afraid that you are jumping into this in the middle of something, that you start at a disadvantage. The more voices we have at the table, the greater the depth and diversity of experience, the more gifts being offered freely from more hearts, the more likely we all will be to benefit from what emerges.
And this model is also what we should be aiming for in all that we do together as a congregational family. It is already how we come together on Shabbat in prayer – sharing our unique experiences, needs, and desires with others, to help them, even as in so doing, we help ourselves. We do so in our social action work, in even more obvious and tangible ways. Let us also strive to do so in our membership recruitment and integration, making newcomers feel welcome at the table by sharing ourselves with them, and valuing what they bring to us.

As Rabbi Kushner taught us all yesterday, what we need to strive for is to be Mitch – not by seeking to take the place of one who has now been taken from us, but rather by following his example. By smiling – always. By being ourselves – our best selves – and seeing others as being their best. By sharing the gifts of our hearts, freely, willingly, in all that we do. Not by trying, but by being.

As a congregation, by finding more metaphorical tables to sit around together with others. More texts – both those written in sacred scrolls and those written instead by the blood, sweat, laughter and tears of our real life experiences – to gather around and grapple with together.

And to be aware in our lives, without being overwhelmed by the darkness of this awareness, that none of us knows when our last day will be on this earth. And therefore, to live our lives, especially our Jewish lives, with a little more urgency, a little more intentionality, a little more passion, a little more awareness of who we are as Jews, and what makes us Jewish.

If THESE are the gifts of our hearts that we share freely, then the structure we build in our midst to parallel the Tabernacle of our Torah reading for this Shabbat, the one that allows God to dwell both amongst us collectively, and within us, individually and collectively, will be one that strengthens all our lives, and the lives of those around us. In good times and in bad.

Thank you, Rabbi Kushner, for guiding me to this understanding, as you helped us all to deal with Mitch’s life and death appropriately. Thank you Mitch, and by extension to your entire family, for living your life in a way that is now a text for all of us to learn from. I am only sorry it took not being able to thank you in person for me to learn this lesson. KYR

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What do I say to my daughter?

What Do I Say to My Daughter?

The human mind is an amazing organ. It works at speeds we cannot even measure, yet leaves us feeling as if we are in total control. When the phone rang Tuesday at about 1 PM, and Elizabeth beeped through on the intercom to say that it was Emily, I had a second, maybe 2, to react between hearing the words, uttering “Thanks,” and clicking the button to talk to my 17 year old daughter.

In that second or two, like a classic scene from an old Marx Brothers’ film, I had done the full inventory. I had seen her leave the house to go student teach. If something had happened in that mile and half to her or the car, I would already have known before I had left the house to come into the office. So she was at school, where she should be working with her second graders, not calling me. Something must be wrong. Or maybe not – maybe they are in a special, and she has a minute or two, and she forgot to tell me something, or something just came up.

By the time I heard her voice, I was already regaining my sense of calm. As soon as I heard her, I no longer was. I could hear her pain and confusion. The words, clearly spoken, made no sense, as much as I understood exactly what she had said. “Where are you?” I asked. “Still at school,” she replied, “But about to head home.” “Would you rather come here?” I asked. “Yes, daddy,” she cried.

Even as I fretted about whether she was in any condition to drive, my training as a Rabbi kicked in. I knew I had roughly 12 minutes. Not much time. And much to do. I needed to confirm that the news that had started this whole scene in motion was, in fact, true, even though I knew that it must be, for not even a teenager could make something like this up as a joke. I needed to figure out who I could safely call to get that confirmation, and whatever other information was available to try to make sense of the unimaginable. And I needed to hold it together, at least for a few more minutes, because the worst was still to come.

The first three phone calls all went to voice mail. I rechecked my e-mails and Facebook, looking for that telltale first sign of the impending deluge. Still nothing there. In desperation, I called the Camp Harlam office, not at all sure that they would know, but knowing that if they hadn’t heard anything, I would be able to get the next number I needed to call from them.

I knew the person who answered the phone. I could have asked her. But I needed one of the stalwarts – someone to whom I could risk saying the unthinkable without fear of losing face. I had just connected to Howard when I heard the doorbell. I realized that Emily would not hear the confirmation she was dreading from me, but rather with me.

And so it was that as Emily walked into my office, we both heard Howard say, “Sorry to say, it is true.” With that, Emily collapsed on my couch and broke down. I attempted to confront the emotions I could no longer control while asking the needed follow-up questions, that sadly brought no useful information, before hanging up and returning to Daddy mode.

Yesterday was the day that every parent fears. It was the day my daughter came face-to-face with life, when one of her close friends died. Sure we had been through two grandmothers and two great-grandmothers, even in an unfortunately compressed time period that cast a shadow on Emily’s Bat Mitzvah celebration, still. Sure, we had been through my surgery in that same period. Serious, to be sure, but thankfully, I am still around for moments like this. And yes, I have buried teens and twenty-somethings, and somehow found the words to say and the ways to say them and keep my own emotions in check.

But none of that can possibly prepare you for having to console your own child while she is mourning the death of someone as close as Mitch was to her. Not when, as was the case here, I knew the kid. I liked the kid. I respected the kid. And I like and respect his parents, too. What must they be going through at this moment?

That thought cleared my self-indulgence for a second. How dare I whine at this moment – I can hug my daughter, and try to comfort her, and wipe her tears away, and tell her I love her. Rex and Rachel no longer can. The only thing that would prevent them from trading positions with me at this moment is the knowledge of what they would be subjecting me to – and even that probably wouldn’t stop them, through no weakness of their own!

I held her close to me, and encouraged her to let it all out. I think, I hope, I told her I loved her at that moment – I know I did several more times throughout the day (and I can only hope she heard it, and allowed it to sink into her through the pain and questioning).

And I admitted the truth to her – that I had no idea what to say to her in this moment of pain and grief. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I even stopped and wondered if she might have heard in those words not the permission for her to be without words that I had intended, but rather some weakness or shortcoming in her father that kept him from being all that she needed in her hour of need. After all, Daddy – you are a Rabbi. You are supposed to get this death stuff. And we all know you have words for EVERY occasion!

And the truth is, I had many words. Just none that would help. None that yet made sense. A 17 year old boy had died. Not in a car accident on slick roads. Not from anything suspicious looking – not this kid. Mitch was a kid who if, God forbid, he had been found dead next to an empty bottle of wine, and an empty pill container, your first reaction would have been “Who else has been here, and left these bottles!” Not that either of those circumstances would have lessened the pain any – now or later.

But, at least, they would have provided a sense of a familiar paradigm, something to grasp onto in this moment of asking WHY? in the face of the unimaginable. Whenever a parent has to bury and mourn a child, the sense of a break in what we consider to be the natural order of life adds profoundly to the sadness. At least one of the more familiar scenarios would have given back at least (at most?) a small corner of that order.

But, instead, Mitch’s parents, two Rabbis, found their good kid, who was loved by everyone who knew him, that morning, and the medical folks could not revive him. No obvious cause. No clear sense that something was out of the ordinary. One minute, he was chatting online with Emily and some other friends. The next, he was going to sleep, never fully to wake up again!

How could I, the father of a grieving teenage daughter, hope to help my child deal with what she would later call, “ for real, the worst thing I have ever had to deal with”? How could I answer her questions, that she could not even bring herself to frame yet, when I could not answer them for myself? How could I help her to help her boyfriend, Mitch’s best friend, as he was first hearing the news, and then trying to make sense of it himself? Where could I find the strength to reassure her that it will be okay, when I was not yet convinced myself? Dealing with our own mortality leads to this kind of challenge!

I need to find these answers for myself. I need to be able to help her find them for herself. Only THEN can I help her to help her friends. Only then can I be the Rabbi that these kids expect me to be, and will need me to be tomorrow at the funeral. Only then can I help my friends deal with the death of their son. No one ever said being a Rabbi would be easy. No one ever said life was easy. Today, at least, it still is not!