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Archive for December, 2014

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We call Chanukah the Festival of Lights. Each of us has a personal sense of what the lights symbolize. Each of us finds personal meaning in Chanukah. I have met Jews who try to make the Chanukah lights compete with Christmas lights. One former congregant described how he would decorate his lawn and house with an illuminated display that outshone all the houses around him. I know other Jews who do not want their children to be deprived, so the “eight nights of gifts” becomes their real Chanukah lights. Jewish musicians I know try to create Chanukah light through their art. Yes, music can provide a very powerful light. It is emotive. It sparks the light of imagination.

I see the Chanukah light differently. I see it in a very personal way – a way that relates to aspects of my life.

The Light of Memory

I love my Chanukah memories from childhood. When I was young I often spent Chanukah at my Oma and Opa’s house in the Bronx. All of my family was from Germany, and my grandparents lived in an area of the Bronx where many German Jewish families had settled. These families would throw Chanukah parties and I would attend. One feature of them would be the appearance of the “Chanukah Man.” I know this seems kitschy and yes the Chanukah Man was a kind of rip off of Santa Clause, but apparently it was a big German/Jewish thing.

When I was four I remember attending a party and the Chanukah Man’s appearance was much anticipated by us children. Sure enough, the door to the family room opened and in he came, white beard, pseudo Tevya like clothes, peasant’s hat, and a long staff with a Jewish star on top. He sat down and began to have each child sit on his lap and ask if they had been a good boy or girl. What I did not know was this Chanukah Man was my dad – in disguise. When it was my turn I sat on his lap and looked down at his shoes. My dad wore special orthopedic shoes, so they were pretty identifiable. When I saw the shoes I said, “Gee Chanukah Man, my dad has shoes just like those.” Without missing a beat the Chanukah Man/Dad replied, “Well, we use the same shoemaker. I see him there all of the time.” I did not know it was my dad until a few years later when I had figured out there was no such thing as a Chanukah Man, and I guessed the one at the party must have been Dad.

My dad’s uncle Richard was like his father – he raised him. Uncle Richard was like a grandfather to my brothers and me. He loved to play the Chanukah Man. He lived in Allentown, PA and we moved there when I was nine. I knew, of course there was no Chanukah Man, but my younger brother still believed. So Uncle Richard dressed up like the Chanukah Man and came to our house with gifts. My brother, however, was scared out of his mind, ran upstairs and hid in his room.

My favorite Uncle Richard/Chanukah Man story, however, is this letter my brother and I received one year. Please note the spelling.

Dear Romberg Brothers,

Your Uncle Richard, may God bless him a other 25 years wrote a letter several weeks ago to me and was telling me about you two boys. You both was during the last year fairly good, and I should make it my bussiness this year and come to visit Allentown. Sorry I can’t make it because this year I have to go to Russian and Sibiran to bring the poor Yewish children some goodies. Enclosed I send you some money and your Mami can buy something in Hesses Bargain Basement. Also I heard the good news that your Daddy and Mamy ordered a custom build brand new baby girl, but your Daddy put in the order too late, and the delivery cannot be before the end of January, 1966. Let’s be with Massel Tow, and we will celebrate later whatever comes out. With best wishes to all of you and a good Chanukah yours,

Eliezer ben Mordechai, Chief Chanukah man

I still have that letter. The return address on the envelope reads: 18 Matzoh Ball Street, Tel Aviv, Israel. That letter is one of the few physical reminders I have of him. He was one of the few true heroes I have personally known.

The Light of Hope

This begins with the lessons I learned from Uncle Richard’s life. Here was a person who saw his world shattered. He lived in Germany – a decorated German soldier in World War I. He took in his sister and her son (my grandmother and my father) after my grandmother’s divorce in 1926. As the Nazi oppression of Jews began in 1933 he distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, wore his Iron Cross in protest and was arrested. He spent the 1930’s trying to get the family to a safe place, finally getting to America in 1939 just as the war was breaking out. He voluntarily returned to Europe as an American GI, winning the Silver Star but also seeing the destruction wrought by the Nazis on Jews first hand. Yet, Uncle Richard was a person who never lost hope. I believe he had the courage to do the things he did because he always had great hopes for the future. A collage of his pictures and his medal hang in my office – an inspiration of hope to me.

Uncle Richard passed his hopeful outlook on to my dad. Dad also lived through some terrible times. He also fought in World War II. He could have easily felt bitterness towards the Christian world, given his experiences in Germany. Yet, Dad was not afraid to move his family to a small town in West Virginia. There, he taught me by being an integral part of the tiny Jewish community. He also taught me through his friendships with non-Jews. His attorney, my “Uncle” Harry was not Jewish. Among his closest friends was a Baptist minister, whose son found me a few years back and with whom I am still friends. We would go to the minister’s house to trim their Christmas tree. Dad knew every Christmas carol in German, and would sing them. So he taught me one could celebrate with Christians without compromising your Jewish identity. Dad could do all of this because he was a person of hope. He hoped the world could get better after the horrors of the Holocaust.

I see hope every day, through my work. It is the hope inspired by teaching children, seeing them learn and achieve a level of Jewish literacy. I see hope by the bridges built throughout the Tallahassee community. I see Jews and non-Jews who really understand that we are in this adventure called life together. I see hope in the Christian clergy I interact with, the respect they have for the Jewish community and their dedication to the overall welfare of the greater Tallahassee community. I see hope in the cooperative interfaith work our congregation does with a number of local Christian churches. I see hope in the way people of all stripes work together to improve our town. Yes, we have problems. We are not perfect. But I believe our town is a model for how people of different backgrounds can come together for the common good. So I see a light of hope.

The Light of Judaism

It begins with our holiday cycle. Chanukah is only one stop in the yearly journey through the calendar. Note that candles are lit for every major holiday, beginning weekly with Shabbat. Light is not exclusive to Chanukah. It is ever present on the Jewish calendar. And, most of our holidays express hope – even the serious ones. The High Holidays give us the light and hope of repentance – that we can improve our lives and relationships. Sukkot fosters an appreciation for the bounty of life. Simchat Torah the joy and light of engaging in Torah. Purim is just pure fun. Pesach reminds us of the hope for redemption, even in the worst of times. The lights of Judaism shine throughout the year. They inspire.

Most of all, the Jewish light is one which teaches us how make our lives be a light unto the world. Our cycle of holidays, each year of Jewish celebration teach us that our lives do not revolve around the celebration of any particular holiday, but whether our whole lives are a celebration – of something greater than ourselves.

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“Kindness and truth fought together, righteousness and peace strove together” – Psalms 85:11

Rabbi Shimon quotes these words from Psalms when he describes the argument among the angels of heaven upon hearing God’s decision to create humans. Half of them argued for it, half argued against it. It is further taught that God took truth and cast it to the earth. The ministering angels ask why.

We know the result. We humans are here. In all of our diversity, with all of our predilections, with all of our prejudices– we occupy this world. And we try to construct a society that stands upon the four qualities from the above Psalm: kindness, truth, righteousness and peace. Sometimes we think we are inching forward, making progress in overcoming human flaws in the quest to fulfill these qualities. Then something happens that tears apart our illusion of progress.

Grand juries have returned two decisions on intensely disturbing incidents, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the killing of Eric Garner by strangling in Staten Island. Both incidents involve police interacting with African American males. Both incidents are fraught with emotions – on all sides – those who see only racism and those who see only police trying to do their job. Everyone claims righteousness is on their side. Most of us are left wishing that it would have been peace that God cast to the earth. “Why,” we ask each other, “can we not just find a way to get along? Why can’t people behave? Why is there so much default to violence?”

I would argue that God chose correctly by casting truth to the ground, for it is truth that holds the key to accessing the other three qualities. Is it truly a kindness not to know the truth? No, it is only ignorance and that is surely not bliss. Nor can there be righteousness without truth. And a peace founded on a lie cannot be a permanent or a real peace. God cast truth to this world for us – to seek, to wrestle with, to use as a means to try and put together a broken world. Yet it is truth that we most fear, that we most try to avoid or manipulate.

“I am the first, I am the last, and beside me there is no God.” – Isaiah 44:6

Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah says this verse refers to God, who takes the Hebrew word for truth, emet, as a name. Emet contains the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, teaching that truth should permeate everything. It is the name that serves as God’s seal.

I first became aware of a truth about racism at 23. I was parked in a rather rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. There had been a snowstorm. My car was stuck in a snowdrift. The wheels were spinning. I looked up and saw 4 young black men walking towards me. The very first thought that went through my head was “Boy and I cooked!” One came up and rapped on my window. “Hey man, you stuck?” he asked. “You need some help?” I answered yes. He then organized his friends to push the car out of the snowdrift. He would not take any money. They did not see me as a potential mark, just as a guy needing help. I felt ashamed.

Ten years later, while living in the Philadelphia suburbs, I began to notice which cars the police were pulling over on the highway that led to our suburban shopping area. It always seemed to be cars driven by African Americans. Were blacks really more prone to speeding or running traffic lights? This observation came into a sharper, more serious light when I, along with the rest of the country, saw the Rodney King video. It was brutal. I remember my dad, a survivor of Nazi Germany calling me in tears, telling me that as he watched the police beat King, he felt himself back in Germany. If I had not yet acknowledged that there was a problem with police and black men, I could not escape that video.

So here is the first of some stark truths – racism is alive and very real. Yes, in many ways the attitudes of the general public are much more advanced than 40 years ago. However, too many people, especially white police who patrol areas populated by African Americans, still feel that baseline of fear I felt back when I was 23. To deny the presence of racism in America, to proclaim that there is no more prejudice, or to say that the work is done because we have a black president is to deny a basic truth. If we are to move forward, we have to embrace the truth. Racism is real and still infects the actions of police departments. Not all, maybe not even most, but look at the suspensions of the Wakulla County deputies for their social media reactions to the Ferguson grand jury results (“squash the cockroaches”) and then tell me racism does not exist.

“The highest function of the soul is the perception of truth.” – al Ghazali

Here is another truth. The police have a near impossible job. I have interacted with many police and members of the sheriff’s department. They are caring, concerned humans who take their job seriously. They can come under fire, putting their life in danger at any moment, and without notice. I know this because one policeman I know almost lost his life in a shootout. His life was in severe danger and only the heroic actions of another officer saved his life. I have unbound admiration for all first responders, police, firemen, sheriffs, EMT’s.

I tend to judge them less harshly because of the stress of their jobs. I also realize that police are human. Wearing the uniform does not make them flawless. I know that people make mistakes, sometimes very serious mistakes with awful consequences. So before I condemn an individual officer as a racist, who acted improperly or out of prejudice, I want to get facts unfiltered by media bias. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt until I know the truth of a situation.

Because here is another truth. Today’s sophisticated media drives the interpretation of events. And the driving is based on political leanings and bias. The interpretation of events in Ferguson by Fox News is very different than on MSNBC. In addition, the presence of media drives those not initially connected to an event to seek the spotlight, or to use the event to justify other behavior. I have to wonder how many of the riots and destruction of locally owned businesses in Ferguson were stoked by media frenzy. I do NOT know the answer but I cannot ignore the way media coverage drives attitudes, interpretations and actions.

We, the rest of the public are guilty if we do not try to filter biases and learn the truth. We become accomplices if we blindly march to agree with conclusions just because they are drawn by those with whom we generally agree with politically. Which finally brings us to the two grand jury decisions, in Ferguson and Staten Island. I believe each one represents a different truth; truths that we are having a very hard time reconciling. I admit that I have not read the thousands of pages of testimony in each situation. I am basing my thoughts on what I have been able to glean then drawing my own conclusions. So here it goes.

The events in Ferguson show the truth of how varying groups skew facts to create a narrative that supports their particular perspective. The surface event seems obvious, an unarmed young black man is gunned down by a white policeman. As details came out two narratives emerged. The first was that Michael Brown was a “gentle giant” who would never threaten anyone. His killing was a cold blooded expression of racism. Anyone who would question that is a racist, who does not “get” the race situation in America. The second narrative is that Michael Brown is a thug (a loaded word among African Americans) who resisted a police officer, even threatening him, during the course of normal police action. Former NY mayor Rudolf Giuliani is the poster child for this perspective by his assertions that because blacks prey on other blacks in crimes, the police have to be in their neighborhoods in greater force.

The grand jury’s declining to indict officer Darren Wilson created outrage among the believers of the first narrative, and cheers among believers of the second narrative. What is the truth? Likely the grand jury was correct by not indicting. Washington Post correspondent Paul Cassell (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/12/01/witness-10-proves-darren-wilson-had-a-reasonable-belief-he-needed-to-shoot/) provides a series of detailed analysis of the testimony presented to the grand jury.   I cannot give all of his analysis here (click the link) but here are two of his observations. First, the Medical Examiner’s testimony confirms that there was a struggle in the officer’s car, that Brown was not shot in the back, and that Brown was coming toward Wilson when the officer shot him, eventually with a fatal shot. Second, witness number 10 confirms the struggle in the car and also describes how Brown rushed at Wilson.

Of course, even if Wilson had justifiable belief that he needed to shoot, even though there is video showing Brown robbing a convenience store and bullying the clerk; his death is still a tremendous tragedy because there is a truth not being properly discussed. What are the conditions that cause so many young African American men to have difficulty? In the rush to defend Wilson or condemn Brown, the truth that so many young African American males are in deep trouble is somehow being swept aside. A young man with Brown’s potential should not have a life path that leads him to petty theft let alone being killed. The truth is, not to address the tragedy of young black men is to waste a lot of human potential.

But of course we also have Staten Island and the death of Eric Garner. It is hard to watch the video of his encounter with the police and not have the same sick feeling as when watching the Rodney King video from over 20 years ago.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1ka4oKu1jo The Garner death seems to be confirmation of the truth of racism combined with police brutality. I simply have no words to add to the images I have seen. They are shocking, scary.

Are we willing to face multiple truths? One truth is that racism is real and alive. Yes, police do commit awful acts that result in the death of black men. Another truth is that not every incident of the death of a young black male at the hands of the police is proof of racism.   Another truth is the manipulation of these tragedies by politicians, the media – a whole host of those with their own agenda. But the most tragic truth is that our country is failing young black males. These truths are not mutually exclusive. It is time to acknowledge them all.

When the angels of heaven asked why God despised his own name by casting truth to the ground, the response was the next line of Psalm 85, “Let truth spring up from the earth and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

We are the ones who spring up from the earth. We are the ones entrusted with the search for truth. When we embrace the truth God acknowledges our righteousness. When someone dies we pray, Baruch Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, dayan ha’emet, “blessed is our God, the judge of truth.” Tonight we recite that prayer for Michael Brown and for Eric Garner. And in response I propose a second prayer, Baruch atah adam, doreish ha’emet, “Blessed is the human, the seeker of truth.” May we prove worthy of that blessing.   Amen.

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