The central mitzvah and activity of the High Holy Days is תשובה teshuvah, the task of realigning ourselves with our highest values and taking the steps we need to manifest those values. “Sin” and “repentance” are the English terms usually associated with this process. These phrases, as commonly heard, carry a burden of guilt and heaviness that can impede our embrace of this beautiful and life-affirming process. The Hebrew vocabulary for these activities, however, reveals a refreshingly different perspective on human nature, and provides us with an optimistic roadmap for bettering ourselves.

חטא Chet

Chet is primarily rendered into English as “sin”. But it’s origin is in the root “to miss”, as in shooting an arrow and missing a target. That is to say, a chet is a “miss”. We took aim at our target, we shot our arrow, and we missed the target. A chet, therefore, is not a reflection of our essence, but only of our behavior. As such, after missing the target we always have the possibility of trying again. We are intact and capable of change, even if our behaviors have missed the mark.

כונה Kavanah

Kavanah is usually translated as “intention”. It is a central and deeply meaningful concept of Jewish spiritual practice. We are asked to fill our actions with intentionality, to have our insides line up with our outsides, to pay attention to what we are doing. But the origin of kavanah makes the term even more grounded and achievable. The root of kavanah is the verb “to aim”. Kavanah means “aim”. Therefore, when we commit a chet – a miss – it is because our kavanah – our aim – was off! As we prepare to take an action, we must practice our aim. We will miss the target countless times. That does not mean that we are fundamentally bad people. It means that as human beings, it takes a lifetime of practice in order to improve our aim.

Avigayil Landsman pointed out to me that the gematria – the numerical value - of חטא chet is 18, equal to the numerical value of חי chai, “life”. That is to say, as long as we are alive, we will be missing the target. This is inherent to being human, and in the Jewish understanding, the Creator understands this about us. That is why we need the High Holy Days every single year, to become aware of and to acknowledge the ways we have missed the mark, to make amends, and to practice our aim for the coming year. And God forgives us for not being perfect; how could anyone possibly hit the target every time?

תשובה Teshuvah

Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance”. But its origin is in the root “to respond, answer, reply”. Teshuvah literally means “response” or “answer”. Teshuvah is our constructive response to having committed a chet, to having missed the mark.

A response necessitates that there is a question, a call. Something calls to people of conscience, urging them to do right. Life calls to us, and we sense its demand. Somehow, the universe is not neutral about our behavior, but rather there is a standard that we intuit and toward which we aspire. Our ability to hear this call and to respond to it is precisely what elevates us to the plain of being human.

And so, when we notice that we have missed the target, we respond, and this is the process of teshuvah: we track down our arrow. We assess what damage our miss might have caused – did we wreck some property, or God forbid, injure someone? We do our best to apologize for our poor aim, and to make amends. We recommit to working on our aim. We pick up our bow and arrow and try again.

Teshuvah means response. If you are able to respond, you have “response-ability”. You are responsible. What a beautiful term. Often thought of as stolid or steadfast, to be responsible actually requires nimble presence: presence of mind, presence of self, so that you can respond to the question before you, the human being before you, the problem before you. To be responsible means that when life’s demand comes before us, we answer “Hineni”, here I am, ready and willing. To be responsible is noble, beautiful and life giving, as in every moment we try to offer our best answer to life.

On the Jewish path, because our sins are the result of errant behaviors, rather than inherent flaws, we affirm that change is always possible. Sometimes (rarely) it is dramatic and instantaneous. Most of the time it is incremental. We backslide, we forget, we repeat our mistakes. But with many misses and countless repetitions, we do change. We learn to be patient with ourselves, and to forgive our failings. Bit by bit, our aim improves. We love better, we enjoy more, we accept what is out of our control, and more and more we do the right thing as a matter of course. We’ll never be perfect, but we also figure out that perfection was never the right target at which to aim.

I’ll close with a little story. You may have heard it before. It is called “Autobiography in Five (Short) Chapters”, by Portia Nelson, and this is a slightly adapted version:

Chapter One.  I am walking down a street.  There is a giant hole in the middle of the street.  I fall in.  I am terrified.  I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know where I am.  It is dark. I don’t know how to get out.  I am down there for a long time.  Finally, I look up and see some light.  With incredible effort, I scramble up toward the light, and manage to climb out.  I continue walking.

Chapter Two.  I am walking down the same street.  There is a giant hole in the middle of the street.  I fall in.  This seems very familiar.  It’s not my fault!  I don’t know how this happened!  I am down there for a long time.  Finally I look up, see the light above, and scramble out.  I continue walking.

Chapter Three.  I am walking down the same street.  There is a giant hole in the middle of the street.  I know it’s there.  I see it.  I fall in.  I get out as quickly as I can.  I continue walking.

Chapter Four.  I am walking down the same street.  There is a giant hole in the middle of the street.  I know it’s there.  I see it.  I walk around the hole.

Chapter Five.  I walk down another street. (There will probably be a giant hole in it somewhere!)

G’mar Chatima Tova - May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year

Rabbi Jonathan

Lots of good friendship and good food this weekend at the WJC –Join us!
Tonight, Friday, August 4: Tot Shabbat Service at 5pm, followed at 6pm by our “First Friday” Shabbat Dinner. Bring a pot luck vegetarian/dairy dish to share.
Tomorrow, Saturday, August 5, 10am: Carol Super Gold celebrates her Adult Bat Mitzvah.
And Sunday, August 6, 11am-1pm (SEE BELOW!): a delicious brunch honoring our Chesed Circle volunteers – all are welcome!

Dear Friends,

This Sunday, August 6 at our “First Sunday” brunch, we are honoring the volunteers in our Chesed Circle. These are the folks among you who have simply signed up for our Chesed Circle email list, which means that when someone in our community needs an act of chesed – kindness – these people are invited to respond.

Anyone can join our Chesed Circle; just let the office know that you would like your name added to the list. No meetings! But once a year, we do want to gather to honor our volunteers.

In so doing, we are following a very old Jewish tradition: the Volunteer Banquet. For centuries, Jewish communities would organize multiple volunteer societies to meet the needs of the community. There would typically be an organization for Malbish Arumim, Clothing the Naked,” which provided clothes for the needy, and an Ozer Dalim, “Helping the Poor”, which would distribute alms. There would be a Hachnassat Kalah, “Dowering the Bride”, which would use its funds to underwrite marriage expenses and dowry for the impoverished bride, and a Talmud Torah organization that would support the free school for orphans and children of the poor. The Free Loan Society would provide interest-free loans to members of the community. A Bikkur Cholim, “Visiting the Sick”, society would help care for the sick, and the Chevra Kadisha, “The Holy Association”, would bury the dead. In many communities, the voluntary societies would hold an annual banquet to honor their members (and to raise funds, too, I assume!)

As Jews immigrated to the United States, and Jewish communities reestablished themselves here, these volunteer associations were recreated in new institutional forms. Jewish hospitals and social service agencies were founded. Jewish Federations took on many of the functions of the volunteer societies of the old country. In many, many ways the Jewish community has continued to do an exemplary job of caring the sick and the needy. But institutions can become impersonal, and a sense of intimacy is usually lost. Smaller and more intimate communities such as our own are well served by following the model of the shtetl, and finding ways to take care of our own. We have much to learn from the ultra-orthodox world, which never gave up these caring functions in their communities. Their volunteer organizations are known as gemachs, which is an acronym for Gemilut Chasadim, “Acts of Loving Kindness.” I remember visiting an old friend who had become very orthodox and now lived in a religious community in Israel. She showed me the local phone book, which had an entire section devoted to various gemachs that provided every service imaginable, and for free.

So, despite our complicated and fragmented lives, we at the WJC follow our Jewish obligation to do our best to offer caring acts to those in need in our community. Our Chesed Circle fulfills many of those needs. And so, like our ancestors, we have decided to hold our first annual Chesed Circle Banquet this Sunday from 11am-1pm to honor our volunteers. I especially want to thank Gwen Tapper, volunteer extraordinaire, who coordinates our Chesed Circle and is organizing the brunch. Thank you, Gwen!

I hope many of you can join us, and perhaps you will sign up for our Chesed Circle email list as well!

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I am thrilled to let you know that my dear friend Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed, one of the leading teachers of Judaism in the world today, and a wise and joyous soul, will be joining us at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation as our Scholar-in-Residence for the weekend of September 1-3. Her topic will be “Awakening: Preparing Ourselves for the New Year.” We have arranged her visit so that her Friday evening and Saturday morning teachings are free and open to all, and then she will be leading an intensive workshop from Saturday lunch through Sunday lunch that is open to registrants only. All the details are below.

I am honored to be one of Melila’s students, and honored to call her a friend. A native of Jerusalem, a riveting presenter and an expert in Jewish mysticism, Dr. Hellner-Eshed combines an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Jewish texts with the heart of an artist and the perspective of a citizen of the world. Like all great teachers, Melila guides us to where the ancient tradition and our own lives intersect, and makes us more aware and alive in the process. Her teaching integrates interactive text study, lecture, song, creative writing, reflection and deep sharing.

A native of Jerusalem, Dr. Hellner-Eshed teaches Zohar, Jewish mysticism, and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is also a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. For the past two decades, Dr. Hellner-Eshed has been a central figure in the renaissance of the study of Jewish texts by Israeli adults from all paths of life, as well as teaching and working with Jewish communities all over North America, Europe and the former Soviet Union. At the Shalom Hartman Institute, she initiated and directs the Rabbinic Students Seminar, a program for rabbinic students from all denominations spending a year in Israel. In this capacity she has influenced a generation of young rabbis from around the world. Dr. Hellner-Eshed is also the coordinator of the Maskilot Program, which provides outstanding female doctoral students with an edge in completing their Ph.D.’s and pursuing their rightful place in Israel’s elite circle of Jewish studies academics. Dr. Hellner-Eshed is active in ‘Sulha’ – a reconciliation project that brings together Israelis and Palestinians.  She is the author of And a River Flows from Eden – On the Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar (2009), and Seekers of The Face – From the Secrets of the Idra Rabba in the Zohar (2016).

I hope you will be able to attend some or all of the weekend, and that you will invite others as well. This is a rare opportunity to learn with a world-class scholar in our intimate Woodstock setting. Registration for the workshop is open now at the Lev Shalem Institute of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation website

Here are the details:

Friday, September 1

5:00pm Registration and greeting for weekend workshop participants

6:00pm “First Friday” pot luck Shabbat Dinner OPEN TO ALL

7:30pm Teaching with Dr. Hellner-Eshed OPEN TO ALL

Saturday, September 2

10:00am Shabbat morning service, led by Rabbi Jonathan, with Torah teaching by Dr. Hellner-Eshed OPEN TO ALL

12:30pm-8:00 Workshop begins with lunch for the participants, followed by learning sessions, afternoon break, dinner and havdalah service.

Sunday, September 3

9:30am-2:00pm Workshop continues, and concludes with lunch and farewells

Workshop Registration and Information

Tuition: $150 General; $75 WJC Members. Meals: Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner, Sunday lunch, plus snacks $70 (most dietary needs can be accommodated). Participants are also welcome to bring their own dairy/vegetarian food if they do not want to sign up for the meal plan. If tuition costs are prohibitive, contact Dee Graziano (familyschool@wjcshul.org845.679.2218 x6) at WJC for a confidential conversation. Again, easy online registration is available through the LSI website

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta
You shall eat, and be satiated, and give thanks (Deuteronomy 8:10)

As some of you may know, those three Hebrew words – V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta – comprise the proof text for the Birkat Ha’mazon, known in English as the Grace After Meals. Birkat Ha’mazon is a very long series of blessings of gratitude that are meant to be recited – and are often sung boisterously – after every meal. (Having grown up singing this every day after lunch at Jewish day school, I still mostly know it by heart.) In addition to offering blessings before eating, such as the Motzi, the blessing over bread, our Sages determined from this verse of Torah that we should also give thanks after we eat. Their decision was based on the order of the words: eat, be satiated, then give thanks!

Why should we be required to give thanks after we eat? The verses in Deuteronomy that immediately follow explain that when you have entered the good land that YHVH is giving to you, and have plenty to eat, and have built fine houses to live in, and you have become prosperous, “beware lest your heart grow haughty…and you say to yourselves, ‘it was my own power and strength that won this wealth for me!’” No, you must remember that your abundance is a gift from God, the Source of All. (8:11-17)

The Torah, as always, understands human nature. When we are famished or thirsty, and someone offers us refreshment, we might find ourselves exclaiming, unbidden, “Oh, thank God!” with a sigh, knowing that imminent relief to our suffering has arrived. But when we are satiated, we quickly forget the need we so desperately carried just moments earlier. That’s the way we are. We get used to our good fortune and our privilege, assume that as our baseline, and then focus on our next need. We forget to give thanks.

I recently read about a study that explored how quickly people become accustomed to new circumstances. For example, when we get faster internet speed, how long does it take before we expect that speed all the time? How long before we find ourselves complaining when the speed is too slow, when just a short time ago we were thrilled with our computer’s new capacity? I don’t remember the details of the study, but the answer is: it takes almost no time at all. And from there it is but a small and predictable step to feeling not only satisfied but self-satisfied, having forgotten completely about our blessed good fortune.

Therefore Judaism instructs that we must practice gratitude before the need is met, and after the need is met – in other words, all the time! Gratitude is the antidote to dissatisfaction. It is impossible to kvetch and keep a straight face when you dwell in a moment of appreciation.

You shall eat, and be satiated, and give thanks. When a physical need is involved, the feeling of satiation comes only after the need is met. But with spiritual and emotional needs, the reverse is true. If you can fill yourself with gratitude, lacks that you may have felt a moment before disappear! It is quite wonderful: when I am counting my blessings, when I am focusing on all the good that is bestowed upon me in any moment, at that moment I lack nothing. I fill and overflow with gratefulness. My cup runneth over.

Prayer is designed to carry us into this blessed state. You can do it right now: you can still your unquiet spirit, you can silence your endless whining simply by noticing the unearned bounty that has been bestowed upon you in this moment. Notice the next breath that has been granted to you, gaze at the greenery outside your window, feel the pulse sending life through your veins and arteries, all of them a gift to you from the Universe…and give thanks. These infinite gifts cannot be bought or sold; they are literally priceless. They have been given to us gratis, freely. And the only way we can even begin to return this kindness is with our own gratitude, freely offered.

Then I might say: You shall give thanks, and then feel satiated with life, and then – if you’re hungry – go ahead and eat something! Enjoy every bite. We are truly blessed, and when we take the time to count our blessings, we remember and rejoice.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

  • Geoff Miller on guitar and Cathie Malach on Piano will be joining Rabbi Jonathan this evening at 7:30 pm for an especially musical Kabbalat Shabbat service. Join us!
  • Come laugh this Sunday at 7 pm with the comedy duo Mikhail Horowitz & Gilles Malkine in “Millennial Mishegas”, an evening of deservedly obscure songs, poetry, and shtik from (mostly bogus) Jewish cultural history.
    • Admission: $10 suggested donation
    • We're recommending adults only (although not necessarily mature adults) for this performance.

 

Dear Friends,

I composed this piece a year ago, highlighting Judaism’s insistent and insightful understanding of the dangers of demagoguery. A year later, sadly, tragically, dangerously, the demagogue who was then a presidential candidate is now our president. Therefore I am sharing these teachings with you again today. My thanks to my colleague Rabbi Lewis Eron for his insights into this Torah portion.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan


Vayikhalu al Moshe v’Aharon vayomru aleihem: “Rav lachem, ki chol ha’edah kulam kedoshim u’v’tocham YHVH – u’madua titnas’u al k’hal YHVH?”

And [Korach and his followers] gathered against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! Is not the entire community holy, and is not YHVH in their midst? Why do you raise yourselves up above the community?!” (Numbers 16:3)

Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. (Merriam-Webster)

Korach assembles 250 Israelite leaders and publicly confronts Moses and Aaron: “Why do you merit to be the leaders?” Korach’s argument sounds reasonable – did not YHVH speak to all of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai? Did they not all enter into covenant with YHVH at the mountain? Does not the Divine Presence dwell amongst them all? Why then should the brothers Moses and Aaron have the power of Chief Judge and High Priest? How about a little more power-sharing here? And did not Moses himself recently exclaim, “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets!” (Num. 13:29)

It sounds good, but the Sages and Jewish tradition don’t buy it. Instead, the Sages examine what can be learned about Korach elsewhere in the Torah, and determine that his words are hollow and self-serving. They then read between the lines and midrashically paint Korach as the embodiment of demagoguery, a phenomenon they clearly are deeply acquainted with, (when it comes to human behavior, there is nothing new under the sun), and they hold Korach up as the example of the political leader not to follow.

The Sages note that Korach is not an ordinary citizen. He is Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. He is part of the priestly elite, and his role is to care for and transport the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects that furnish the Holy of Holies. Korach is clearly among the most privileged of the Israelites. The midrash describes Korach as exceedingly wealthy, as well. (Even today, the Hebrew and Yiddish expression “as rich as Korach” describes an extremely affluent individual.) The midrash explains that Korach did not earn his wealth. He either came upon it by luck or by dishonorable means. By some accounts Korach expropriated part of the treasure that Joseph hid for Pharaoh. Other stories relate that as a Hebrew slave, he was Pharaoh’s treasurer and placed a good portion of the royal riches into his own purse. Yet Korach’s wealth did not prompt him to do good deeds but only fed his sense of self-importance.

Parshat Korach opens with an unusual wording: Vayikach Korach… – “And Korah took…” (16:1). Took what? Why does the Torah not say “And Korach arose”, or “And Korach gathered around himself…” The midrash expands upon this strange opening and explains: Korach took people with words. His followers were taken in by Korach’s rhetoric. Korach, the rabbis assert, possesses the gift of gab. He knows how to inflame his followers’ grievances and reinforce their sense of entitlement. He distorts and selectively ignores the truth in order to win people over.

For example, the other named leaders that Korach gathers around him have their own reasons to be aggrieved at their exclusion from the highest echelons. Dathan, Aviram and On are all of the tribe of Reuben. If you will recall, Reuben was Jacob’s first-born. Yet descendants of the tribe of Levi are in control. Doesn’t the Torah explicitly direct the inheritance to go to the first-born son? Shouldn’t they be in charge?

But their emotion ignores history. Their patriarch Reuben long ago fell from grace, after he slept with Bilhah, one of his father Jacob’s wives. Jacob stripped him of his first-born privileges (see Genesis 49:3). Yet Korach knew just what to say to appeal to the Reubenites’ humiliation, to promise them restored status, and to get them to stand by his side.

Korach finds good company with the leaders of the Reubenites. Dathan and Aviram are also masterful at manipulating appearances and at twisting language. When Moses asks to meet with Dathan and Aviram they publicly refuse to meet with him, and hold a “press conference” instead, announcing: “We will not meet with that man. Is it not enough that he brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die here in this wilderness, and now he wants to lord it over us?… We will no longer be hoodwinked by this man! We refuse to meet with him!” (Numbers 16:13-14)

Note Dathan and Aviram’s breathtaking gall: They take the very words of hope that Moses shared with the slaves in Egypt, that if they would leave bondage God would lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and use that image to conjure the good old days of slavery! (Happy slaves singing on the plantation, anyone?)

The midrash elaborates on Korach’s clever casuistry (specious argument), creating passages in which he picks apart and mock’s the Torah’s instructions and laws, making them seem pointless and burdensome. Korach paints Moses as a tyrant whose rule is more onerous than Pharaoh’s. He even slanders Moses, claiming that Moses behaved immorally and warning women to stay away from him! He proclaims Moses’ choice of Aaron as High Priest to be pure nepotism, a brazen attempt to consolidate all the wealth of the priestly tithes into Moses’ own family. Korach incites the people, commenting on how well fed these leaders appear to be. He even spins a tale about a poor widow who was forced to give up her only means of livelihood – a single sheep – because of the onerous taxes and regulations that she is forced to follow by Moses and Aaron. Today we call these kinds of stories “fake news”.

But as always, skillful demagogues mine kernels of truth, which is what gives their arguments momentum. Dathan and Aviram play on the fact that Egypt was more fertile than this wilderness through which the Children of Israel now journey: where’s that land of milk and honey you promised us?! Korach also strikes a chord of truth: Moses does possess great authority; Aaron does receive the best cuts of meat. They are privileged. But Korach and his followers also ignore the greater truth: Moses has never governed for his own enrichment. He carries the burden of leadership without fanfare, just as his brother Aaron carries the sins of the entire People on his shoulders when he seeks God’s forgiveness. Aaron and Moses serve a higher purpose, and resist the aggrandizing temptations of power. But Korach, despite his compelling rhetoric and his populist appeals, serves no one but himself.

Thus Jewish tradition uses the contrast of Korach and Moses as an object lesson in leadership, teaching us to be wary of self-serving leaders. In Pirkei Avot, The Teachings of the Sages, Korach becomes immortalized as the example of the wrong path: “Any dispute that is in service of the common good will have enduring value. A dispute that is not in service of the common good has no lasting value… And what is an example of a dispute that has no lasting value? The dispute of Korach and his companions.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

In our portion, we are rewarded with a satisfyingly fantastic and wish-fulfilling ending to Korach’s rebellion: the earth opens its mouth and swallows him up along with his cohort. Problem solved, I suppose! But we don’t get to expect any miracles in our own political dramas. Rather, we have to remain vigilant against the Korachs of our day. We must shun the fleeting satisfactions of self-righteous rage that cloud our own good judgment, and hone our abilities to argue with reason, to stand up to falsehoods, and to work with passion for the common good.

Dear Friends,

In May I had the privilege of teaching a class on the writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory. His words resonate with relevance across the decades since he composed them, and inspired me afresh, as they always seem to do. I want to share with you one passage that has especially stayed with me. Its message is both timeless and ever timely:

Looking upon myself from the perspective of society, I am an average person. Facing myself intimately, immediately, I regard myself as unique, as exceedingly precious, not to be exchanged for anything else.

No one will live my life for me, no one will think my thoughts or dream my dreams.

In the eyes of the world, I am an average man. But to my heart I am not an average man. To my heart I am of great moment. The challenge I face is how to actualize the quiet eminence of my being.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, from “Who Is Man?” (1965)

I want to repeat that final statement:

“The challenge I face is how to actualize the quiet eminence of my being.”

Heschel is not being arrogant here. Rather, he recognizes the truth, that each of us possesses a “quiet eminence”, an inner light, a unique self. Actualizing that inner self does not require becoming famous, or being recognized at all. It is a private act in which one affirms that one has a place in the world, that one matters. We were not created so that we could hide our unique light under a bushel. We were created in order actualize that light: in our daily exchanges, in our creative life, in our garden, in our work. Whatever the arena of our lives, that is where we each have something to offer that no one can replace: our selves. Your quiet, magnificent eminence is a gift to the world, and a wonder to behold. Go for it.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha

Love your fellow human being as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)

“This is the central principle of the Torah” (Rabbi Akiva, 2nd C C.E.)

“The rest is commentary – go and study” (Rabbi Hillel, 1st C B.C.E.)

This week we reach the pinnacle of the Torah, chapter 19 of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim. The chapter begins with YHVH instructing the entire Children of Israel, “You must be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy.” What follows are the ethical behaviors that the community of Israel must fulfill in order to manifest this collective quality of kedusha – holiness. These instructions parallel the Ten Commandments of the Book of Exodus, where we are also told that we must fulfill these commandments in order to become a holy people. But the Holiness Laws of Leviticus actually transcend the Ten Commandments, for after repeating most of the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Ten Commandments, the Holiness Laws culminate in the positive decree to love your neighbor.

The commandment to love here is clearly not meant to address our feelings, but rather our behavior. In fact, a more accurate translation of v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha might be “Behave lovingly toward your neighbor, as you would wish for yourself.

But what constitutes loving behavior? The verses that precede this one tell us what we must do, and it is a tall order

You shall not render an unfair decision, nor pervert justice; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – treat all people fairly.

 

Do not slander others.

 

Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is being shed.

 

If you see your neighbor committing an offense, do not hate them in your heart; rather, admonish them and try to interrupt their behavior. If you do not do this, you bear some of the guilt for their misdeed.

 

Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your neighbor; rather you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am YHVH, the Source of all life. (19:15-19)

Oh my! We are not being told to be merely tolerant. We are not being told to just live and let live. We are being told that to fulfill our collective potential we must take an active interest in each other’s lives. We must care and act when other lives are at stake, or when we know that someone is headed down a dark path. In a holy society, there are no innocent bystanders.

Underlying all of these commandments is the fundamental assertion of the Torah that every single human being is of infinite value, because every single human being is made in the Divine image. In a holy society, no one is expendable.Everyone merits fair and dignified treatment, simply because they are human. If we are to be a holy people, all of our decisions, all of our communal norms, all of our policies must align with and grow out of this understanding.

Judaism, it has been said, is a 3,000-year-long discussion of ethics, and the Torah is our foundation. Being a “practicing” Jew means that we take on that challenge of continuing to think and act in ways that make us more ethical and make our communities more loving and just. If we follow Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Akiva’s lead – and that is what Judaism has followed for all of these centuries – then there is no way around it: Being a good Jew means putting ethical behavior at the center of our existence.

I offer these thoughts humbly, for I am humbled by the enormity of the demand placed upon me as a Jew. I fail so often to live up to these principles! But I am also inspired to be the inheritor of our aspirational teachings and by our unbending ideals. I am inspired to belong to a tradition that demands the best in me. Fortunately there are plenty of Jewish holidays for rejoicing in life’s goodness and bounty, so that our spirits might be regularly replenished. Meanwhile, we have holy work to do.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I want to give you a sense of the vitality of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation by describing our activities of the coming week—and invite you to participate in any event that awakens your curiosity. (As you read these offerings, click on the links for more information.)

Are you interested in meditation as a spiritual practice? We are honored to host Rabbi Jeff Roth along with our own Gail Albert as they lead a brand new Jewish Mindfulness/Heartfulness Practice Group. The meetings are free and open to all, and the first gathering is Monday, April 24 from 7–8:30 pm. Take this opportunity to explore the emerging field of contemplative Judaism with these masterful teachers.

Looking for inspiration in troubled times? I will be teaching a new course beginning Tuesday, April 25, 1:30–3:30 pm: Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet for Our Times. Rabbi Heschel, theologian, mystic, and activist, was a champion of social justice and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest Jewish colleague. We will be reading and reflecting on essays from two of his collections, The Insecurity of Freedom and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

Do you want to express yourself with fullness and joy? Our own master theater teacher Carol Fox Prescott begins a new series of classes on Tuesday, April 25, from 7–9 pm: Breathing, Awareness and Joy. Anyone who has experienced Carol’s teaching and coaching will attest to its transformative power to awaken and express our deepest selves.

Are you a man looking for fellowship with other men? Our new WJC Men’s Group also meets on Tuesday, April 25 from 7:30–9 pm.
We have also formed a Women’s Rosh Chodesh Group, led by our Student Rabbi Kami Knapp—they meet next on Sunday April 30, 10 am–12 pm to celebrate the New Moon of Iyyar, the month of healing.

Every Wednesday morning, April 26, 10 am–12 pm, come have fun in Yiddish with Chane’s Yiddish Vinkl, led by our own Noami Halpern.

Then, on Wednesday evening, April 26 at 7:30 pm we have a concert of some great Yiddish music! We are delighted to present FRAYDELE, a new project led by multi-instrumentalist Joanna Sternberg. Named after Joanna’s grandmother Fraydele Oysher, a pioneer of Feminism Yiddish Theater, FRAYDELE performs their own unique arrangements and interpretations of soulful songs from Yiddish Theater and Yiddish folk music traditions. This concert is free—your donations are welcomed—and is sponsored by the Chane Yachness Fund for Ashkenaz Culture Through Yiddish Language, Music and Literature.

Of course, if you have time on Thursday, April 27, 5:30–6:45 pm you can join me for our always-enlightening study of the weekly Torah portion, Parshat Hashavua.

I admit that all of this marvelous activity does leave me a bit breathless, but also very gratified. We truly are fulfilling our WJC Vision Statement, which begins, “The Woodstock Jewish Congregation is dedicated to the advancement of Jewish ethics, culture and religion. We strive to enable participants to enrich their lives through Jewish worship, celebration, practice, study and fellowship.”

And there is always more: Shabbat services tonight, April 21, at 7:30 pm. Tomorrow, Shabbat morning, we have the privilege of calling another of our incredible young people, Sylvie Bergquist, to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah. It is such a joy! Sunday, April 23 at 6:30 pm we join with the Ulster County Jewish community for our annual Yom Hashoah memorial service, this year taking place at Congregation Agudas Achim, 254 Lucas Ave., in Kingston. And looking just a little bit ahead, on Sunday, April 30 from 12–2 pm our next Gallery Lev Shalem exhibit, “Inner Journeys”, opens.

I’ll stop here and catch my breath! I hope you find this plethora of activities heartening and enticing, and that you feel encouraged to keep up with all that is happening at the WJC. I also hope that you remember that you are always welcome at our great smorgasbord (is there a Jewish word for that?) of Jewish life here at the Congregation of a Full Heart.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

My dear friend and esteemed colleague Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum recommended a little book for me to read, and now I want to recommend it to all of you. The book is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. Snyder has written numerous works, among them Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. He serves as a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

On Tyranny can be read and absorbed in one or two sittings. It is a work of “public scholarship”, a manifesto meant to show us a bigger historical picture, and to equip us with the necessary understanding so that we can confront our own political moment with clarity and with courage.

By drawing lessons from the collapse of democracies and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism during the first half of the twentieth century, Snyder makes clear that the future of democracy in the United States is by no means ensured. History teaches us that democratic systems can lose their footing, and that opportunists will reliably exploit those weaknesses to further undermine the rule of law and replace it with governing systems that consolidate power in the hands of a few. Snyder’s account of Vladimir Putin’s current skillful maneuvering to undermine and weaken European and American democracy is especially chilling. Framed within this global perspective, the election of our current president and his administration’s priorities fit into a terrifying pattern of democratic systems losing their grip in a way that might have seemed unimaginable until recently.

Unimaginable, that is, if one has been raised on what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability”. This is the mythic framing of American history as the inevitable march toward ever-greater democracy and freedom. I remember learning back in junior high about the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that the United States of America was somehow blessed – even chosen – by divine providence to move ever forward to greater glory and fulfillment. Growing up as I did in the prosperous post-war baby boom, I absorbed and accepted this ahistorical myth of the march of progress. It was a comfort, and an inspiration to live within this bubble: to the moon and beyond, humanity marches toward a brighter tomorrow. But it is beyond time to put these myths aside; history is a clear-eyed witness that human progress is not assured.

This should be of keen interest to us as Jews for multiple reasons. As an oft-maligned minority, we Jews thrive and are safest when societies abide by the rule of law and the protections of human rights. The tyranny of Nazi Germany led to our near-annihilation. The tyranny of Stalinism led to the crushing and near-extinguishing of our culture and religion, and to gross institutionalized discrimination against us. It is in our obvious self-interest as Jews to resist tyranny and to defend democracy.

Even more obvious is the message of Passover: Long ago, we ourselves were subjugated by tyranny. We groaned under our servitude. And the Source of Life brought us out from that crushing place to freedom. Therefore, we tell this story to remember where we came from, and to remember that we serve the Source of Life. And, as the Haggadah then explains, “Whoever expands and expounds upon this story is worthy of praise!”

This Passover let us be wise, and learn from both the lessons of Torah and from the lessons of recent history. The world needs us to be informed and empowered citizens. I recommend as your Passover reading On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Wishing you all a sweet and illuminating Pesach,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Members and Friends of Kehillat Lev Shalem,

As spring arrives (in fits and starts!), with it another Passover approaches. As much as I thrill at the promise of spring, I marvel at the longevity of Passover. I feel privileged, and also obligated, to continue to celebrate this ancient festival that Jews have marked for some 3,000 years or more.

Passover actually has four Hebrew names; taken together these names cover the breadth of this holiday:

  • Pesach – “Pass over”. The Children of Israel slaughter lambs and then spread the blood of the sacrifice on the lintels above their doors. On the terrible night when the Angel of Death sweeps over Egypt, slaughtering the Egyptians’ first-born sons, the Angel of Death passes over the Israelites’ homes. When we sit at the Seder table, we mark the night vigil of Pesach. The roasted lamb shank bone on the seder plate reminds us of our ancestors’ vigil so many generations ago, and we are commanded to tell the story to the next generation, just as we received it from our own elders.
  • Chag Ha’aviv – The Festival of Spring. Passover is our ancient springtime celebration, always timed for the first full moon of spring. We clean our houses, throw out our old, fermented food stores, take off the storm windows, and let the fresh air in as we rejoice in the end of winter and the rebirth of spring.
  • Chag Hamatzot – The Festival of Unleavened Bread. The Torah commands us to eat only unleavened bread – matzah – for the full week of the festival. Matzah is known as lechem oni, which can be translated as either “the bread of affliction” or “the bread of poverty”. As we tell the story of our escape from bondage, the Torah instructs us to eat matzah in order to identify with the fleeing slaves, and with poor people everywhere. Therefore during the seder we hold up the plate of matzot – some also open their front door – and announce, “This is the lechem oni that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat!” Our tradition wants us not only to hear the story of our oppression and liberation, but to taste it, to ingest it, to embody it, so that it becomes a part of who we are, people who can empathize with the degradation of oppression, and who can appreciate the gift of freedom.
  • Z’man Cheruteinu – The Season of Our Liberation. For me, this traditional name for our Festival encompasses all of the others, for liberation is at the heart of our yearning and our celebration. We celebrate the earth’s liberation from the bondage of winter, and the life that bursts forth in spring. We celebrate our ancestors’ liberation from bondage, and our birth as a free people. We retell and re-embody the story of that dangerous and difficult time, so that the ancient memory lives on. We celebrate the ever-present potential for human liberation, for the ultimate triumph of the human spirit against those who would wish to crush it. We ponder what our tale of freedom means for us, in our generation, as the Haggadah instructs: “In every generation you must see yourself as personally journeying out of the land of bondage.” And we celebrate that the Jewish People are still here to share our inspiring tale with one another and with the world.

If you are looking for an inspiring and uplifting seder to join this year, look no further than the WJC. Our long-time friend, singer, songwriter, activist and all-around amazing human being Reggie Harris will be joining me for our annual Second Night Community Seder, Tuesday, April 11, 5:30-8:00pm. It will be an evening of great music and food and meaningful conversation as we apply our ancient message to our contemporary challenges. Register soon – space is limited and we expect a full house.

Wishing us all energy and inspiration in this Season of Liberation!

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

U’vayom hashvi’i shavat vayinafash

And on the seventh day [God] paused from labor and [God’s] spirit was restored. (Exodus 33:17)

This famous passage appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many will be familiar with it because it is end of a brief passage that we know as V’shamru, verses that we sing at every Shabbat service that remind us of the central importance of Shabbat to the Jewish People. Just as God rested and was restored on the seventh day, following 6 days of labor, so we are instructed to recuperate every week from our busy lives.

The hoped for result of this weekly respite is the term vayinafash, usually translated as “restored” or “refreshed”. In Hebrew, vayinafash is constructed from the root nefesh, which means “soul”, “spirit”, or “self”. Therefore the most literal, and evocative, translations of vayinafash might be “re-souled”, or “inspired”, or “find yourself”.

Our world, especially right now, is in many ways a frightening, dispiriting and soul-sucking environment. Bombarded with coarse and violent news, absorbed in the trivialities of constant information, fatigued by our efforts to walk upright through our days, we can lose our selves, and be swept off of our foundation. We can forget that life is good and that we can be agents of positivity in our lives. We need a regular reminder that life goes much deeper than the latest news cycle. We need a sanctuary in which we can nurture our tender hearts and spirits. We need a respite during which we can offer one another courage and hope to face the next day. This is the purpose of Shabbat.

One of the key functions of a synagogue, as I see it, is to be a space and a community in which people can restore their spirits, in which we can be “re-souled” on a regular basis. We approach this purpose with many different modalities: song; sacred study; fellowship; laughter; moral inventory; and prayer, to name a few. Last week, at Purim, the modality was laughter. If you attended our purimspiel, you hopefully exited with a lighter spirit and the healing release of laughter. (And a special shout-out to purimspiel author Bennett Neiman, and to our great cast of Purim players!) This Shabbat, with our special guest Rabbi Miriam Margles, we explore prayer as a restorative practice. Rabbi Miriam and I titled this weekend “Going Deep: Tapping the Wellsprings of Love and Courage”. Here’s what I wrote on the flyer:

“Prayer is meant to move us, both in the sense of awakening our insides, and moving us to action. Prayer, when practiced with intention and openness, helps us to act with clarity while maintaining a joyous and calm center. Our world needs our clear, loving and powerful presences, and prayer – both individual and communal – is a practice that nurtures and helps us to manifest our best selves. Prayer takes us inward, where we can tap the unfailing spring of Life Unfolding, and then outward, as that spring flows through us and waters the world with love and righteousness.

Rabbi Miriam is a master of this terrain, and a masterful guide in its subtle pathways. Shabbat is a retreat, a sanctuary in which we can replenish and renew ourselves. This Shabbat, Rabbi Miriam and Rabbi Jonathan, using both traditional prayers and experiential exercises, will help us tap the wellsprings of love and courage so that we can continue to step forward into our troubled world.”

Please join us for Shabbat services tonight at 7:30pm. Gabriel Dresdale will be accompanying us all with his sensitive and beautiful cello playing. A festive and copious Kiddush will follow, as Evan and Neesa Holland celebrate their move to their new home in Woodstock with all of us.

Saturday morning, Rabbi Miriam and I will be leading Shabbat service at 10am. At noon we will all be sharing a potluck lunch. And then from 1:30-4:30 pm Rabbi Miriam and I will be leading a free workshop, “To Be Moved and To Move: An Experiential Workshop on the Power of Prayer”. No preregistration is required – just wear comfortable clothes and bring a willing heart.

We hope that you experience the quality of vayinafash with us this Shabbat, that you find your spirit renewed and your soul restored. And please remember that your presence is also a gift, strengthening and encouraging the rest of us. Let’s go deep together here at the Congregation of the Full Heart, and then face the world together as well, with renewed energy.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

You are likely aware that anti-Semitic incidents are on a dangerous rise around the United States. Most prominently there have been dozens of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, and Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated. I have unfortunately also been receiving reports about anti-Semitic taunts and posters in our own Mid-Hudson Valley region.

While of course very distressing, none of this is surprising to me. Human beings tend to follow the cue of their leaders, and when hateful speech and intolerant behavior is modeled and championed from our national leadership, tacit permission is granted to everyone who is so inclined to exercise their own hateful speech and impulses. Hatred can breed in every human heart, and a healthy society’s role is to marginalize, suppress, and ideally undo that hatred, so that we can have a civil – as in civilized – society. We need look no further back than the Nazi regime to understand the human potential for evil, and the terrifyingly slippery slope that allows the container of civilized behavior to be upended. We also need look no further today than to Syria, where once again human savagery – led by Syria’s dictator Assad – has swept away the human values that uphold civilization. Jewish tradition names this recurrent wave of human depravity “Hamashchit” – “The Destroyer”, and the 11th century sage Rashi points out, “When the Destroyer is let loose in the land, innocent and guilty suffer alike.”

We are living in a dangerous moment.

I think it is important for us Jews to remember that despite our historic role as scapegoat, here in the United States at this moment we are not first in line for the forces of bigotry. Muslims and Hispanics appear to be closest to the crosshairs, and people of darker skin shades in general are the primary focus of bigoted hatred. But we are certainly all in this together, and the truism “What affects one, affects us all” is as true now as it has ever been.

Fortunately, that awareness of our need to look out for one another is being dramatically awakened in response to these developments. Perhaps you followed the heartening response to the desecration of the Chesed Shel Emet Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Two Muslim activists, Linda Sarsour of MPower Change and Celebrate Mercy’s Tarek El-Messidi, immediately launched a crowd-funding response to their Muslim communities in order to raise $20,000 to repair the cemetery. Within hours they had surpassed that goal and raised $100,000!

Then, as my colleague Rabbi Yael Ridberg reports, “less than a week later, when the Mt. Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, Tarek El-Messidi abandoned his travel plans and was one of the first people on the scene, helping to lift toppled stones, and pledging to use funds from the now $130,000 collected, to aid in restoration efforts in Philadelphia, and anywhere else they might be needed.

Many members of the American Muslim community gave of themselves — their money, their verbal condemnation of the attacks, their physical presence to volunteer at the cemeteries and stand together with Jews against such anti-Semitic actions.” Read more of her excellent post here.

Our Muslim allies’ response is precisely what is called for from all of us at this tenuous moment in the United States and around our planet. We can contain and subdue the forces of division and hatred with our determined efforts to remain connected and to offer support across group boundaries. I think that one of the goals of terror is to get folks to shrink back and close ranks with their own kind. I implore us Jews to resist the contracting imperative of fear, and instead to reach out determinedly to the countless people of good will from all corners of humanity who understand that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Dear Friends,

Our tour of Israel, “Meetings with Remarkable People”, has come to an end, and it exceeded all of our expectations. I know I can speak for everyone in our group when I say that we were uplifted and inspired by the passionate, courageous and principled individuals we encountered. We were able to experience an aspect of Israel that does not make the headlines: individuals from all sectors of the society who feel compelled to make a positive impact on the nation in which they live.

At times we traveled far off the beaten tourist path – sometimes literally, as our bus drove on bumpy dirt roads and across railroad tracks. We met a retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice and we met a Beduin woman who has started her own cottage industry. We met a Christian Arab High School principal transforming her impoverished students’ lives and we met a self-described punk rocker and hippie originally from Australia transforming the desert into fertile soil. We met a Palestinian Muslim man who, with his Israeli partner, daily risks his life to bring Palestinian and Israeli teens together, and we met an Israeli Jewish man who is guiding troubled Jewish teens to become proud men. We met a successful jeweler who is training Ethiopian Jews in his trade as his way of giving them an entrée into a stable economic life, and we met a passionate young Israeli woman who works for a solar energy company that is now providing most of the electricity for the city of Eilat, and has much bigger plans for the future.

We met all of these people, and many more. None of these individuals can solve the endemic problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. None of them can single-handedly undo the inequities of their society. None of them has any measurable influence on or significant access to Israel’s current governing coalition or Prime Minister Netanyahu. None of them has the power to stem the terrifying tide of angry nationalism and racism that is sweeping our world, or to hold back global climate change.

Yet none of them are giving up. In fact, what all of these individuals share is a twinkle in their eyes, and a fierce determination and love for what they do and especially for the people they serve. Each one of them has a vision and a purpose for their lives, and was eager to share it with us. Each one has identified what they are passionate about, and is pursuing their goals despite the daunting obstacles. None of these remarkable people is making headlines or rolling in grant money, but every one of them is an agent for positive change.

Perhaps you see where I’m headed with this: our trip not only reminded me that Israel is filled with good people. Our trip reminded me that the entire world is filled with good people. Anywhere you will go, if you know how to look, you will meet countless people who have empowered themselves and are committed to improving their societies. The people we met in Israel are remarkable yet also ordinary people, often very humble, but lit by the inner fire of love and of a sense of purpose, of wanting to be of service. Their sphere of influence is limited: a business, a school, a farm, a small city, a courtroom, a youth group, yet they are not deterred, because they are doing what they love and what they know must be done. They often spoke of their children, and of their desire to hand them a better world.

And so I came back from Israel with the gift of their inspiring examples. I came home encouraged and empowered to keep making a difference in the world within my own sphere, to act locally while I think globally, and I want to share this gift with you as well.

We are living in dark times, but there are good people everywhere. Find them, join hands with them, draw inspiration from one another, do work that you care about, and keep your heart open. That is certainly my goal.

I once again wish to thank our guide Kayla Ship and her organization Keshet Educational Tours for showing us this slice of life in Israel. I can’t wait to return.

If you want to hear more about our trip, you are invited to join me and members of our Israel group on Sunday, March 5, 11am-1pm at our monthly WJC brunch. We will be sharing our reflections and stories from our journey, and look forward to your questions and comments.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

While the snow continues to fall in the Hudson Valley, we have arrived in the very south of Israel, a desert landscape of beige and brown. The climate is cool at night and pleasantly mild during the day, a contrast to the surprisingly biting chill that met us in Jerusalem.

View of Mountains from Kibbutz Ketura

We are staying at Kibbutz Ketura, a kibbutz that was founded in 1973 by a group of idealistic young adults from Young Judaea, an American youth movement sponsored by Hadassah. (I’m sure there are some Young Judaeans out there reading this!) They claimed a completely barren site in the Arava valley - a great example of “the middle of nowhere” – and over the decades built a thriving, progressive community. Ketura is an old-style kibbutz, still maintaining itself as a complete cooperative. Across the road is Kibbutz Lotan, another successful kibbutz founded by American youth from the Reform movement. Immediately beyond Lotan is the border with Jordan – one can walk through the groves of date palms and reach the fence. Fortunately, the peace treaty with Jordan is stable, and the border here for decades has been completely calm. The view is stunning and restorative.

Ketura’s success was by no means guaranteed. The Arava receives almost no rainfall, has no obvious natural resources, and the summer heat is brutal. Through trial and error some of the kibbutzniks created a successful algae factory that is quite profitable. And, of course, they noticed that the area’s greatest resource is continuous and intense sunshine – solar power. Led by Yossi Abramowitz, and battling Bezek, the Israeli electric company that holds a monopoly in Israel, Ketura has created a burgeoning solar energy company, with plans to build enormous fields of photovoltaic panels that will be able harvest enough sunlight to power the entire southern region – including parts of Jordan. They certainly hope to extend their reach to the rest of Israel, planning for a sustainable energy future.

In my eyes, Ketura’s crowning achievement is the Arava Institute (http://arava.org).

In keeping with the kibbutz’s vision to promote pluralism and peaceful cooperation in the region, the Arava Institute trains environmental activists and academics from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and around the world. Their website states, “The Arava Institute is a leading environmental and academic institution in the Middle East, working to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict. Students live, learn and work together at the Institute, study conflict resolution, and celebrate each other’s holidays, in all ways encountering one another intimately. The Institute’s motto is “Nature knows no borders”. I encourage you to peruse their website, and if you are inspired, consider offering your support.

Last night we had the pleasure of participating in a kibbutz-wide Tu B’Shvat Seder in the communal dining room. (Tu B’Shvat actually falls on Shabbat, but the kibbutz was celebrating a day early so as not to conflict with their Shabbat observance. At the WJC, our student rabbi Kami Knapp will be leading our Tu B’Shvat Seder following our Shabbat morning services and lunch!)

Tu B'Shevat at Kibbutz Ketura

Tu B’Shvat falls on the full moon of the month of Shvat, and marks the “New Year for Trees” in Israel. We taste the fruits of Israel, sing songs, and give thanks for the bounty and goodness that the trees provide us. The kibbutz dining hall was packed. We sat near the Kenyan volunteers who are here for a year working on the kibbutz. Children dressed as flowers and butterflies and bees performed a dance, teens taught us rounds and chants, adults spoke meaningful words, we ate delicious fruits and nuts, and our group was blessed with a privileged glimpse into the life of this community.

The most moving moment for me was the prayer for peace. The organizers invited up a representative of every different language spoken on the kibbutz. Each one then recited the prayer in his or her own language: French, Spanish, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, three Kenyan languages whose names I do not know, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew: “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel” – “May the One who makes peace above, make peace among us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.” After each recital we all declared “Amen”.

The members of Kibbutz Ketura are certainly doing all that is within their power to contribute to that vision of a peaceful and sustainable world. May they be blessed in all of their efforts.

Over the past week we met with so many remarkable and inspiring people, and I promise to write more about those meetings in weeks to come. This has been an extraordinary trip. But now as Shabbat approaches I will pause, and send you all my warmest wishes for your wellbeing. I will write again soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

I am in the midst of an incredibly stimulating and well-planned tour of Israel with a great group of 33 individuals ranging in age from 15 into the 80s. I have been working with Keshet Educational Tours, our tour company, for more than 20 years. Their mission, as indicated by their name, is to educate while we tour, and they just keep getting better and better. Our trip is really a seminar-on-wheels, with fabulous educators teaching us about different aspects of society, history, politics and nature in Israel, alternating with fascinating experiences, sightseeing and large amounts of great food. It is odd to say this, but right now being in Israel actually feels like a break from the turmoil of our own United States.

I only have time to give you a small taste of my experiences thus far, and will write more in the coming week. But let me begin at the beginning. As I emerged from my plane last Sunday at Ben Gurion Airport I scanned all the advertisements – for yogurt, for banking, for cell phones – all in Hebrew. And as always, I marveled that we Jews had, against all odds, reinvented ourselves, rebuilt a long-lost homeland, resurrected our ancient tongue, and here I was again, living a miracle. That sense of awe always overtakes me when I am in Israel, and doesn’t leave me, even as I grapple with the intractable problems and existential questions that accompany life in Israel. During my cab ride from the airport I had what felt like the perfect introduction to my time here (and a chance to practice my Hebrew, as well.) My driver was a sweet young man from Tel Aviv, and after we greeted one another he said to me, “We in Israel are used to living in a balagan (a great Hebrew word which means “a mess”); now the whole world is a balagan – even the United States is a balagan!” I responded, “You’re right, but at least here in Israel this is our balagan!” And so it is, and I still cannot help but embrace it.

Our group convened that evening at our hotel, and in the morning we headed off on our adventures. One high point for me was meeting with David Breakstone. David Breakstone is the brother of our own WJC member Diane Colello. David is also the Vice Chair of the World Zionist Organization, and the founder of Israel’s Theodore Herzl Museum. A passionate educator, David has spent his adult life in Israel promoting Herzl’s original vision of Zionism: a movement not only to create a refuge for World Jewry from anti-Semitism, but also a movement to create a Jewish society that could be a model of equity and social justice for all of its citizens. No one will dispute that Herzl’s utopian dreams are far from being realized, and are even in many aspects receding. Other less generous versions of Zionism battle for preeminence. But thanks to people like David Breakstone, Herzl’s dreams have not died, and the educational center he created stimulates countless Israeli students and teachers to think about the founder of Zionism’s vision, and to consider what kind of nation they themselves might want to work for.

We had the privilege the next day of learning from another amazing educator, Noam Zion, a scholar at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. The late American philosopher David Hartman founded the Hartman Institute in 1976, shortly after he had moved to Israel. Its mission is to reinterpret Jewish teachings for the challenges of modernity, such as religious pluralism, democracy, and especially the unprecedented challenges of a newly powerful Jewish state. How can one apply Jewish ethics to the implementation of state power? Is it even possible for a nation state to behave ethically? The Hartman Institute has become a leading center and influential think tank in Israel for political, educational, military and religious leaders to explore these challenging questions.

Noam Zion was one of the scholars responsible for the creation of the Israel Defense Force’s manual on the ethics of warfare. All IDF officers and soldiers are required to study this curriculum. Professor Zion led us through a lesson that describes the training these soldiers receive. Rather than a simple book of rules, the curriculum teaches soldiers how to pursue ethical decision-making in complex, dangerous and even life-threatening situations. Professor Zion described the substantial effort the IDF has made to train soldiers who will respond ethically in tremendously difficult conditions. He described the extreme challenges of what is known as asymmetrical warfare: a uniformed army confronting a civilian population, among whom are unidentified enemies. I cannot even begin in this brief paragraph to do justice to the nuances of Professors Zion’s teaching. Suffice to say that this was not propaganda – it was mind-expanding education in the best sense, raising for all of us more questions than answers.

Kayla Ship, our terrific Keshet tour guide, told us that when the Keshet staff had a strategic planning meeting, they came up with a tagline for their educational mission: “It’s Complicated”. In all of the meetings we have thus far had, no teacher or presenter has insulted our intelligence. No question has been off limits. I am deeply impressed by the education our lovely group has received thus far, our minds expanding and bending, our assumptions challenged, sometimes painfully, sometimes thrillingly, sometimes both at the same time.

Which brings me back to my own mission statement: if you want to really understand Israel, you must come here, preferably more than once. Panel discussions, op-ed pieces, and “60-Minute” reports are completely unable to bring this place to life, and we ourselves become talking heads as we debate Israel from afar. It may be complicated here, but it is also vibrantly alive, and I am so grateful to be traveling with this wonderful WJC group as we bend our minds and wrap our hearts around this extraordinary land.

More to come next week – until then, Shabbat Shalom and take care of yourselves!

Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I am preparing to lead the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s trip to Israel, “Meetings with Remarkable People.” I fly out this Saturday night, and our group convenes in Jerusalem this coming Sunday evening. We have a full contingent of about 35 people, and I’m sure this will be a deeply meaningful and bonding journey for all of us. Following the tour I will be staying an extra week in Israel to visit with my daughter Timna, who is currently living in Tel Aviv, and to catch up with the rest of my family who live in Israel. I will be back in Woodstock on February 20.

I look forward to writing weekly dispatches to you all about our experiences on the tour. I will be checking my email regularly, so if you need to reach me you will be able to connect with me via email.

All of our services, classes and events will be continuing while I am away, in the able hands of congregation members, our staff and our terrific student rabbi Kami Knapp. At this deeply troubling and unsettled time in the United States I encourage us all to stay connected and close to our synagogue community, so that we can give each other support, perspective, and strength.

I would like to briefly share some words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory, whose writings we studied in our Torah study class this week, and will continue to engage with this Shabbat. We have reached the episode in the story of the Exodus when Moses confronts Pharaoh with the message of YHVH: “Let My people go!” Pharaoh replies, “I do not know this YHVH, and I will not let the people go.”

On January 14, 1963, as the keynote speaker at the first “National Conference on Religion and Race”, held in Chicago, Rabbi Heschel used this reference to open his extraordinary address:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.

Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry. Let us make no compromise with callousness.

Rabbi Heschel than builds an irrefutable case that Judaism, and every true religion, must oppose the Pharaonic view that some humans are more equal than others. Anything less is idolatry:

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

That is, we worship the principle of empathy, the capacity to know another person’s pain, the ability to reach out beyond our own ego and recognize our fundamental parity with every human. As YHVH says to Moses at the burning bush, “I have marked well the plight of My people; I have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I know their pain.” (Ex 3:7)

With prophetic power, Heschel insists that we worship the God of empathy. His words ring as true today as they did in 1963, for they are the truth. We must be resolute, and confront the Pharaohs of our day who treat other humans and the world as a whole only as playthings for personal gratification. Heschel cites the words of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, writing against slavery:

I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard.

Rabbi Heschel’s essay is from his collection The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (1966). As I strive to keep my moral compass steady in these dangerous times, I find my self turning for guidance to Heschel, a Jewish scholar, an activist, a poet, a refugee from the Nazis who became Martin Luther King’s close colleague, and became the leading moral voice of Jewish teachings during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, until his passing in 1972.

When I return from Israel, I will offer a class on Heschel’s writing, so that we can internalize Heschel’s teachings, and bring them into our own lives and actions. His is a Jewish voice that can guide us on the path of righteousness in today’s world.

Until then,

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

In August of 1790, George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island as a good will gesture, Rhode Island having recently ratified the U.S. Constitution after a contentious delay and thus affirmed the authority of President Washington’s national government. During this visit President Washington met with the leaders of Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport.

The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, founded in 1658, was the second Jewish community formed in the Colonies, the first and oldest being Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam (now New York City, of course), founded in 1654. The Touro Synagogue in Newport was constructed in 1763, and is the oldest synagogue in the United States.

The founders of these first Jewish communities in what were to become the United States of America were Sephardic Jews. They were on the run from the Spanish Inquisition, which had chased them all the way to the New World, and they sought refuge from persecution and death. Rhode Island, created on the principle of freedom of religion by Roger Williams, offered that haven. That welcome set the course of the United States as a pioneer and as a beacon of religious tolerance to this day.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the Hebrew Congregation’s leader, presented a public letter of welcome and gratitude on behalf of his community to President Washington. Seixas welcomes the President, thanks the Almighty for Washington’s leadership, and then writes,

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine…

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: — And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island 

Moses Seixas, Warden

August 17th 1790

The next day Washington returned the gesture with a penned response. This letter is credited with enshrining the principles of religious freedom and tolerance that form the DNA of our democracy. The letter reads, in part,

Gentlemen:

…The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

It is interesting to note that the immortal phrase, “a Government, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” was not Washington’s original coinage, but in fact the words of Moses Seixas! Be that as it may, Washington had the wisdom to repeat that felicitous phrase, and thus it entered the lexicon of the guiding principles of these United States.

It is also important to remember that these enlightened sentiments did not extend to the African Americans who were brought here in chains, or to the Native Americans who were being decimated and displaced by our founding generations. Our national ethos is still crippled by that legacy. Nonetheless, the underlying principle of equality expressed by Seixas and Washington has given us the foundation to continue striving and struggling toward its genuine realization.

I share this piece of Jewish and American history quite intentionally on the day that we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States. Our new President thus far shows little understanding of or respect for the rights of all Americans as defined in our Constitution. He thus far shows no empathy for the plight of the refugee seeking our shores. I want to remind us all that the United States (despite some tragic and heartless lapses) has provided a home for millions of Jewish people, the vast majority of us arriving here as refugees, fleeing persecution from nations that had no laws protecting minorities or ensuring freedom of religious expression. I ask you to slowly reread the exchange of letters above, and reflect on their profound content. These sentiments were shared at a moment when our nation was but a few years old, but they remain astonishingly fresh and relevant. (You can find the full text of both letters here.) I want to remind us that as both Jews and as Americans it is our duty to protect and preserve these freedoms and protections, not merely for ourselves, but for any who are threatened.

And, on the Shabbat when we begin the Book of Exodus, which tell us that “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8), I want to remind us that we cannot take our freedoms for granted. That king fears the Hebrew foreigners, and oppresses and enslaves them, institutionalizing generations of suffering and bondage. I want to remind us that the midwives Shifrah and Puah defy the Pharaoh’s orders and at great risk to themselves ensure that the Hebrew babies survive. I want to remind us that in our tradition, Shifrah and Puah are heroes. As Jews and as Americans, our values are aligned and they are clear: welcome the stranger, protect the powerless, and stand up to potential tyranny and injustice. Let us be attentive, and see what is asked of us in the coming days, months and years.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I am sharing with you the piece I wrote a year ago for the Shabbat preceding our national holiday celebrating the birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This Shabbat we will be including some of his inspiring and powerful teachings in our services, as well as showing the acclaimed documentary “13th”, which teaches about the legacy of racism in the United States with bracing clarity. Dr. King’s memory is a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Martin Luther King Is My Rabbi

Va’yavo Moshe v’Aharon el Par’oh va’yomru eilav, “Ko amar YHVH, Elohei ha’Ivrim: ad matai may’anta lay’anot mipanai? shalach ami vaya’avduni!”

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Source of Life, the God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve the Source of Life!” (Exodus 10:3)

Our Torah tells an ageless and inspiring story. Every year when our cycle of readings brings us to the telling of the Exodus from slavery, I am stirred once again by the central message of our people’s journey: we affirm that there is a Power inherent in the fabric of the universe that insists that human beings be free from subjugation and tyranny. We affirm that there is a moral law imprinted in the “DNA” of human affairs and even in the tapestry of all Creation that insists that all humans bear the imprint of Divinity, and therefore must be treated with dignity and respect. We know that human beings, in our lust for power, can willfully ignore this moral law, harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh. It is our task as human beings not to succumb to our own lust for power and control that would lead us to subjugate others to our will. As Jews we are called upon to serve, bear witness to, and align ourselves with the God of Freedom.

These truths can become buried, however, in the struggle for survival. In the face of all the Pharaohs throughout history that have tried to hurl our babies into the Nile, to this very day, we Jews can close ranks and read the story of the Exodus as merely a promise of our own survival, rather than as the bearer of soaring truths about the human condition. In the rote repetition of the tale, we also run the risk of becoming inured to its deeper message. How do we awaken again to the universal message of our story?

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed me the way. The Africans who were captured from their homes and forced into slavery in the New World were also forced to adopt their masters’ religion. But subversively, as these African slaves listened to their masters’ Bible, they heard their own lives in the story of the slaves in Egypt. The seeds of their own hope and liberation were embedded in the very heart of the teaching that their oppressors had forced upon them. When they sang “When Israel was in Egypt land…Let My people go”, they made the ancient story vibrate with new life and urgency. Dr. King fully understood the inspiring power of the story of the Exodus, and the sustaining hope it gave to African Americans. He embraced the prophetic voice of justice that is the centerpiece of the Hebrew Bible.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, was replete with Biblical references:

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…[And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream…

Dr. King is quoting the Prophet Amos, who spoke these words in the name of God to the community of Israel in the 8thcentury BCE:

I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.

If you offer me your burnt offerings or your grain offerings I will not accept them;

I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings.

Spare me the sound of your hymns and the music of your lutes.

Rather, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!

(Amos 5:21-25)

Then Dr. King quotes the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5):

I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

As Dr. King drew on the Hebrew prophets for his vision, he awakened me to the power and message of my own heritage. And as he invoked the journey of Moses and the Children of Israel toward the Promised Land as the template for his own people’s struggle, I recognized that journey as being our own, in every generation. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, Dr. King etched this indelible image with his final words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I thank Dr. King and all of the African Americans who continue to struggle against the ingrained racism of American history and life. I thank them for inspiring me with their fortitude and continued determination against the external and also the internal, warping effects of oppression, a struggle that I support with all my strength. But I equally thank them for taking my ancient story and reminding me that it speaks to us today, and every day. For this is the plain instruction of the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation every person must view him- or herself as personally leaving slavery in Egypt. And anyone who elaborates upon this story is to be praised!”

I thank Dr. King for bearing witness to the God or Power or Idea that I worship as a Jew and as a human being of conscience:

…there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice, and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice. (The Power of Nonviolence, 1958)

That is why I think of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of my rabbis. May his memory continue to inspire us.

Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’mitzrayim
And Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt (Genesis 42:1)

We lost a sage of our era with Leonard Cohen’s passing last month. His absence prompted me, as it has so many others, to revisit his words and to absorb his unflinching wisdom. Leonard Cohen was a prophet of brokenness, a seeker of the light who did not ignore the inherent frailties and folly of the human condition. In “Anthem” (1992) he sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

In these words Cohen echoes the teachings of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Isaac Luria, a formative giant of Kabbalah who lived and taught in Tzfat in the mountains of the Galilee in the 16th century, explained the brokenness of our world with a compelling origin story that still animates Jewish thinking today. Luria explained that when God attempted to create our world, God poured the infinite Divine light into the vessel of creation. But it was impossible for the finite creation to contain that infinite light. The light caused the vessel of creation to crack. Much of the light escaped and rejoined the Divine source, but much also remained hidden in the shards of our sublime yet broken world.

Luria taught that the human task is to find and recognize the countless sparks of Divine light. Through our attention and devotion to freeing these sparks, we do our part to repair the broken vessel of our world. Luria named this process Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.

So we can see the Kabbalistic background of Leonard Cohen’s verse, but what has this got to do with our Torah portion? As Jacob addresses his sons at the beginning of chapter 42, there is a vast famine underway. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his son Joseph is in Egypt. Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and proposed a plan to store the grain of the plentiful years in preparation for the lean years to come. Joseph is now second-in-command to Pharaoh, disbursing that grain to feed the entire populace. “And Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt.” – “Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’mitzrayim.” Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to procure provisions, thus setting into the motion the drama of their reunion with Joseph.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, known by his pen name “Me’or Eynayim”, “Enlightener of the Eyes”, was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov and a Chasidic master of the 18th century. Rabbi Menachem Nachum offers a mystical interpretation of this verse. Remember, Jewish spiritual teachers throughout the ages understand Torah primarily a spiritual rather than a physical journey. Rabbi Menachem Nachum notices that shever, which means “grain” or “provisions”, also means “brokenness” or “breakage”. He also notes that Mitzrayim, which means “Egypt”, also means “the narrow place” or “constriction”. Thus he reads the verse “Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’mitzrayim” as “And Jacob saw that there was brokenness in the Place of Constriction.” 

On the spiritual journey, Mitzrayim is our physical world: a place of constriction and brokenness, in which the Divine Light is present but hidden. Our task as spiritual beings is to descend from the Promised Land, the place of Divine Oneness, into the world of broken vessels, vessels that were shattered when the light of Oneness overflowed into them. The task of Jacob’s sons – that is, the Children of Israel – is to recognize the sparks of light that are hidden and waiting to be released and uplifted by our searching hearts and our righteous deeds.

Father Jacob sees the light glimmering through the cracks of our shattered world. He sends us down into that world, our beautiful, broken world, to seek that light in all we do and to liberate the sparks and let them fly! Rarely is that a simple or easy task, but who said that a life filled with purpose was supposed to be easy? May we be blessed with each other’s good company as we pursue our holy, human work.

The light is always there, mingled with dark, but we have to know where to look and how to see. Or as Leonard Cohen—Eliezer ben Natan ha’Cohen was his Jewish name—taught us in “Suzanne”:

And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever

His memory is truly a blessing.

Wishing you continuing joy in front of the Chanukah candles, Shabbat Shalom, and may we know where to look among the garbage and the flowers in 2017.

Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

 

On the top of the front page of this past Tuesday’s New York Times print edition, there is a beautiful photo of two women embracing. One of the women is light-skinned and gray haired, the other is dark-skinned, her head covered by a hijab, the traditional covering worn by some Muslim women. These two women were among 500 Muslim and Jewish women who gathered at Drew University for the third annual gathering of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

At this organization’s first annual gathering, 100 women attended. Last year, 200 attended. It will surprise no one that in the wake of our recent presidential election the numbers swelled to 500, with many more interested who did not attend. Driven by fear of our President-elect’s campaign promises to discriminate against Muslims, and by the precipitous rise in anti-Semitic speech on social media and anti-Semitic incidents around the US during Trump’s rise – not to mention the rampant misogyny and racism that have also been unleashed – these Muslim and Jewish women find themselves drawn together by common cause, to mobilize to protect themselves and their families, and to defend the American values that make it possible for us to live together despite our differing backgrounds.

My eyes were drawn to the photograph for a very personal reason: the light-skinned woman with the beautiful gray hair is Barbara Breitman, one of my oldest friends and a precious Jewish colleague. A brilliant psychotherapist and teacher, Barbara directs the Spiritual Direction program and teaches Pastoral Counseling at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, my alma mater. Barbara has influenced a generation of rabbis through her guidance and personal example. I felt such pride seeing her representing my Jewish people and our highest values of love and tolerance as she beams from that photograph with her fellow participant Shabiha Sheikh.

Here at the WJC, we are also taking steps to break down barriers and increase understanding. We are partway through our current course, “In the Tent of Abraham: The Mystical Heart of Islam, Christianity and Judaism”, which I am co-teaching with Rev. Matthew Wright from St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, and with two fabulous teachers of Islam and Sufism, Karuna Foudriat and Rabia Gentile. Having read some books and taken a graduate school course in Islam, I thought I knew something about what it meant to be a Muslim. In fact I know next to nothing. My academic investigation has not even scratched the surface of what a committed Muslim feels about his or her faith, and how that faith feeds their spiritual journey and guides their moral behavior.

I’m learning about why Muslims revere Muhammad as their founder and prophet, and how they try to model their own lives after his example. I’m learning about the spiritual underpinnings of Muslim practice. Karuna and Rabia, our teachers, have no illusions about the way their beloved traditions have been desecrated and hijacked by Salafi and Wahabi Islamists, who practice the fundamentalist and warped version of Islam that destroyed the World Trade Center and terrorizes so much of our world, including of course the Muslim societies that they inhabit. But by observing the fundamentalist and militant versions of Christianity or of Judaism, we see the same capacity to ignore teachings of love and instead elevate teachings of exclusive claims of truth and utter disdain for others. Nonetheless, it remains true that underneath all of that human folly and perversion, the spiritual heart of Islam still beats, inspiring committed Muslims on their path to fuller realization. And that remains true for Judaism and Christianity as well. It is, of course, up to committed practitioners of all three faiths to keep that spiritual heart beating, and to continue to craft the best versions of our traditions that will honor and support the true diversity of the human family in our planetary era. Those versions are embraced by millions, even billions around the world, and I won’t allow the bullies and demagogues of my tradition or any other to tell me different.

I’m learning so much. I feel that because of this course I will be able for the first time to approach a Muslim and have a conversation with them about their practice and their faith. I’m learning about the common practices and related beliefs that link Islam with Judaism, and with Christianity, even as I’m working to understand the origins of the age-old conflict between Islam and Christianity. I already knew about the fertile interchange between Judaism and Islam during the medieval period known as the Golden Age of Islam, but now I can revisit that remarkable era with deeper understanding.

This is so important to me. I am acutely aware of the extreme hatred toward Israel that has been infused in Moslem countries throughout the Middle East. I am not lowering my guard about geopolitical matters. But the United States has always been a laboratory testing the hypothesis that many and differing groups can live together in one society, that we can know each other, share school assemblies together, sit in doctor’s offices together, visit each other’s houses of worship, even marry and make families together. This model makes it possible for American Jews and American Muslims to reach out to one another, and to build bonds of mutual concern, friendship and even love. The United States at its best is an idea and an ideal in action, and at our best we model and export that idea and ideal to the rest of the world: we can share our society. As our new administration prepares to take office, I am not only fearful for the physical safety of minorities in our country, including Jews; I am fearful for the crippling of an idea that is our best hope for humanity on our crowded planet – the idea that we humans can transcend our basest natures and instead nurture our capacity to welcome the stranger into our midst.

In our class session this past Tuesday, WJC members Susan Rosen and Carol Fox Prescott reported to us that they had made the trip to New Jersey and had participated in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom conference. Susan and Carol described the love that was palpable among the women at the gathering. In our Tent of Abraham class, and in everything that we do at the WJC, we are doing our best to extend that feeling of love to our community. I want us to continue to create a sanctuary in which truly everyone can feel welcomed, where we can share our hopes and fears and aspirations with one another, even (especially!) if we do not all agree. May our participation in the Woodstock Jewish Congregation help us transcend our stereotypes about others, nurture our courage, and support us to stand up for that which we hold dear.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan