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Passover, AIDS, and the Indigo Girls: A 90s Coming Out Story

21 Jun

Pride Shabbat Sermon 2018

During my teenage years, the smells of a chicken boiling, silverware and dishes clanking, and my Mom singing in the kitchen were my wake up calls on the morning before our Passover seder. The preparations during the day often involved a lot of “to dos,” that in my mind now looking back are our family rituals. One of these rituals was the search for all the Passover Haggadahs and my Dad’s messy pile of printed seder supplements.

My Dad always led our seder with a lot of feeling and drama in his voice. Every word he read he believed in. This was his opportunity to teach and preach those words to the people around the table. He really saw and continues to see himself as a part of the sacred drama of the Passover story.

When we would come to the maggid (story) section of our Haggadah, he would dramatically hold up the matza in the matza cover and say these words (with feeling), Ha lachma anya…”This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate while in Egypt.” His teenage daughter, me, would often roll her eyes at his dramatics. Embarrassed and wishing for a life filled with joy and cheerfulness I wondered, why did the Passover seder have to start out with such a downer? And why did my Dad have to emphasize it?

Why do we begin the story of our exodus this way? Why not start on a better note? Our rabbinic tradition prescribes that the telling of the Exodus from Egypt should present a contrast: beginning with disgrace or lowly status and ending with glory and pride. This tradition has been a constant from antiquity until today. As adults, this narrative arc probably resonates. How many times in our own lives have we moved from a place of despair and loneliness to a place of  joy and pride? This motif for better or worse often strengthens us and allows us to feel gratitude and compassion for our journeys.

So, I stand here this evening thinking about my teenage self at those Passover seders. In a place in my life, where I was lonely and filled with despair. I felt fearful, enslaved to anxiety, and the icky feeling of feeling different. I couldn’t see the pride. Perhaps, that’s why I hated that Passover started in such a heavy place. It mirrored  how I was feeling.

In 1994, when I first started high school I realized something wasn’t right…or at least that’s how I saw it. I tried to make myself believe that I liked boys, but the truth of the matter was everytime I said I liked a particular guy to friends at school my mind was preoccupied with a girl. I couldn’t quite figure out… Was this just high school infatuation? Or something else?…something I assumed wasn’t normal.

My freshman year I became friends with a girl who was “out.” And now that I think back on it….how brave! I was glad to be friends with her and also hated being friends with her. Typical teenager. I was glad because perhaps she could help me figure out what was going on with myself and I hated her because, what if I was like her. One thing I learned about her seemed to help me feel better.  She told me her uncle was gay. And my uncle was gay. And so thinking that being gay was genetic made me feel better. If being gay was genetic, then I really couldn’t control how I felt because I was born this way. I want to tell you about my uncle…

My Uncle Russell had the most amazing laugh. If I think really hard I can still hear it in my head. He also wore a bolo tie to my Bat Mitzvah. And I had never seen a bolo tie and I thought how brave to wear a bolo tie to very conservative and a bit vanilla Westport, CT Bat Mitzvah. My uncle had longish dirty blond hair and a mustache and lived in San Francisco. He was a graphic designer and an artist. He made beautiful pillows with crazy cool and eccentric fabrics. He was the youngest of the three Lerner children…my Mom, my Aunt, and then my Uncle Russell and he always seemed to carry that sweet babyface third child energy whenever he was with the family.

In Chicago, in 1983, soon after my sister was born, my Uncle asked my Mom to drive him to the airport. He was going to San Francisco and it seemed that he was not coming back. He told my Mom not to tell my grandparents. My Mom was devastated that her brother was leaving Chicago, their childhood home, where they had grown up and where all our family was living. Though she also knew it was probably good for him to move.

He couldn’t be openly gay in Chicago and San Francisco was the place to be to live a free and open gay life. As my Mom has put it, “He was sowing his wild oats in the San Francisco community. If you wanted to be out and feel safe than you went to Castro street and went to bars and met people.” My Uncle’s first boyfriend that my Mom knew about was Jim. Though no one would admit it, including my uncle. Jim was his “roommate.” He later than met his life-partner Steven. He never officially came out to my Mom. My Mom outed him to her. She told him she knew what was going on. My Mom’s best friend was gay and as a result my Uncle saw my Mom as a part of the extended gay family. He knew she was ok with who he was, so why did he have to come out to her? My grandparents though were another story. He didn’t come out to them  until 1990, when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

He was still living with the disease in 1994 when I started struggling with my sexuality. I thought a lot about coming out to him or at least telling him what I was struggling with so I would feel less alone, but I never felt confident or comfortable enough to do so. I remember going to visit him and Steven during winter vacation of 1994. It was my first time in San Francisco and really seeing gay people living their lives. I remember sneaking into my uncle’s bedroom and seeing a tape with the Indigo Girls on it. My Mom and I learned about the Indigo Girls from him. A long lasting gift from my Uncle Russell because those Indigo Girls became the soundtrack to my life. They comforted me as I struggled with trying to figure out my identity. They were role models for me because they were both gay, out, and living lives that appeared to be “normal.”

Even though I saw my uncle living a “normal” life in San Francisco, everything was the opposite of normal. He was sick. He had pill bottles all over his house. My Mom and him spent most of their time together talking about new treatments they were hearing about. When he came to visit us in Connecticut one of my sister’s friends wouldn’t come over while he was there because he had AIDS. (And get this her parents were both doctors!) Even I nervously wondered if I could catch AIDS from him. Even though it was clear at this point AIDS was passed through bodily fluids I still naively worried. None of this was normal.

During the first week of June in 1996 my Uncle came to Westport for my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. He was incredibly skinny and weak. He couldn’t come up to the bima for an aliya. My Mom took him to New York City and he insisted on going to the fabric district to buy tons and tons of cool fabrics as if he had years left of his life to sew and make things out of what he bought. My Mom believes this is what kept him alive for so long. He never thought he was actually going to die.

A month later in July of ‘96 he died. I was in Israel for the very first time with NFTY. My counselors broke the news to me. My group held a memorial service for him even though none of them knew him and they hardly knew me. I went to the kotel with one of my counselors and I prayed for the very first time at the wall. I can’t remember exactly what my prayers were, but I can imagine I prayed for strength, clarity, and ease and comfort for my Uncle and my family. I never got to tell my Uncle I was gay. He never got to meet my partner Michelle whom I know he would love. A few years ago, she got to meet his partner Steven. They got along so well.

We now recite an 11th plague at our seder. And that is the plague of AIDS. A plague which could have been stopped sooner than it was, if this country hadn’t been filled with rampant homophobia. In  particular, homophobic elected officials in the 1980s. Perhaps lives could have been saved. Perhaps, my Uncle or my Mom’s best friend Brian could still be alive today. When I look back on my coming out story and when I think about my Uncle’s coming out story…Before there could be pride…there was struggle, there was pain, and there was hardship.

Now it’s 2018. And we have marriage equality. And I am an out lesbian rabbi on this bima celebrating pride shabbat with all of you. I pray my Uncle has gotten to catch a glimpse of all of this from a realm beyond this world. It is his shoulders on whom I stand tonight. It is the pain of his generation and generations of LGBTQ folks before me that without their suffering we couldn’t all experience pride.

So how do we ensure pride for future generations? How can we support those coming out today so they can be proud in 25 years from now? First fo starters, let’s take a hard look at how we understand the word “normal.” In many ways, I wish we could eliminate this word from our lexicon. I can imagine that all of us in this room at some point or another have felt abnormal or haven’t fit into the norm. Acknowledging this, might lead to thinking harder about how each one of us reacts to difference. Can we do better at seeing beyond “normal” frameworks?

Using queer theory can assist us in that endeavor. When something is being “queered” (as a verb) it usually means deconstructing a social construct that is dictating normalcy. Its attempting to debunk how we have come to understand what is natural and unnatural. We ask the question, “Why does it have to be that ONE way?” So I invite you all this evening to try and be mindful through a queer lens. Deconstruct what you think is normal particularly when it comes to gender and sex. Take a look at the spaces you inhabit and the relationships you have…how do you reinforce society’s concept of what is normal and how can you choose to act differently? How can you break open the proverbial “boxes” that keep us closed up into categories?

Here in our congregation how can we walk the walk when it comes to being an open and welcoming synagogue? Imagine walking down to the lower level to use the restroom and seeing a sign that says “all gender” bathrooms. Think about the welcoming message this would send to transgender and queer folks who are in our building. What if we had a rainbow flag or a rainbow sticker up all year round instead of just in June? Imagine how inviting it might feel to anyone who identifies as LGBTQ to see a rainbow flag as they are wondering if BHS could be a home for them. I know how happy and invited it makes me to see that symbol when I am out and about.

We should also try and rid ourselves of notions of “normalcy” when it comes to Jewish practice. Jews love minhag…we love tradition, but what aspects of our tradition actually keep us stuck in binaries or in heteronormativity? Every Friday night we are suppose to bless our children separated by gender and the blessing teaches that our boys should be like boys and our girls should be like girls. We say for boys may you be life Menashe and Eprahim (Joseph’s sons). And girls be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Perhaps we need to expand or change this. I imagine we want to bless our children with qualities we want them to possess, such as kindness, good health, happiness, etc. These are human desires that have nothing to do with gender.

I could probably go on and on. And maybe you have ideas now too. Let’s talk! And let’s really talk. As the more we do, the more we train our minds to think outside of the box. A box that only exists,  because we decided it does.

I want to go back now to that smell of chicken soup and matza balls. To that phrase from the beginning of the maggid section of our passover haggadah…”This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat it with us.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks asks a different question about this verse, than I did at the beginning of this sermon. He wonders, “What kind of hospitality is it to offer the hungry the “bread of affliction”?” He offers this response:

Matza was both food eaten by the Israelites as slaves and  it was also the food eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in a hurry because they didn’t have time to let the dough rise. So it’s the bread of affliction and  also the bread of freedom. When we eat Matza alone, we only taste the suffering. But, when we offer to share the matza with others we can taste something else: the sense of a freer world that God promised us we can create.

Sharing the matza so it takes on a dual meaning, reminds that when we are suffering, reaching out is often a really good first step to getting out of the darkness. During my first week of college I came out to my freshmen year roommate. She was so loving, so kind, so accepting, so understanding…it was the first time I didn’t feel so abnormal because I was gay. And those experiences continued and continued as I came out and as our world got more and more accepting. My personal narrative began to move towards pride and joy.

I pray that kids who are coming out today don’t know those feelings of abnormalcy that I felt. And I pray that our cities, towns, and homes can all be places where LGBTQ folk can live openly and safely. So they don’t have to feel like my Uncle did…having to choose between his family and being an out gay man. And I pray that we can all open up the boxes we find ourselves in or the boxes we put others in. And look through that opening and beyond, and break free from the narrowness of being enclosed.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Facing God In Our Passover Haggadah

19 Apr

Shabbat HaGadol, loosely translated in English as the “Great Sabbath,” falls on the Shabbat preceding Passover, which is where we find ourselves this evening. According to Jewish law, it is on Shabbat HaGadol that we observe the beginning of the process of the Israelite redemption from Egypt. We are instructed to study the laws of Passover and there is even a tradition of reading portions of the haggadah as a rehearsal for the upcoming seder. The reasoning for this is to familiarize ourselves with the content of the haggadah so that we show up to the seder prepared with our questions and our answers. Like most ritual and religious experience, the more prep we do the more meaning we may find. It is with this in mind that I want to share with you this evening some thoughts on the content in our haggadah that we will read at our Passover seders next weekend.

I began thinking about the narrative we encounter in the haggadah after I met with a man who adamantly told me he was an atheist. “Even though I don’t believe in God, I care about Jewish tradition,” he told me.

And then he shared that Passover is his favorite holiday. In fact, it seemed to me his passion for the Passover seder was almost equal to his passion for atheism. So I asked him, “How do you relate to all the talk of God in the Passover Haggadah?” And he said to me, “Oh we just don’t make a big deal about those parts.”

I assume that he is not the only one who takes this approach. I bet many of us are more interested in spending time discussing the themes of slavery and freedom over the subject of the dominion and might of God. Themes of slavery and freedom are more tangible and more easily applied to the societal injustices we face today. Yet, if we skip over the God parts we risk not fulfilling our main obligation of the Passover seder, which is to tell the story of the Exodus. A story, where it is hard to ignore God. The biblical commandment of how to observe Passover calls on us to, “tell your child on that day, saying, ‘Because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8) According to this text God is the main protagonist, God is the mover and shaker, leaving Moses, Pharoah, the Egyptians, and the Israelites all in supporting roles.

If we were to look through our haggadah we may find that theirs is actually too much God to ignore.

The text says, “Adonai Brought Us Out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great awe and with signs and wonders.” The imagery of God using God’s strong outstretched arm and strong hand is frequently repeated. God is behind the 10 plagues according to the haggadah, “These are the 10 plagues that the holy one of blessing brought upon the Egyptians of Egypt.” God is the star of one of the famous Passover songs, Dayeinu. The core message being that of God’s might. “If he had brought us out of Egypt and not brought judgment upon them…Dayeinu (it would have been enough…” You know the song…it keeps listing all the ways in with Gods help we were able to get out of Egypt and then the song expands reminding us that it would have been enough if God had given us Shabbat (dayeinu). It would have been enough if God had given us the Torah…dayeinu!

So what do our modern and perhaps skeptical minds do with these notions of God as miracle worker, God as punisher, God as mighty?

One option may be to simply say, “that was then and this is now.” God no longer reveals Godself in our world and in our time. Therefore, it is up to us to bring about redemption to those who are not yet free. Yet, when we hold that line of thinking we make the assumption that God only reveals Godself through signs and wonders and through reward and punishment. If we don’t see those things today then God must not exist, but what if divine presence and divine acts exist in different ways and what our haggadah present is how our ancestors saw and experienced God.

None of us may truly know what God is really like. We can only interpret, make assumptions, and experience. This how we as humans cope with and manage something that is ineffable. Dr. David Arnow argues that the haggadah’s, “theological polemic likely comes as a response to beliefs within and beyond Judaism that recognized the existence of more than one supernatural actor carrying out pivotal events in Jewish history.” Meaning our Exodus story was an attempt by our ancient ancestors to make sense of events that were inexplicable. They believed and were committed to the notion that God is an active God, that God had the power to shape the course of human events, and that there are times that God must act in ways that are harmful. If we see the haggadah as a recounting of our ancestors understanding of how God works in the world then the descriptors for God can be seen as metaphor. God may not have an arm and a hand, but this is the language our ancestors chose to describe God. This is how they knew how to speak about God.

So when we read the text we can view it as the mindset of those who came before us. The words of our haggadah are how they understood what happened in Egypt. Our task at the seder then is to discuss how we make sense of what they concluded about God and God’s actions. We then have the sacred opportunity to offer our own gloss just as generations of Jews have done before us.

Our Rabbinic ancestors did just this. They suggested that God is only as powerful as our willingness to acknowledge God. In a commentary on this topic they wrote, “When you are my witness, I am God, but when you are not MY witnesses, I am not God, as it were.” Or put another way, “God saves us, but acknowledgment of God provides redemption.” So imagine reading from the haggadah as witness to what happened in Egypt, as witness to the plagues, as witness to the parting of the red-sea. When we witness something it is our role to take note, to acknowledge, to be present to the events that are occurring. We are not called to pass judgment. We are just called to pay attention and in doing so perhaps we can see God in a different way. We can imagine the pain God must have felt to see God’s children, “the Israelites” enslaved. The work they endured everyday. Their powerlessness in the face of the Egyptians.

Perhaps, God felt helpless for decades until God said, “Dayeinu” and decided to intervene. We can imagine the look on God’s face when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea. Our Rabbis certainly did, and as a result wrote a midrash that says God scolded the angels who wanted to sing while the Egyptians were drowning. God cries out, “The works of My hands are downing in the sea, and you would sing in My presence!” When we go through the haggadah as witness we don’t have to judge whether it happened or it didn’t, whether God was fair or not, all we have to do is be present and experience. And in witnessing perhaps being open to seeing the many faces. God’s glory and God’s pain.

For those challenged by God in the haggadah, who identify as atheists or those who can’t make sense of an all powerful God, a punishing God, a non-compassionate God, or a God who we just can’t possibly believe could make frogs rain down from the sky there is the option to skip over the parts you don’t understand or agree with. Or you could choose to find a haggadah that meets your own personal theological needs.

However, if you don’t want to make that choice or if you feel connected to the traditional text you can wrestle with has been passed down you can choose to look at it through a new lens.

When we risk seeing God and the Passover story in new ways we leave room for the possibility of coming out of our seders with new insight …we leave room to maybe even come out as new people…changed by what we have experienced. We can be curious observers of our ancestors, analyzing their interpretation of God and how they thought to make sense of all the events that unfolded in the story. We can zoom out and act as witnesses to God as main protagonist. We can stretch our logical and intellectual minds to see what might be revealed to us. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches, “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.” May we enter Passover this year with our hearts and minds open to the retelling of our people’s journey from a narrow place to an expanded place filled with possibility.

Volunteering: Why should we do it? How do we make the time?

16 Sep

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue

Rabbi Molly G. Kane

During rabbinical school I was the Student Rabbi at Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope. Kolot rents space from a church. One Shabbat morning I arrived early to find that the folding chairs had not been set-up for services. The Rabbi of Kolot, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann was already there busy setting up chairs and like a good student rabbi I began to help. This was not the first time I had assisted in setting up folding chairs for a service or a program and it was not the first time I wished there was someone else to do it. With that mindset I asked the following question, “Ellen, do you ever get sick of having to do things like set-up the chairs?” She immediately responded, “Molly, even Moses had to set-up chairs.”

I have never forgotten her response to me. And I have a feeling I never will. While I have never found anything in the bible or in our midrash where Moses is actually setting up chairs I knew what she meant or what she was trying to teach me: Moses was the kind of leader who was so humble nothing was beneath him. Even the greatest leaders sometimes have to get their hands dirty in order to make something happen.

This story comes back to me every time Purim rolls around here at BHS.

I love Purim. I dread having to recruit volunteers for the Purim carnival. Last winter as Eve Hall (one of our religious school committee chairs) and I met to discuss volunteer recruitment I wondered to myself, “Why is this so hard?” “Why is it so difficult to get people to volunteer for a few hours at a carnival?” ”Moses would have done it.” “Is it Purim or is it the volunteer part?” “Do people not know how fun Purim is?” Since Eve and I had spent many times over the last year discussing ways to get people to volunteer I began to deduce, this isn’t about “Purim.” It’s just hard to get people to volunteer.

And I get it. You are busy.

We live in a city and an age where we constantly feel like there is not enough time to do everything. We feel over extended. It’s a gift when we have time to watch TV. And yet when we do, we feel bad…like how could we be just relaxing when we didn’t write back to whole bunch of email, and we didn’t clean up the kitchen.

Yet, in spite of the “time scarcity” problem, there are people who give of their time on a regular basis. Whether it’s to sit on a committee, sleepover at the homeless shelter, stuff a bunch of envelopes, greet people on Shabbat, or run a game at the Purim carnival they choose to volunteer.

This summer I sat with some of our members who volunteer in various capacities in our congregation. I wanted to know what motivated them to volunteer their time. I wanted to understand how they made it a priority in their lives. I wanted to know what their reward was.

This sermon is based on what they shared with me.

 At the beginning of July, I sat with Anne Landman at Starbucks on Montague Street. Anne is a past president of BHS, a coordinator of the homeless shelter, currently our treasurer and she has taught in the BHS religious school. She has occupied multiple roles as a lay leader. Anne’s deep commitment to giving of her time inspires me.

I was actually hoping meeting with Anne would be enough. Her personal reflections would be the answers to all my burning questions. And in fact, my meeting with Anne led me to understand one of the first core things about volunteerism, “You have to ask.”

When Anne told me what motivated her to volunteer her time she said, “Cause I was asked.” She never considered volunteering for the synagogue. She was not brought up Jewish and this was not how she thought she would spend her time. When Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the rabbi at BHS at the time asked her to the volunteer at the shelter she was hesitant. I asked her, “What was your reluctance?” She honestly answered, “I was afraid.” She went on to explain that it was New York City in 1982. The homeless situation was out of control, worse than what we see now. Anne said seeing the amount of homeless on the street would bring her to tears. She ultimately said yes to Rabbi Jacobs. And then continued to say “yes” when she was asked to volunteer to do other things. Her motivation she told me: “to fulfill a need.” Yet, what she shared with me after that really reverberated within me. She said, “When you say, ‘yes’ (to someone who is asking you to do something) you give the person on the other end of the ask such a sense of hope. And I’ve been on the other side of that.”

I know this feeling too and I bet you know it as well. That feeling when someone says, “yes, I can do that for you.” “Yes, I can show up for that.” “Yes, I am happy to make a contribution.” There is a sense that when a person answers in the affirmative that person is affirming our request and as a result affirming us. Our request matters. We matter. Our tradition teaches that through positive speech we can build each other up we can remind each other that our presence is necessary to the world and to one another. When you are on the other side of “yes” the feeling is one of shleimut, wholeness or completeness. Your sense of optimism increases, causing a wonderful chain reaction of motivation to make other positive things happen.

Is giving someone a sense of hope enough motivation? Maybe, but maybe not.

After all, we live in an age with many opportunities to say yes and many different ways to spend our time. Back to the “time scarcity problem.” We also live in an age where we perceive that time must equal production. Meaning if we have time we must do something productive with it. According to an article in The Economist entitled, “Why are we so busy?” the author claims that ever since a clock was first used to synchronize labor in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. When hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving, or using time profitably. Time then becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.

Our culture values the notion that time=money, and therefore, there is an emphasis on achievement over engagement. There is an emphasis on productivity over leisure and I would go on to say that there is an emphasis on quantity over quality. So if this is our culture, that we all contribute to and buy into, how do we override the feeling of a constant need to achieve? How do we create a culture shift? At least for ourselves? Stories I heard from our members provided me with some insight. Many who I spoke with taught me that, a sense of obligation to a community, can cause a shift in mindset, to make it a priority to volunteer their time.

Our member, Nelson Tebbe, shared with me this story: He and his wife Diana got married in Vermont. Their officiant was a justice of the peace and professor at Middlebury College. Nelson asked him what could he and Diana do in return for him officiating at their wedding? Nelson recalls that he was very thoughtful and deliberate with his answer. He said, “What you can do for me in exchange for me officiating at your wedding is get involved in your local community in some way.” Nelson has never forgotten this request. When he and Diana began to make this area of Brooklyn their home they began to seek ways to oblige this request. And once they did start giving of their time in various ways they felt a deeper and stronger connection to the community. As Nelson put it to me, “You want to feel a sense of belonging and rootedness. There’s no way sure to do that then to give something. To get involved.”

At first what was just a request for him and Diana to give back turned into a passage way towards a feeling of belonging and connection. Their sense of obligation to pay it forward was their motivation and what ultimately led them to the rewarding feeling of belonging. A Jewish mystic once taught that, “Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation.” I would expand that sentiment to include community needs as well as physical needs. When we help people and when we help institutions that help people we are not just meeting an obligation we are allowing our deeds to express our faith. Nelson’s story demonstrates a transformation from obligation to gratification.

Research and anecdote show that volunteering creates bonds. Relationships form with fellow volunteers, the organization that is hosting the volunteers, and the beneficiaries. This all leads to the feeling of “belonging” that Nelson described to me. This unique way of connecting with people and a place taps into parts of ourselves that are only awakened when we move beyond our own personal needs. We cultivate empathy, which opens up places in our hearts that often slumber in our daily lives.

Our member Sara Horowitz and founder of the Freelancers Union enhanced my understanding of the power of social bonds. She suggested to me that when we build something together we experience a sense of solidarity like none other. Solidarity she noted has two components: a spiritual component and an economic component. The economic component is obvious: if we don’t build it, then it doesn’t exist. The spiritual component is a bit more difficult to grasp. It is the feeling of losing yourself in something greater. In knowing that you are a part of something larger than yourself and that what you contribute is unique to you and to the time you are living in. Meaning we don’t all give back the same things year after year, generation after generation. We look at a particular need in this moment and we respond. In answering the “call” we experience solidarity, a sense of unity with all those who are responding together. God’s first question to humankind in the book of Genesis was, “Where are you?” This question reminds us of our responsibility to each other and to God. When we listen for the call and are willing to respond, “Here I am” we live the notion that life is not just about taking, but also about giving back.

Sara shared with me, “The biggest gift in life is that you are a part of something larger than yourself…when you get to that realization…[when you experience] that moment of connection that ends your alienation to the world. [In that] tmoment you feel so connected…if an [experience like that] were a drug you would take that drug. Why aren’t people volunteering like crazy? I don’t think people know [how good it can feel].” Sara may be suggesting that for many it is difficult to get past the notion that we need each other to reach a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.

When we are plagued with feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness we often look within. Yet some would suggest look beyond our selves. The psychiatrist and neurologist Victor Frankl once noted that, ‘The true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within human beings or in our own psyche…Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization.” Or as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs puts it, “Meaning takes place when something within us responds to something outside us.”

While there are many issues and places in need of our time, expertise, and money, my focus today is synagogues and more specifically our synagogue. In my mind, the synagogue is a gift from generations before us and it is up to use to decide how we want to receive it year after year. We too must remember though, that a gift left unwrapped, can provide us with nothing. No joy. No life enhancement. No enrichment. Rabbi Henry Berkowitz a prominent rabbi in the Reform movement in the late 19th century wrote in the very first ever Temple bulletin at his congregation in Kansas City, Missouri, “To make congregational life a part of the people’s life is to be our aim…We should strive to create opportunities for each individual in our community to participate actively in some one department at least, of the congregation’s purpose. Each one must feel he is serving Judaism by helping, however humbly, to conserve religious, moral, educational or charitable life of the community.” Rabbi Berkowitz’s statement was actually a departure from an old model of Reform Jewish congregational life that centered around the rabbi and his sermons. Now, Rabbi Berkwotiz suggests that the synagogue should be an instrumental part of the lives of all who wish to join it. Both the institution and the members should strive to integrate the fabric of their lives creating a synergy between individual and community. The question is what does this look like?

In my mind, the best example is that of a food “co-op,” where not only do you join by investing financially, but you also must give of your time; both equally important. Here at BHS there are many ways to get involved and I think getting involved is a direct way to feel more connected and even to explore the multi facets of Judaism. There are many ways to live your Jewish identity. Often we think that the “best” way is through prayer, ritual, and study (and food), but really living by deeds can be just as meaningful, if not more.

In addition, to the usual ways you might hear about being involved in our congregation through committee work or volunteering to help with programs we are also striving to provide additional ways for you to volunteer your time. I am proud to announce that Amy Leszman and I along with the help of our member Jennifer Neumann with the help of a grant from UJA Federation we will be offering a new program geared to RS families called, “Mitzvah Angels.” This program is an expansion of our existing program called, “Shabbat Angles.” We’ve partner with an organization called “Self Help” that will train our members to visit Holocaust Survivors in the Brooklyn area who could use company and companionship. Of course the homeless shelter always needs folks to spend the night and I know that we at the religious school always love more parent involvement and are open to ideas about what that can look like. A friend of mine who is an active volunteer at her synagogue shared with me this past week, that she volunteers her time because she thinks it is really important for her kids to see her do this kind of work. Whether we have kids or not, we can be role models for each other, inspiring one another that belonging to a synagogue is about investing into that synagogue and not just about what the synagogue can give to us.

There is a contested trend in American synagogues today. Even the NY Times ran an article about it this past February. And that is the trend of transactional Judaism, the “pay for what you want model.” I understand the allure of such a model. Eliminate membership dues and allow members to pay per service that the synagogue can offer. This model certainly allows for more financial transparency and may provide financial relief for those who wish to be a part. Financials aside, though, this model sends a very different kind of message about community building: which is it’s not about investing for the long-term, its more about a short-term gain. It’s also a model that I think sees the relationship between member and synagogue as one sided: What can the synagogue offer me? As opposed to what can the synagogue offer me and what I can offer the synagogue?

Both Mark Landman and David Smetana shared with me stories of their grandfathers starting synagogues from the ground up. Mark’s grandfather started a congregation in Hornell, NY and David’s in West Germany. Mark and David grew up knowing how important having a synagogue was to their families and to the larger community. Mark shared with me that in his mind building a synagogue means, “sustaining Judaism.” A long-term investment with both a short-term and a long-term gain. We have a synagogue that exists, but we can continue to build it up.

Maimonides teaches that a person who dwells in community after thirty days is obligated to contribute back to the community. That obligation increases after three months, sixth months, and nine months as well. His teaching suggests that when we start to “settle in” somewhere we must give back. For Maimonides, this meant tzedakah. For us, I suggest expanding this to include not just money, but time and energy as well.

We live in a “time paradox,” where on the one hand time is the invisible hand and never ending wheel that allows us to live and create and on the other hand it feels finite and scarce, where we are constantly craving more of it and aware that our time on this earth is limited. Time also plays tricks on our brains. As Albert Einstein once noted, “An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.” Time is currency and when we spend it wisely we gain more than we lose. Time management experts suggest that we“ concentrate on results not on being busy.” Meaning, common practice is to spend our days in a frenzy running from activity to activity…appointment to appointment, rather than focus on doing things that matter, and provide you with the most fulfillment. The happiness scholar at Harvard University Tal Ben Shahar suggests that simplifying our lives and focusing on doing more quality things with our lives is a key element to living a happier more fulfilled life.

There are many entry points into synagogue life. Some may seem more fulfilling at first glance than others. Certainly spending a night at the homeless shelter may leave you with a greater sense of fulfillment than moving folding chairs or volunteering at the Purim carnival. However, all entry points lead to connection. The more connection, the more there is to give. Nelson Tebbe called this the, “economy of giving.” And it is my hope in this upcoming year that we can strengthen our economy. When you are asked to help, I hope you say “yes.” If you are called on to be the asker, I hope you find your inner chutzpa and confidently make the “ask.” And for some –and myself included in this I hope we figure out ways to give without being asked — knowing that our life will be richer and more meaningful because we went beyond our comfort zone and saw the bigger picture that we are a part of.

May we lead with our deeds this year, rather than our verbal promises. May we strengthen our “economy of giving,” and act as role models for one another as we strengthen our bonds to each other and to our congregation. We can’t all be Moses that’s for sure because a congregation full of chiefs doesn’t necessarily get the work done either. We can however all be Israelites, with Moses as our example.

Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah 5775

29 Sep

Rosh Hashanah 5775
Brooklyn Heights Synagogue
Rabbi Molly G. Kane

There is an old not so funny Jewish joke that goes like this:

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia,
a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi,
“I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it.”
“Ach,” the rabbi replied, “I have no idea, but the government’s conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps.”
“Why the chimneysweeps?” asked the befuddled official.
“Why the Jews?” responded the rabbi.

Before this past summer this joke felt out dated to me.
In fact, before this past summer anti-semetism felt out dated to me.
This summer, for the first time in my life,
I felt nervous to outwardly display that I was a Jew.
Incidents of arson and vandalism,
protests where people shouted anti-semetic phrases,
boycotts of Jewish businesses,
vandalism of synagogues,
and targeted violence against Jewish individuals
swept across the world including here and throughout Europe.

I thought twice about wearing t-shirts that have Hebrew on them.
I thought twice about the Jewish star
I wear almost everyday around my neck.
In August, I went to the place
Where I don’t think twice about these things: Israel.
Despite rockets being launched at southern and central Israel,
I felt safer there to be myself,
in a place where “Jewish” is the dominant culture.

This is not a sermon about making aliyah, moving to Israel.
And this is not a sermon about Israel in general.
Although I am always happy to talk about either topic.

What am I going to discuss with you this morning
is how to find the balance
between two significant identifications:
being a citizen of the world,
(a somewhat inhospitable world at times)
and about being Jew.

This is a sermon about
how being a member of a particular tribe
has major benefits in both good and bad times.

For those of us who try and straddle these two identities,
there are times when it’s much easier to be a citizen of the world.
And there are times when it’s much easier to be a member of a specific tribe.
My partner Michelle and I tried to decide whether taking a vacation in Israel would be relaxing and rejuvenating amidst a war.
We ultimately concluded that we would rather be in Israel
where we felt more comfortable in a place with a Jewish majority
caring for our safety and well-being
than in any other part of the world.
For us, this summer it felt hard to be a citizen of the world.
Yet, there have been times in my life
where Israel does not feel like a comfortable place to be,
specifically, when I feel like there is not a place for me
as a Reform female Rabbi.
When I experience Jewish community,
as being intolerant, closed, and unwelcoming,
it is much easier to be just a citizen of the world.
As Jews, each of us must struggle to balance our Jewish and secular worlds,
be it in the workplace, in the synagogue,
when traveling or even amongst friends and family.
So how do we balance both states?

The scholar and writer Yossi Klein Halevi wrote this week,
“Most Jews instinctively know
that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes –
security and morality,
realism and vision,
particularism and universalism,
self-defense and self-critique.”

The trick to balancing paradoxes
is to hold both in mind.
Our main biblical protagonist this morning, Abraham,
is a great example.

Abraham is a man intensely concerned
with the comfort and well being of others.
When he sees strangers approaching his tent,
he ignores being ill and the desert heat
and shows them hospitality.
He pleads with God to spare the cruel sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah
because he cannot stand the thought of innocent life being lost.
Abraham’s value and habit of kindness
is so inculcated in his life
that when his servant Eliezer
goes out to find a wife for his son Isaac,
the right girl,
must be one who demonstrates deep compassion
not just for him,
but for his camels as well.
Abraham values unadulterated kindness.

Abraham’s kindness stems both from his humanism
and his covenant with God.
Abraham represents a fresh start for humanity.
He is the 10th generation from Noah
and 10th in descent from Adam.
Abraham is considered to be more than Noah ever was
and a hope for a reversal of the curses placed on Adam.
Abraham’s strong moral compass is an outcome of growth
from generations before him.
Abraham is humanity the way God intended.

In addition, Abraham is a deep man of faith.
He is chosen by God to be a blessing and a great name.
His kindness…his choices in life are influenced by
the pact that he has made with God.
And he does not just passively expect God to make good on his word.
Abraham knows he too must be active in bringing about the promised results from God. Therefore, Abraham acts with covenant in mind.
He believes his actions are in line with what God demands of him.

Like Abraham we too are called to do what is right in this world,
to be good people,
to act with kindness towards others
because we believe this is what it means to be human
or as Victor Frankl puts it,
“Being human means being conscious and responsible.”
We hope and pray that all human beings hold this universal mission.
Yet, we are also like Abraham because we too
are involved in a particular covenant:
a contract between us and our tradition.

Our tradition teaches these same values,
but asks us to be mindful that when we act
we do so with a Jewish consciousness.
And when we do this we give honor
to both our tradition and to our covenant with God.

When balancing both our universal and particular mindsets,
we must ask ourselves,
what does it mean to act with a Jewish consciousness?
And to complicate the matter further,
wondering about Jewish consciousness often leads us to ask,
“Why be Jewish?”
Some of you who feel firmly rooted in your heritage
may find these questions irrelevant.
But, even if you don’t ask these questions,
I bet you know someone who does
because increasing numbers of Jews want to understand
the relevancy of Judaism in their lives.
Spiritual seekers want to understand what its like to call Judaism,
a unique spiritual and cultural home.

Our High Holy Days seek to answer these questions of identity and balance,
through prayer, our liturgy, and communal gathering.
These Days of Awe affirm our identity
both as Jews and as citizens of the world.
The message is: we Jews are a particular people
who share a universal mission with all people
who wish to live in a just and peaceful world.
We are a tribe amongst other tribes
with the goal of peaceful coexistence.

Our universal mission is clear, as portrayed in our liturgy.
The Aleinu, originally written for Rosh Hashanah,
depicts a messianic time, a time when all people, not just Jews,
will repair the world with divine presence.
Our ancestors did not see Rosh Hashanah
as the birthday of the world just for the Jews, but for humanity.
Therefore, Rosh Hashanah provides us with a prophetic vision
of a world that will be inhabited by nations
that will not lift up swords against nations,
a world, that is filled with truth and light.

The “particular” part is clear too.
The core of our Rosh Hashanah service
is the re-enthronement of God
as sovereign of the universe,
who will announce a world
that is a spiritual and moral whole,
with only one ruler to whom we owe loyalty.
And as Rabbi David A. Teutsch points out,
“the universalism of this vision assumes
that Zion will be the center of God’s reign
and that the Torah,
God’s central teaching,
will become universally accepted.”

So at the core of the universal messages of the High Holy Days
there is a very specific,
very particular, message at the heart of it all:
the notion that ultimately we pray
for Torah and our God to be universally accepted.
Before this can even be realized
or perhaps even debated
we must first try it out ourselves.
Balancing may actually mean,
placing Torah and tradition
at the center of our world
as catalyst and core
for our universal mission.
How do we do this?

How do we make Torah and tradition at our center?
Through storytelling…
As social animals we often share stories as a way to connect with others. Through storytelling we are able to understand what we have in common with one another, what are values are, and from where we’ve come. We as a people are bound together through the telling of particular stories. The most famous probably being the Exodus from Egypt. We glean our values from these stories that bind us. A value learned from our collective story is far more likely to stick to our souls than a value without any personal context. We learn from the story of Abraham the value of hospitality. We learn from the Exodus that we should never oppress the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. The value of giving gifts to the poor is embedded in our Purim story.
The value of gratitude for the nature around us is highlighted in the story of Sukkot. Our particular stories enrich the values they proscribe, reminding us of the how to act and when to act. Without them, we loose our moral direction manual and we loose our moral reminders.

How do we make Torah and tradition at our center?
Through looking out for one another…
In addition to our particular narratives, we also have our particular sense of communal responsibility for one another. Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh…all of Israel are responsible for each other. This basic Jewish tenant implies that we have an obligation to ensure that other Jews have their basic needs met and that if one Jew sees another Jew on the verge of sinning, we have an obligation to step in and help. While obligation can feel burdensome, this particularistic responsibility gives us accountability and a network of support that is unique to us as a community.

How do we make Torah and tradition at our center?
Through being proud…
Being a part of a particular group means taking pride in its achievements. Pride is a complicated feeling as it can often lead to arrogance and narcissism, but when felt genuinely it is a swelling up feeling of joy and admiration. In Yiddish, we might call this “kvelling or “sheppiing naches.” When Jewish immigrants flooded into America during the late 19th and early 20th century, they built synagogues, schools, and cemeteries to serve their own communities, but they also created hospitals and charitable organizations that were designed to serve anyone in need regardless of race or religion. Our immigrant ancestors perceived their role here as new citizens as twofold: to become productive citizens of their new society and to ensure that values they held in their own community was extended to those in the larger community. They took pride in their accomplishments and contributions and demonstrated to the larger world all that we have to offer and contribute to humanity.

How do we make Torah and tradition at our center?
Through allowing Judaism to be a framework for our time…
The rituals that mark Jewish time are designed to make us present to the gift of life, family, and community. Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander writes that, “When we observe the particularistic rituals of lighting Shabbat candles, singing the Kiddush, and saying the Motzi we affirm the universal values of freedom and justice for all.” Engaging in these rituals remind us the important lessons of gratitude, rest, and empathy.
They renew and center us each week so that we can be productive at our missions in this world. Marking life’s transformative moments through life-cycle ritual reminds us not to take time for granted. So that we know the precious lesson of making our moments count here on earth.

Torah and tradition at the center
provides an anchor of support
for our universal missions
and aspirations.
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs writes,
“Happiness is the ability to say:
I lived for certain values and acted on them.
I was part of a family, embracing it and being embraced by it.
I was part of a community, honouring its traditions,
sharing its griefs and joys, ready to help others, knowing that they were ready to help me.”

When it feels like the world is plagued with hatred
and when some of that hatred is aimed at us
it is hard to no where to turn…inward or outward?
I vote that we do both.
We look inward and strengthen our identity and our tribal bonds,
and we look outward and take our tradition to the streets.
Let’s show the world a Judaism that teaches and preaches
values we are proud of.

Cynthia Ozick, an American Jewish novelist and essayist writes that,
“If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar
we will be heard far.
But if we choose to be Humannkind rather than Jewish
and blow into the wider part,
we will not be heard at all;”

Ozick’s words remind us that if we stay entrenched
in our tribe and our tradition
we then have the power and strength to
make our universal missions and desires heard.
Starting the other way around will leave us voiceless.

May we enter this New Year
five thousand, seven hundred and seventy-five
rooted in our Jewish paradoxes,
with a willingness
to place our covenant with God,
our teachings,
and our traditions,
at the center of our lives
with hope that they provide us with instruction and meaning
to work towards a world filled with
kindness, compassion, and love.

Shanah Tovah.

4 Oct

 

Rosh Hashanah 5772

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue

Rabbi Molly G. Kane

Our creation story that we read today asserts,

V’yivar elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo b’tzelem elohim.

And God created human beings in God’s image.

 

What does this verse mean?

If we are created in the image of God,

why do our bodies suffer sometimes?

If God has lasted in this world for thousands of years,

why won’t we?

Why won’t our families, our friends,

members of our community?

 

The Rabbis wondered the same thing

and understood the concept of b’tzelem elohim

not as a description of the physical likeness

between humanity and God,

but rather as evidence of the divinity inherent in each human being.

Meaning, when we try and ensure the well-being for all individuals

we perpetuate the divine presence in this world.

And when we cause injury to others we

diminish God’s presence.

 

When we suffer it seems that God suffers too.

A rabbinic text asks, “When a person suffers,

what language does God use?”

God’s response:

“My head is too heavy! My arm is too heavy!”

God’s arms are heavy with the weight of our pain.

Just like we often feel the weight of our loved one’s pain

when they suffer.

We pray, we care for them, we hope to ease their suffering.

We wish we could heal them.

Yet, so often we have to rely on

doctors, nurses, and other caregivers,

to provide the healing.

This type of surrender can be tough.

 

A few years ago my sister suffered from

terrible vertigo and nausea and could not get out of bed.

The symptoms resulted from a flare up of her multiple sclerosis.

I went to her apartment on the upper west side to take care of her.

After seeing her condition,

it became clear she needed to go to the hospital.

I called 911 and described the situation.

They told me an ambulance would be on its way.

We waited for perhaps 30-40 minutes and no ambulance arrived.

I felt so helpless. And began to brainstorm…

Maybe I could carry her down to the lobby

and we could get into a cab?

Maybe the building had a wheelchair we could use?

But she was so dizzy and so nauseous

she couldn’t be moved.

I called 911 again.

They told me unless the situation was life-threatening

we would just have to wait.

So we continued to wait.

And I continued to feel helpless.

All I wanted was to make my sister feel better.

Finally after an hour or so the medics arrive

and transported my sister and I to Mt. Sinai hospital.

My sister was wheeled in

and transported to a bed at the

entrance of the emergency room.

And then we waited to be checked in.

I was shocked by the chaos in the room.

Beds with patients in every corner of space available.

Nurses upset and cranky at the disarray.

No one had the time or the patience

to take care of one more patient,

namely my sister.

And again, I felt helpless.

She was still in so much distress.

 

Luckily, my sister works at Mt. Sinai in their fundraising department

and after several phone calls to her boss from my mother

she received the attention that she needed.

Fortunately for her, she had a “connection.”

But, I wondered about all the others,

desperately in need of care in that overcrowded emergency room.

 

Being sick is hard enough,

but then having to seek care from a system

that is unable to put a patient’s needs first

is all the more unbearable.

 

Our tradition teaches,

that the provision of medical care is a mitzvah.

Not an optional mitzvah based on

medical history, health insurance, or financial situation.

A commandment, something that one is obligated to do.

In the Jewish law code, Shulchan Aurkh, Joseph Caro writes,

“The Torah gave permission to the physician to heal;

moreover, this is a religious precept

and is included in the category of saving life,

and if the physician

(and I would also add today an insurance company)

with holds services, it is considered as shedding blood…”

 

Our belief that human beings

are created in the image of God

serves as the theological foundation to save life.

And for this reason the Talmud states,

that whoever destroys a single soul

it’s as if this person had destroyed a complete world;

and whoever preserves a single soul,

it’s as if this person saved a complete world.

 

This is what Judaism prescribes as good healthcare.

A system devoted to saving lives.

A system that sees every living soul

as divine and therefore deserving of

compassion, treatment, and care.

 

This past spring my girlfriend Michelle’s 91 year-old

Grandfather passed away.

Abba Noach, as he is known in the family

survived the holocaust,

made aliyah to Israel after the war,

and then ultimately came to the United States

to raise his family in Brooklyn.

He became ill in early December.

The first hospital he received care from

failed to treat his initial symptoms correctly.

Their attitude was that because he was old

it was not necessary to take all the steps they could to treat him.

Due to the lack of care,

an additional infection emerged in his body.

The family moved him to a second hospital

in order to get him better care

This hospital did not change his diaper and sheets regularly,

ordered wrong medication,

and several times sent hospice to the room

who suggested a morphine drip

despite the families insistence

over and over for him to be treated.

Michelle did her own research to find cures for his infections.

She googled his symptoms and diagnosis

and read several medical journals online.

She presented what she found to his doctors.

And as result, they prescribed a new course of action.

The same doctors who repeatedly had said

there was no way to treat his infection

used Michelle’s research to prescribed a different treatment.

This did not ultimately save his life,

but it did stop the infection from growing.

 

We do not need to feel like props or scenery

in the hospital rooms of our loved ones.

We should not have to feel helpless in a system meant to help.

 

I recently attended a funeral where the former mayor

David Dinkins spoke and said,

“We have no power over death,

but we certainly have power over life.”

We should use that power to overhaul

a broken system that is meant for saving lives.

Jewish law mandates the establishment of funds for the sick

and forbids the reappropriation of this money

for any other purposes.

Joseph Caro rules,

that it is forbidden to charge

more than the appropriate price for medicine

that a sick person needs.

Even if the sick person agrees to a high price out of urgent need,

and the medicine is no where else to be found

one can still only accept the appropriate price.

An Italian Jewish doctor and Rabbi from the 18th century stated,

“It has been enacted that in every place in which Jews live,

the community sets aside a fund for care of the sick.

When poor people are ill and cannot afford medical expense,

the community sends them a doctor to visit them,

and the medicine is paid for by the communal fund.”

Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona know as the Ran

who lived in Barcelona in the 14th century noted that

these funds that are set aside

are not just for the poor of the community,

but for the poor of the world.

Meaning that every person’s health is everyone’s responsibility.

 

When we pray for healing for the sick

as a community we follow through on this responsibility.

We can also hold ourselves accountable to each other’s health

by being God’s partners in healing.

Faith alone does not help to mend broken systems.

We must also act and speak out

using our tradition

as a guide to help promote change.

A midrash reminds,

that not only did God create humans in God’s likeness,

But God also gifted us with reason, intellect, and understanding.

And perhaps, we need to use these divine gifts,

at this critical time of debate over healthcare to

find creative solutions to problems longing for resolution.

 

Illness and death are hard enough,

we should not have to also then worry about healthcare bills,

hours on the phone with health insurance companies,

and worry about getting the best care.

 

Seeing the divine image in every human being can be tough.

But we must try.

And creating a healthcare system

that uses b’tzelem elohim as its driving value

might seem impossible.

But here too we can try…

because it seems that our lives depend on it.

 

Shanah Tovah.