Archive for October, 2013

            I was watching CNN Monday night – glued, really, to watching commentators explain the morass that has become our political system.  The discussion turned to protests that had occurred; one at the World War II memorial, the other in front of the White House.  Just to recap, a protest by veterans over the closing of the national memorials was taken over by right wing politicians looking to score political points.  Senator Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin attended, each giving the requisite conservative talking points, but the person garnering the real attention and stirring the discussion was Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch.

Here is what Klayman said.  “I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put down the Koran, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”  He also said that America is ruled by a president who “Bows to Allah.”  Let’s put aside for now the ignorance over the implication that worshipping Allah is something bad (Allah is simply the Arabic word for God.  Did Klayman really mean to say worshipping God is bad?).  Let’s also put aside for now the implication that one cannot be Moslem and be a good, patriotic American, even president.  Klayman’s words need to be seen in the larger context of what else was happening in these various protests.

In front of the White House a man stood waving a Confederate flag.  As Washington DC police were trying to maintain some kind of order, they were being derided as similar to Nazis or as “Kenyans.”  All of this is just a continuation of the “birther” mentality, of course.  This is a group that has refused to accept Barak Obama as the legitimately elected President of the United States.  We have been watching this movement build since the 2008 election.  All of the panelists on CNN Monday night, Democrat and Republican, expressed their disagreement with the political views of the protesters.  No one felt the shutdown should continue.  No one felt much positive would come of allowing the country to go past the debt ceiling.  However, when Andrew Sullivan said that he (a former Reagan Republican) wanted someone in the Republican Party to repudiate the crazy statements of people like Klayman, the Republicans on the panel wavered.  None would take that step.

Instead, Rich Galen opined that the expressions of some Republicans questioning  of the legitimacy of the Obama presidency is just the latest iteration of what often happens.  He gave the example of the many Democrats who did not accept the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s presidency.  He continued by saying many Democrats derided Bush throughout his presidency.  These are really fair points if one would be comparing Bush, say, to Clinton.  However, there is a key difference between the extreme left’s failure to accept Bush and the extreme right’s failure to accept Obama.

Bush’s presidency began under the cloud of a suspect electoral process.  The 2000 election was one of the rarities in which the loser won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote.  Further, the electoral vote was lost because of a supreme court ruling over the continuation of recounts in Florida.  Even though later evidence suggests that the recount would not have changed the outcome, it was a presidential election lacking a clear mandate.  The non acceptance of Bush was based on the process, not Bush himself.

That is not the case with Obama.  Barak Obama was the clear winner in 2008 (nearly a landslide) as well as in 2012.  The extreme right’s attempts to delegitimize Obama is not based on the electoral process, but on Obama himself.  If you study the pictures and rhetoric of the extreme right, it is filled with racial innuendos, accusations of Obama not being a true American, insinuations that he is a Moslem – all a demonization of the person.  Why?  The answer is what no Republican wishes to admit – Obama is black (surprise!).  The majority of Republicans are not racist and even grudgingly accept the Obama presidency.  BUT – and here is the key point – there is a key element of the party that will not accept the changing face of America.  We are soon to be a majority minority country.  This is the reason that this same contingent does not want reasonable immigration reform.  There will be too many of “those” people in our country taking our resources, jobs and voting for non-white candidates for president.  This is a real and serious problem for the Republican party; the same problem the Democrats had in the era in which they battled internally with segregationist Democrats.

There is an additional difference between the presence of crazies on the right in the GOP and on the left in the Democratic party.  The Democratic party allows the crazies to speak (it is a free country after all), but they have no seat at the power table.  Yes, MSNBC gives a show to someone like Al Sharpton (I just cannot forgive the Tawana Brawley debacle), but he has no real influence on policy.  This is not the case with Republicans.  The latest debacle over the debt ceiling, and the shutdown of the government shows that the inmates are running the Republican asylum.  This is not just bad for the GOP, but really bad for the country.  For our system operates best with two sane parties, each representing different perspectives, negotiating solutions.

But all of this really strays from what I think is the main problem highlighted by the CNN round table discussion over the protests and their implications.  No one is willing to stand up and be what we call in Yiddish a “mensch.”  Where are the Republicans of conscience who will stop making excuses for their whacko wing.  And where are the Democrats of conscience who stand ready to support sane Republican colleagues instead of chortling over the GOP’s internal problems?  Where are the political leaders on both sides who will get off of their ideological high horses and stop worrying about the next election and instead really put our country first?

There is a teaching in Pirkei Avot given by the great Rabbi Hillel, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”  I see no one striving.

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I get that different political perspectives yield different solutions to problems.  I get that in general the Democratic party defaults to a government funded and organized solution to national problems while the Republican party prefers market based and/or local solutions to national problems.  I also understand that a lot of what happens in Washington D.C. is political theater meant to keep selected political bases loyal to their respective elected official/congressman/party.  I get that bitter partisanship has been a normal part of the American political landscape since the founding of the country.  I understand the flaws in our political system that lead to gerrymandered safe districts and a House of Representatives that is always running for reelection, therefore spending more time raising money for, and planning the next campaign, instead of governing.  I understand all of that.

But I am a rabbi.  I speak to people of all sorts, of all political leanings.  Most of them claim a religious affiliation, claiming to have a moral system inspired by that affiliation.  Whether they are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, most of the people I talk to say their works are somehow tied to their faith.  So there is a lot I just do not understand, most of it having to do with the current government shutdown and its connection to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

For starters, I do not understand how anyone claiming any kind of religious faith can be opposed to extending access to health care for the poor – especially the working poor.  I do not understand how professed believing Jews cannot see providing health care as an obligation to do tikkun olam, “repair of the world,” or simply the directive in Leviticus 19 to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  I just don’t get that.  I do not get how any professed Christian does not read the Gospels and come away feeling some measure of the deep concern for the poor expressed by Jesus.  Jesus hardly speaks about homosexuality and almost every chapter contains parables or teachings about obligations to the poor.  But to hear the Bible as expounded by so many Republican Christians, you would think the opposite is true.  I just do not understand that.

I do not understand how the insurance exchanges set up by the ACA are a government takeover of the health care system and an intrusion into the doctor/patient relationship.  The government website is a directory to available private insurance plans in your state.  It does not tell you which one to buy.  Neither does it issue the policy.  It merely takes your application and connects it with the company of your choice – kind of like a high tech personal shopper.  It is like the security guard in a shopping mall who gives you directions to a store you cannot find.  The security guard is NOT telling you in what store you must shop or barring you from entering the mall in the first place.  I just do not understand why some people do not understand that.

I do not understand how the states with the largest populations of uninsured poor (e.g. Texas and Florida) are the ones most adamantly against the provision of health insurance to the poor.  I do not understand these states’ refusal to set up insurance exchanges to help the most disadvantaged consumers shop for private health insurance.  I do not understand why they do not accept the expansion of federally provided Medicaid funds to cover the poorest of the poor.  I especially do not understand this when economic experts on health care (e.g. in Houston, Texas) show that such Medicaid would end up saving local tax dollars currently being spent on publically supported health providers – even after the state becomes responsible for 10% of the expanded Medicaid costs (Time Magazine 10/14/13).  I do not understand how anyone who purports to a) care about the disadvantaged and b) cares about fiscal responsibility does not support these programs.  I do not understand how representatives from these states could call themselves religious.

I do not understand how Republican leaders can lay the shut down of the government at the feet of anyone but themselves.  The issue they trumpeted was opposition to Obamacare.  It is clear to me after listening for months to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and a plethora of Tea Party affiliated House members, that if the President and Senate did not defund Obamacare, they would carry out a shutdown of the government.  I do not understand why they think I am not paying attention to their words of the last several months.  Their intent has been clear.  I do not understand why they think I am stupid.

Even more, I do not understand why these same Republican leaders claim to be speaking for the American people, or even a majority of the American people.  Americans are roughly split on the ACA.  A Rasmussen poll from Monday, October 7 (Rasmussen is hardly a liberal institution) shows a shifting trend in favor of the ACA – 45% having a favorable view of the law while 49% view it unfavorably.  What these polls fail to show is how many of the unfavorables reflect a desire for a single payer system as opposed to any health care reform at all.  Other polls show that despite the split views on Obamacare, by a huge margin Americans do not want the functioning of the government or the ability of our government to pay its debt, tied to defunding the ACA.

I know the political answer is that these representatives are from districts that are “safe seats.”  I know that they were elected because they agree with or pander to the most conservative segments of their homogenous districts.  I know that most of these representatives are relative political neophytes – which is why there were elected.  But I do not understand how the responsibilities of being part of a national government have not broadened their views.  I do not understand their failure to see an America outside of their home town and I do not understand their failure to feel some responsibility for all the people, not just their voters.

But most of all, I do not understand the blindness.  I do not understand blindness to the working poor who need Head Start Centers to care for their children while they fill jobs that provide a meager subsistence.  I do not understand their blindness to the well-documented increasing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, or the erosion of a true middle class.  I do not understand the obsession with classifying people as “takers,” who are merely trying to survive.  I do not understand their blindness to this reality:  for most, the American dream is just an American illusion.  And I do not understand how all of us are allowing the destruction of even that illusion.

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 Is it really a surprise that the pivot point for the future of American Judaism is being exposed through discussions over the signature Jewish right of passage – the bar/bat mitzvah?  Our institutional mainstays are battling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing and fracturing American Jewish community.  Synagogues, particularly in large urban areas, are struggling to keep members.  They battle a legion of freelance rabbis willing to conduct any ceremony, for almost anyone – for a fee.  They battle a Judaism available on the internet that feeds the notion one does not need the synagogue to be Jewish.  They battle the increased secularism among members who find little relevance in the God depicted in Jewish liturgy.

Enter the time of our ultimate rite of passage.  The exit from synagogues is highlighted through the rising number of families refusing to enroll their children in years of religious school, plus pay huge membership dues, plus tuitions, plus b’nai mitzvah fees.  They see a cheaper, easier alternative to celebrating what is becoming the Jewish equivalent of sweet 16.  Even more, in this age of ultimate celebration of the self, families reject the “cookie cutter” formulae characterizing the b’nai mitzvah process of so many congregations.  Why should my child, a parent reasons, be one of 3 or 4 crammed into one morning?  Why subject my child to months of memorizing prayers in an arcane language?  Why not create our own celebration that includes and reflects our family?

And there are more spices to add to this stew.

Let’s start with the decrease in ethnic/national loyalty as succeeding generations of Jews are farther removed from the immigrant generations.  We see the consequences of this throughout American Jewish life.  It is evident in the increase in interfaith marriages.  It is evident in the decreasing levels of charitable giving to strictly Jewish causes.  It is evident in increased antipathy towards Israel.  It is evident in the celebration of bar/bat mitzvah as a personal family celebration instead of a communal one.

Now consider Jewish attitudes towards God.  The Jewish communal covenant with God has resulted in a covenant with each other.  While I acknowledge a strong contemplative tradition within Judaism, the most powerful expressions of our covenant with God have always been through our community.  Our most poignant prayer moments occur in the context of our community.  This is what gives power to chanting the Vidui together on Yom Kippur.  That is why services in which all are singing together speak to the soul.  Today, to the extent many Jews acknowledge God at all, it is the God that dwells within the self.  To the degree that modern Jews even acknowledge God, it is the personal God spawned of American culture, not the shared God of the covenant at Sinai.  Is it any surprise that we see this expressed in contemporary b’nai mitzvah?

Add to this an affluence that provides the means for the grossest expressions of celebration.  We have long lamented the emphasis on the “bar” as opposed to the “mitzvah.”  Now we see online clips of parties including dance productions with scantily dressed girls surrounding the 13 year old boy.  We are horrified not only by the gross display done in the name of a bar mitzvah celebration, but also the picture of Judaism this conveys to the American public.  Even the invitations to these events, instead of being a simple invitation to a religious ceremony, are now sophisticated productions as the students involved create ever more intricate video invitations.

Now we can articulate the pivot point referred to earlier.  Can American Judaism be seriously religious?  Can we avoid a devil’s choice between the religious fundamentalism of some parts of Orthodoxy and being a caricature of religion that affirms feel good self gratification but little else?  What value can contemporary Judaism add to the lives of American Jews?   In short, how can a modern Judaism be relevant?  Enter the b’nai mitzvah revolution which is really an attempt to respond to these questions via the moment that acknowledges Jewish adulthood, Jewish responsibility.  It is a search to make the moment relevant.  It is a search for a way to keep families connected to the synagogue institution.  Cynics say it is a search for a way to keep funds flowing into synagogues.  Idealists would say it is a response to the grossest secular displays b’nai mitzvah celebrations are now spawning.

The responses to the challenge of injecting relevance into the b’nai mitzvah process range from having parents and siblings all involved in the service, to a greater focus on social action projects in conjunction with the student’s peers, to paring back or eliminating Hebrew – attempting to make it more meaningful and less tedious for the child.  These experiments have dads rocking out with guitars during the service, b’nai mitzvah students spending more time developing and carrying out their social action projects, and in some cases even eliminating being called to or chanting from Torah.  I am thinking, however, that the search for relevance is a dead end.  It is a good answer to the wrong question.

I believe the real question, the real challenge to synagogues is about finding and building community.  From community will come relevance.  Here is a bat mitzvah that recently occurred in our congregation.

The young woman was 16 years old.  She was adopted by her dad (Jewish) when he married her mom (not Jewish) when she was 7 years old.  They started attending services at Temple Israel when she was 11.  At first, you could see the reticence in her expressions.  She and her mom are from overseas, and Jewish prayer seemed very strange to her.  But after the first year she began to love coming to services and learned to sing along, using transliterated Hebrew.  By age 14 she had good friends in the congregation and joined the youth group.  She also asked me about formally converting to Judaism.  Along with her parents, she took the adult Introduction to Judaism class and studied with me.  In May of 2012 she went in front of a beit din, immersed in a mikveh and became Jewish.  At 15 she attended Confirmation Class, took an adult Hebrew class, and began to study for her bat mitzvah.  She absolutely devoured trope, the system for chanting Torah, learning it so well and learning to read Hebrew so well that she taught herself one aliyah while I was on vacation.

On the Shabbat morning of her bat mitzvah ceremony (I did explain she was already technically bat mitzvah as a Jewish woman over 12 years old), she led all of the service joyfully, with a megawatt smile.  It was clear to all that she loved leading the service, encouraging congregants to clap along where appropriate.  She selected all of the music where choices were possible and chanted all of the Torah portion that morning, making sure to honor her Confirmation class mates with an aliyah.  Her d’var Torah, on Bereishit, related the process of creation to her path to becoming a Jew.  The service was attended not only by her friends and family, but by much of the congregation many of whom had seen her chant part of Bereishit a day earlier at Simchat Torah services.  Her experience was fraught with meaning, not only for her, but our congregation.  We celebrated together.

You might think that as a 16 year old Jew by choice her experience is the exception, but it is not.  All of our students lead the service, tailoring musical selections to their tastes.   Most of our students learn the trope system, not memorizing the Torah portion from a recording, but learn the system to a point where they can begin to sight chant from a vocalized text.  All of our High Holiday Torah reading is done by products of our religious school.  Each summer I get emails from students who want to know if it is their turn to chant at High Holidays.  Our synagogue culture is such that these students see it as an honor and their contribution to the community to provide the Torah chanting.  The most important part of all of this, however, is that each bar or bat mitzvah student gets great support at their Shabbat service by the Shabbat morning regulars along with the many in our congregation who love to celebrate these moments with the family.  It is never just a show.  It is a taking on of Jewish responsibility and a moment of pride for all present – most importantly the student.  The relevance of the bar/bat mitzvah comes through the presence of community.

How is this possible?  We are a mid sized congregation (365 families) in a mid sized city (175,000).  We have 10 to 20 b’nai mitzah each year.  So size is certainly a factor.  But I believe 2 elements are the most important.  First, we have wonderful community moments together.  Many center around Shabbat services.  Many center around holiday celebrations.  In addition, Sunday morning is not just a time to drop off the kids at school while parents go home.  There are always other activities happening, classes, brunches, games, and even a room dedicated to people just sitting and schmoozing.  Our weekly life encourages community, coming together.  So we learn about each other and care about each other.

Second, we take the time to really work with and teach our children.  They do not learn a Judaism of the lowest common denominator, but one that combines ethics with ritual – in the context of a liberal synagogue.  Our education director begins each student’s b’nai mitzvah tutoring process.  I teach each student Torah, both chanting as well as discussing interpretations for their divrei Torah.  All of this takes time.  All of this means building relationships with adults AND with children.  The students in our congregation know that they are loved and respected.  There are many times that b’nai mitzvah tutoring time is more about listening to what is happening in the child’s life than teaching a prayer.

I know that we are not the only congregation that has this experience.  In speaking to my colleagues I know that many of them serve in beautiful congregations where real community happens and where meaningful Judaism occurs.  There is no “revolution” needed.  There is no silver bullet.  There is only the hard work of building relationships, of sitting through hours of working with students, of loving the people you serve with, build community with.  The challenge facing large urban congregations is not to search for relevance, but to connect people to community.  Perhaps, in that regard, they can learn from the small to mid size congregations like ours.  Better, I think, that they learn from us than that we try to emulate their latest fad.  That would be the b’nei mitzvah counter revolution.



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