On Zionism – Yom Kippur Sermon 5784

On Zionism - Rabbi Alex Kress

When I was 20, I was wandering the Old City with my Rabbi. As happens in Jerusalem, the stones can lead you down winding paths, around sharp curves, under low archways, through ancient marketplaces, and into other worlds. As we wandered away from the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, he led me to a time portal. For centuries Christians have flocked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to see the site where Jesus was crucified and where his empty grave lay. Tucked just behind the church is a little shop with yellow doors called Elia Photo.

Elia Photo has amazing photos of Palestine in the first few decades of the 20th century – a land whose stories have captivated my imagination. They have photos from when the Kotel/Western Wall was a place that men and women visited together and was surrounded by old city homes. They have a remarkable picture of a Zeppelin flying high over Jerusalem. They have amazing photos of Mea Shearim before it was an insular chasidic enclave, of Jerusalem before the traffic, of orange-packing in Jaffa. Feel free to come and explore the book from Elia Photos that lives in my office to see more amazing photos like this.  Though I know that the land during Ottoman rule and the British mandate was a difficult place to live, I can’t help myself from romanticizing it. The time felt so alive with ideas, with debate, with idealism, with new beginnings, with hope.

This past winter, I wandered with 40 rabbis through Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish town established outside of Jaffa. I was filled with those romantic feelings of idealism and hope that came with the mythology of early Zionism. We stopped in a kikar, a little square, across a house from another time. I had the photos from Elia Photo in my mind as our guide told us that this was where the renowned Hebrew author Yosef Haim Brenner lived for seven years as a writer for the newspaper of “Hapoel Hatzair – the Young Worker” – a socialist, Labor Zionist movement that was pacifist, anti-militarist and sought to establish a Jewish foothold in the land through manual labor and agricultural settlement. The house we stood in front of was called “The Writers’ House,” a hub for influential Hebrew writers who helped revive Hebrew culture and establish it in Eretz Yisrael. But Brenner, himself, was an enigmatic celebrity after arriving in Eretz Yisrael who sought to stay out of the limeline.

His biographer, Israeli historian Anita Shapira, writes that “[Brenner was] admired as a writer and cultural leader by religious and secular people alike – and even more so as a person who laid down norms for a society that had lost its moral compass. He was a man of contrasts: skeptical of Zionism and loyal to the Land of Israel [. . .]; he possessed the boundless pessimism of a realist who unblinkingly observes reality, also the latent optimism of a man who irrationally claims that “despite everything” the Jews’ will to live will prevail.”

Brenner was born in the Pale of Settlement in 1881, in present-day Northern Ukraine. He grew up in a poor family attending yeshivas, or religious schools for boys. In 1901 Brenner was drafted into the Russian army, but deserted two years later and eventually landed in London in 1904. During his service, he had published his first novel and landed in his new city already a respected writer at 23. In London, he founded a journal called, HaMeorer – The Awakener, which Brenner defined as a pamphlet for thought and poetry but whose title more aptly described its editor. As scholars note, HaMeorer came at a time when people weren’t reading secular Hebrew literature anymore. At a time of decline and fear that such literature was fading out, The Awakener, in some respects, kept Hebrew literature alive.

After ending the publication in 1908, Brenner landed in Ottoman Palestine after a brief sojourn in Galicia. Though he initially tried to realize the Zionist image of a New Jew settling the land through agriculture, he quickly realized he was not suited for the field. Perhaps he wasn’t suited for the reality of Israel at all. He wrote to friends who asked him if they should come: “You want me to write ‘in all seriousness’ that you should come, but I cannot tell you that even light-mindedly. The climate of the country is harsh, malaria is rife, there is no way of making a living, none!” To another he wrote, “That you should go to Palestine—no, I do not advise it. . . . Life here is very, very hard. Everything is expensive, there is no means of livelihood, there is sickness, and so forth.”

But this honesty about the land – about the Jewish Yishuv / or pre-state settlement – about the ideas of other Zionists – about the importance of Hebrew literature and culture – turned Brenner into a prophet. Anita Shapira writes that  “Brenner—with his Hasidic rabbi image of a miracle worker possessing moral authority and capable of speaking the unvarnished truth to anyone—met the needs of the young secularists. His charisma shone through his shabby clothes and the heavy coat he wore even in the scorching summer heat. There was something mysterious and inscrutable about him that attracted and repelled, that aroused admiration and awe. He was thought of as a great rebel who…sought a reformed world, a just and egalitarian society…In these times of social turmoil and seeking the right path, young people in quest of social reform are turning wistfully to Brenner as a symbol, a beacon for all seasons.

During this past winter’s trip, I joined hundreds of Reform rabbis in Israel. I’ve spent about 2 cumulative years of my life in Israel and this was my 11th trip to the holy land. We were there to learn and observe recent developments, connect with our Israeli colleagues and friends, and stand in solidarity with the protestors fighting for Israeli democracy.

From our opening session, the tension was unlike anything I had previously experienced. We were greeted by the first Reform Rabbi to become a member of K’nesset – Gilad Kariv. He is a wonderful man who has led the Israeli Reform Movement to double in size over the past ten years. As if harnessing the power of the prophet Yosef Haim Brenner, he opened our day with the unvarnished truth: “I think that this group of politicians is placing a serious risk on Israeli democracy, and not only on Israel’s democracy, also on Israeli Judaism and Zionism.” He then implored us: “Do not view your trip as a shiva visit.” 

We then met with former Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, an observant Jew who just a day before was protesting with Israelis encircling the K’nesset. He told those that recognized him that the demonstrations were like, “water on a rock. Over time the water affects the rock. Maybe all the public demonstrations and the public criticism may have some effect.” He closed by quoted HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem:“Od lo avdah tikvateinu – our hope is not lost”

I was raised in a very Zionist synagogue and Jewish community landscape. I remember clearly learning HaTikvah in religious school, learning Hebrew decoding from many Israeli teachers, watching Rechov Sumsum – Israeli Sesame Street, pretending to take an El Al flight while watching an aerial video flying over the holy land, going with my rabbi to AIPAC’s Policy Conference in DC, and traveling to Israel multiple times in High School. I had many Israeli counselors at URJ Camp Harlam and even some Israeli friends my own age from camp. Zionism was the norm.

But Zionism wasn’t always the norm. As Brenner’s biographer wrote, “Zionism was for him one creative option of many in the life of the Jewish people.” At my home temple, Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia, Zionism was not the option of choice in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In 1885, before the words Zionism or Zionist had been coined, before the fledgling movement of Jewish nationalism and its many factions had held their first congress, the Reform Movement in America declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

In what remains a moving idea, the Reform Movement said, “We don’t live in exile – in America or anywhere Jews live. Judaism is a religion, and the country we live in is our home. We don’t want to leave. We don’t want to make aliyah.” The Reform Movement, in stark contrast to the early Zionists, rejected the very notion of Exile/Diaspora/Galut as a condition. Many in the Haredi Orthodox communities also rejected Zionism but on different grounds. They were committed to living out their sentence of diaspora as a consequence from God for Jews not following the Torah. They prayed for a return to Zion through messianic redemption – not a return to Zion through the political movement of secular Zionists.

During these decades from the late 19th century through the first few decades of the 20th century, many different schools of Zionist & Antizionist thought evolved and came into contact with each other; they argued and debated with each other. The many factions of Zionism grew into stronger movements: there was Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism, Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism, Martin Buber’s Binational Zionism, Vladamir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism, and David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionism. There was such rich, intellectual conversation about the future of Jewish life and what it means to be a Jew in the modern world.

By 1937, the tide had turned in favor of Zionism. The Reform movement declared it an “obligation of all Jewry to aid in [Palestine’s] upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.” 

Ten years later, the UN would confirm Jewish statehood, and Israel was born on May 15, 1948. In the decades that followed, support of Israel became as central to American Jewish life as any other religious practice. And over time, Zionism became shallower and shallower. What seemed like the vociferous debate of a Talmud page at the beginning of the 20th century became the quiet conversations we have behind closed doors by the century’s end. By the time I was learning about Israel and Zionism in religious school and teen programs and camp, it had become so shallow that it lacked depth and resilience. It couldn’t stand alongside other narratives, withstand contradictory facts on the ground, or handle complicated realities of violence, civil rights, and religious liberty. The Zionism I grew up with told me that its narrative was the true story, and anything that contradicted that story was false. But, as journalist Becky Cooper writes, “There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.” 

In my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, we took a class creatively called Israel Seminar. My professor, Shlomit Naim-Naor, introduced us to an educational framework by theorist Kieran Egan. It’s called Cognitive Tools Theory and details five distinct phases of cognitive tools or ways of thinking as we grow up. For the sake of this exercise in class, we skipped the somatic stage that happens before kids are verbal, and started at the Mythic Stage, which involves imaginative storytelling and narrative; binary opposites and stereotypes; learning your culture’s myths. Next is romantic thinking, which adds gradations to the black and white thinking and learning the limits of the real world. Then we grow into philosophical thinking, learning the theories of the world and where we fit in, categorizing knowledge into more abstract theories. Finally, we get to ironic thinking, growing into tolerance for ambiguity, being able to hold two truths at once, sitting in the nuance, and considering multiple perspectives. 

As she explained it, it became clear that this educational schedule of learning development was also a meaningful tool to reflect on our education. Let me give you a simple example in the American educational context. Mythic might be the stage of “In Fourteen Hundred Ninety Two…Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Romantic might be learning about the stories of a hero like Pocahantas, or the idealized story of Native Americans and the Pilgrims having a peaceful meal that we now call Thanksgiving. Philosophical might be connecting our American values of freedom and religious liberty to the story of Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. But not until Ironic do we become skeptical of Columbus, do we deeply consider the impact of the Pilgrims on the Native Americans, do we begin to realize that there are no true stories; that the facts, the history, tell many different stories. 

I’d encourage you to consider how this theory overlays onto your Israel education, but for me, I felt very seen. I felt the Jewish community intentionally kept the ironic stage away from me – they didn’t trust me with other stories, with conflicting information to the clean narrative I was fed. They didn’t want me to wrestle with the fact that Israel hasn’t lived up to its Declaration of Independence: it hasn’t yet “fostered the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” It hasn’t yet lived up to its promise to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”  It is struggling currently to “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” And that’s ok, because like the United States, Israel is a living country with complex challenging issues. 

In Brenner’s first novel from the land of Israel, Bein Mayim L’Mayim, a story that reflects his struggles after arriving during the second wave of Aliyah or immigration to Palestine, the narrator says: “A truth, the truth of reality, could be felt hovering over them. It was a truth, it would seem, that no one saw, that all were afraid of, tried to overlook, didn’t want to know about, didn’t want to think of knowing about, but there it was, hovering, always there. A volcano – nothing less than a volcano…” 

The name Israel – ישראל – means wrestling or persevering with God. It’s in the name. We are meant to wrestle with it. And we are meant to persevere, to not give up. Judaism thrives in the ironic. In the Torah we have complicated characters making complex, challenging decisions. In the Talmud we have arguments recorded across generations out in the open for all to see and dig into. So too, in modern Zionism, should we embrace the ironic stage of learning and all the messiness that comes with it.. 

There are a few powerful ways to embrace the ironic. The first, to me, is the most important. We are blessed to have a community with many Israelis of many backgrounds. The service this morning is a testament to the richness our Israeli friends bring and how much stronger our community is with them present. AND – we know it’s easy to fall into comfortable circles of similarity. Israelis love to hang with Israelis and Americans love to hang with Americans but this year, I urge you – spend more time mixing it up. Your lives, your Zionism, and your Judaism will gain so much beautiful texture when you share ideas, hear stories, and exchange traditions.

Another impactful way to embrace the ironic is to travel to Israel with me this summer. This June, I am leading our first Community Trip to Israel in many years, open to the entire community and anyone you want to bring with you. I am so excited to explore the history of our people and the colorful tapestry of Israeli society. From visiting the Kotel/Western Wall to the Museum of the Jewish People; From experiencing the hustle and bustle of Machane Yehuda, the Jerusalem Market, before Shabbat to watching Jerusalem come back to life after Shabbat on Ben Yehuda Street. From celebrating Kabbalat Shabbat with an Israeli community to exploring the mystical city of Tzfat where Kabbalat Shabbat was born. The trip will add so much color and depth to your Judaism and your relationship with Israel

And finally,  we can get to Ironic by learning and exposing ourselves to ideas. This year, leading up to our congregational trip in June, I will be leading a class called Zionism 101. We will be studying the many schools of Zionist thought. We will dig into the different approaches and rationalities, from the early 19th century all the way until today. The survey will help us build our own, resilient understandings of Zionism and the Jewish state.

As we go forward in 5784 and beyond, I hope we can embody the complexity and nuance of Yosef Haim Brenner and accept the complexity and nuance of other Jews who hold different perspectives. I hope we can embody Brenner’s fearless realism and unblinkingly observe the reality in front of us. And I hope, perhaps most importantly, that we can embody his incessant optimism that believed with every ounce of his being that the Jews will prevail. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be so.

On Presence – Kol Nidre Sermon 5784

On Presence & Living With Intention - Rabbi Alex Kress

A few weeks ago, Maili, the kids, and I went over to Reverend Tim Vance’s house, our friend from First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. You see, he told us he had one of those at-home pizza ovens, and became quite adept at making pizza. He invited us over and let me tell you, when you see him during Sukkot, when we host his church for dinner in the Sukkah, you might want to try to get yourself an invite. But, alas, this sermon is not about Pizza. Maybe next year.  

While we were eating, his older son and his wife Maya were talking about directions somewhere. Maya told him to Mapquest it. He looked at her totally confused. “You want me to what it?”  For those of us that navigated before smartphones and Google Maps and Waze, Mapquest was revolutionary. It was the kind of internet innovation that made life seem easier, that made the quick technological advances that were happening seem harmless.

I’m not a digital native like kids today, but almost. My primary screen time growing up was an old tube TV and lots of Disney VHS tapes that my sister and I would watch over and over and over again. We had one of those “speed rewinders” because the VCR rewinder was too slow when we wanted to rewatch Beauty and the Beast for the 500th time. 

When I think of the internet, growing up, I think about the sound of dial-up <try to imitate sound>. I think of AOL <You’ve Got Mail> & Instant Messenger and the many hours it took to download a single MP3 on Napster or Limewire – alongside a few unintended viruses of course. What we now call Social media took the form of Friendster & MySpace & my favorite named social media company of all time – Jewster. Eventually, Facebook entered my life, then Twitter, then Instagram. The Internet slowly morphed from the innocent playground of my youth into something much more complicated. In addition to connecting us, it began to divide us. In addition to giving us access to an unprecedented amount of information, it began to be used to manipulate that information to confirm our biases and plant seeds of untruth. In addition to productivity tools and new channels of entertainment, it began to steal our focus and take over our lives.

One of the most prescient movies of the past few decades was 2008’s WALL-E. The love story of two cute little robots came to us just a year after the iPhone debuted and projected human life in the year 2805. For a little context: Facebook was 4 years old in 2008, Twitter was just two years old. Instagram and TikTok didn’t exist. The world that Pixar Studios birthed WALL-E in was a very different place than the world we live in today. 

The disconnect between then and now was driven home in one of the opening scenes of WALL-E, where the little robot watches Hello Dolly on an iPod Video.  I giggled that the animators, who were creating a hellscape of earth in the year 2805, thought iPods would still be around. Instead, 15 years later, kids don’t even know what iPods are and smartphones have taken over our lives.

If you haven’t seen WALL-E, the premise is that humanity was evacuated to space after earth became uninhabitable. The plan was to leave trash compacting robots to clean up the planet for humans to return in five years, but seven hundred years later, the plan has failed and humanity still lives in space.

When I first watched WALL-E, I was not tuned into the social commentary throughout the film. But on a recent rewatch, I was astounded by how much the film felt like a sharp critique of where we’ve landed 15 years later. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson writes that “the film paints a pretty stunning picture of the deleterious effects of letting two things continue unchecked: a society’s insatiable need to consume (cheap products, entertainment, food, resources), and private industry’s drive for profit when it overtakes public good.”

When we first see the humans aboard the Axiom ship, we see two people in floating chairs gliding through the ship, staring at screens right in front of their faces. Even though they are floating right next to each other, they’re conversing through the screens in front of their face. They can barely stand or walk or sit up – they are blobs staring at screens all day, every day. 

This extreme representation of human life in a dystopian future seems…a little on the nose, honestly. In many ways, the exaggerated depiction in WALL-E is a mirror for us and where we’ve landed in 2023. Not only have we grown an insatiable need to consume cheap food and products and content, but much of what we consume is engineered to addict us and have us craving more. We might not yet be blobs floating in space, but, there are billionaires building rockets to take us to space to escape our planet’s impending climate catastrophe. And many of us do stare at our screens all day, working and playing and reading and doom scrolling…  consuming without end.

In 1986, Researchers at USC and the Open University of Catalonia found that if you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being through TV, radio, & reading, it already amounted to forty 85-page newspapers’ worth of information every day.  By the time the iPhone debuted in 2007, they found it had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. Assuredly, that number has gone up significantly in the last 16 years, since the average person now touches, clicks, and swipes through their phone 2600 times per day 

As Johann Hari writes in his phenomenal book Stolen Focus,  “we told ourselves we could have a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to, and the speed at which it hits us, with no costs. This is a delusion.” In an interview with Sune Lehmann, the professor explains: “what we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions. . .. Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth…It’s pulling us more and more up onto the surface.”

But it’s not just depth that we sacrifice, it’s our actual smarts. Hewlett-Packard commissioned a study to understand the effects of distraction on their workers. They first tested their IQ undistracted, and then tested again when they were distracted by a phone call or email. Johann Hari reports that this “study found that ‘technological distraction’ – just getting emails and calls – caused a drop in the workers’ IQ by an average of ten points.” To give you a sense of how much 10 IQ points, it’s the equivalent of not having slept the night before.

We’ve come to see our world as inseparable from our devices. Just think about that feeling you get when your phone battery is dead, or when you accidentally leave it behind: completely cut off from everyone and everything! But as author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his latest book, Team Human, “Our most advanced technologies are not enhancing our connectivity, but thwarting it. They are replacing and devaluing our humanity, and—in many different ways—undermining our respect for one another and ourselves. Sadly, this has been by design.”

Judaism offers many approaches to the problems faced by the onslaught of information and attack on our attention. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a wonderful California rabbi and author,  writes that the story of Moses at the Burning Bush is actually a tale of attention. “The story,” he writes,” is customarily offered as a “miracle” that God performed to get Moses’ attention…[But] Look more closely at the process of combustion. How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it actually was being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. This then would mean that Moses would have had to watch the “amazing sight” closely for several minutes before he could possibly know there even was a miracle to watch!….The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test: God wanted to find out if Moses was capable of paying attention to something for more than a few minutes… There is another world, hidden right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

As I read Stolen Focus – which you should urgently read – I realized I was living life through a blurry lens of distraction. I let my phone addiction stand between me and the thing I built my life around – connection, most importantly, connection with my kids. Right in front of me was my world, everyone I cared about, but I couldn’t see it because I had a little digital vortex in my hand. 

Rabbi Kushner drives home this inability to see the hidden world in front of us – to see beyond our screens – with the story of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis. After Jacob’s majestic dream of angels climbing up and down the ladder, he wakes up and says, “Wow! God was in this place! And I did not know.” 

Rabbi Kushner notes that Rashi, the great medieval commentator who focused on the literal meaning of the Torah’s words, teaches us “to do again what we haven’t done since we were small children: pay close attention to the obvious…What Jacob means [when he says God is in this place and he did not know] is so obvious, it is almost comical…: “If he had known [that God would have been there] he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in such a holy place!”

How many of us need such a simple reminder?

If I had known my phone would interrupt family dinners & worsen my work-life balance…

If I had known that the dopamine hits of instant gratification from likes and two-day shipping would undermine my discipline…

If I had known Facebook was intentionally addicting me & spreading lies for profit…

If I had known Google had researchers finding ways to make me spend more hours in email…

If I had known my daily screen time would far eclipse my daily time being present with my beautiful, fast-growing kids…

If I had known that online shopping would condition me to need more and more and more and clutter my home with unnecessary purchases…

If I had known that the digital age would make community and genuine human connection feel increasingly elusive…


If we had known, maybe then we would have acted differently. But we do know. One of the powerful parts of Jacob’s dream is he woke up with perspective, he woke up understanding what was happening, he woke up with intention.

The Hebrew word for intention is kavanah. In our tradition, it is generally understood as focused, intentional thinking for the purpose of prayer. The 12th-century Egyptian sage, Maimonides, explained that prayer cannot be said unless the davener – the person praying – has the proper intention. In fact, if you say a prayer without the proper intention, you have to repeat it. Maimonides gives some examples of distractions that keep us from having that proper intention: anyone who is confused, anyone who comes in from a journey, anyone who is tired, anyone who is irritated. Honestly, this kind of sounds like me coming home after a long, tough day, and I’m sure we could list many more examples that keep us from being present. But ultimately, the idea of kavanah can be expanded to help us find balance in a digital world that is not slowing down.

When you have family time, what rules do you have in place for your phone? 

When you’re sitting at the dinner table or after you get into bed, how often do you check your phone? 

When you’re watching TV, are you watching TV or sitting on the couch scrolling on your phone? 

When you have free time, are you enriching your life and practicing self-care or staring at screens and doom scrolling? 

At the beginning of the prophetic text of Haggai, he preaches to those who have returned to Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE but live amidst the ruin, failing to begin building their next chapter. He tells them, “שִׂ֥ימוּ לְבַבְכֶ֖ם עַל־דַּרְכֵיכֶֽם, Consider how you have been faring, Pay attention to your ways, or more literally put your heart on your path. You have sowed much and brought in little; you eat without being satisfied; you drink without getting your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one gets warm; and he who earns anything earns it for a leaky purse.”

It feels like Haggai would have been a good prophet aboard the Axiom ship in WALL-E pleading with these human blobs to pay attention, to שִׂ֥ימוּ לְבַ, to look at each other instead of their screens. To recognize that the blessing of life is connection. In a scene that struck me, two people who cross paths with WALL-E, and consequently end up without screens in front of them, touch hands. Their reaction has you believe that this was the first human touch on the ship in centuries. 

But Haggai could also be criticizing us. Again, the metaphor from WALL-E might seem extreme, but our increase in screen time has correlated to higher rates of loneliness and disconnection. Yes, we know what our high school friends are doing all over the country…or, we know what those friends want us to know that they’re doing…but we are talking less to the people next to us. We are engaging less in community. We are staring at screens instead of faces. When was the last time you noticed two strangers in public – on a train, at a coffeeshop, at a park – actually interacting?

And this technology isn’t going backwards. We cannot return to a world without technology, as much as some of us would like to. Author Brad Stulberg, who just published a book on accepting change, explains that most human beings prefer homeostasis. That means that when we experience change, we prefer to return to the same state we knew before the change happened: X to Y to X. If we knew life without technology, or pine for the innocent internet of the 2000s, we might be tempted to force the technology of today backwards. But there is another model of change called allostasis. “In allostasis,” Stuhlberg writes, “healthy systems also crave stability after a change, but the baseline of that stability can be somewhere new: X to Y to Z.”

So how can we learn to accept the changes of technology in a healthy way and deal with our new reality? 

One of Judaism’s oldest technologies to keep us focused on what matters is ritual. Professor Dan Ariely teaches that there is, “An interesting distinction…between habits and rituals. Habits are usually things we don’t think about…we do them in a routinized way, we don’t spend effort, we don’t pay attention. They’re not in our consciousness to the same degree…Rituals are different. Rituals are ways to direct more attention, rather than less attention. Think about the ritual of drinking fancy wine…you take a glass, you swirl it, you look at it in the light, you sip, you smell. That takes much more attention. If you sat next to your laptop and you drank a very nice wine from a very nice glass, but you didn’t pay attention to it, you wouldn’t get the same value and joy and meaning out of it…There are some things you don’t want to do as habits. You want to do [them] as rituals because you want people to pay extra attention.” 

Our phone use is a habit. We can’t wait in line at the grocery store or go to the bathroom or get through a meal without checking our phones. You probably don’t want to know how many times you pick up your phone a day – mine is over 200 – mostly because we’ve lost our ability to be bored, to be idle, to just sit in our thoughts for a moment. But ritual allows us time and space to be idle, to focus on what matters, to reset and recharge. While Judaism offers many built-in rituals, like Shabbat, it also offers a starting point for creativity, to create set-apart, sanctified time for what matters. 

Maybe you don’t want to turn your phone off for 25 hours every week for Shabbat, but you can turn your phone off every Friday evening and sip, savor a glass of wine with your partner. Maybe Saturday morning your family goes for a walk and you all leave your devices at home. Maybe Jewish holidays become a time for long, disconnected meals to focus on what’s in front of us. Or maybe you create rituals that aren’t connected to our heritage, things that your family loves to do. My family loves National Parks and visited Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia this year. Being disconnected amongst the giant sequoias this summer were some of the most restorative and spiritual moments of my year. Whatever helps bring you balance away from screens, turn them into rituals and don’t let them lapse. 

Our task during the High Holy Days is to heed the call of Haggai, and pay attention to our ways; to put our hearts on our paths. To ask ourselves, honestly, “How have we been faring in the digital age, in the age of information, in the age of smartphones, in the dawn of artificial intelligence? Do we have a healthy relationship with technology, with social media? Take a look at your screen time…are you proud of it? And I know you’re with me this evening, but let’s be honest: how many times have you checked your phone during this sermon? 

If you’re anything like me, we have a lot of work to do. But know, there is another world, a world of connection and beauty, a world of savoring moments and milestones, a hidden world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention, whenever we put our phones down and live in the moment. To a year of being present, a year of observing meaningful rituals, a year of quality time with the people that matter most.

Shanah Tova.

On Community – Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5784

I grew up at URJ Camp Harlam, my local Union for Reform Judaism camp in rural Pennsylvania. In my first year on staff, a new assistant director named Sam Roberts started. He came from a foreign land called **California**. He had the sunkissed tan, affable smile and warm personality of a Beach Boys song. But the thing I remember most was his authenticity and confidence, the way he came into a new community seemingly free to be himself. His introduction to us came with a catchphrase that seemed too corny to work, too goofy. But he said it with his whole body – loudly – proudly – and had all of us repeat him. Almost every time that he got up in front of us that summer, we knew it was coming. 


<Congregation repeats>

At the beginning of that summer, I was too cool for school. “I love being Jewish…🙄” But his genuine goodness and enthusiasm won me over. Within a few weeks, I was screaming “”I LOVE BEING JEWISH” with the enthusiasm of Sam. 

His authenticity, his modeling of what it means to bring your full self into a space, his letting go of inhibitions and insecurities, his display of feeling accepted and supported, his freedom to just be him, was everything I valued about camp.

This summer I made my return to camp after many years – with Maili and Aria and Caleb in tow – and served on the faculty of our local Union for Reform Judaism camp, Camp Newman, which is a hub of youth and congregational engagement across the state and region for our Reform movement of Judaism. Our time was magical and filled with special moments.

On my last day of teaching Judaism & Hip Hop to teenagers, a 15-year-old from a rough part of Sacramento pulled me aside. He was struggling with his peers making jokes about serious things that he knew too well; he was struggling, feeling like he didn’t fit in with his friends at home, or his friends at camp; he was struggling with antisemitism at school; he was struggling. 

He had a lot on his shoulders. Camp, for him, provided space to unload his burdens, to find an adult to talk to. Ultimately our conversation led him to understand the power of his voice and use his struggles as a leadership opportunity to speak up. Just a few hours after our conversation, I walked past him talking to a group, having a serious conversation. He told me later that he immediately confronted the issue with his peers and helped them understand. I was in awe.

In the middle of our time at camp, Aria got inspired by her friends and decided to swim and swam by herself for the first time. She and Caleb climbed the rock wall for the first time. They made more friends with campers and staff than I could count, jumped into Israeli dancing and sang their first unit song in front of the entire camp. 

One day I found myself in a conversation with other faculty members – most of whom I was meeting for the first time this summer. One person shared vulnerably about the struggles of raising their child over the past few years, the dangers, the fear, the resources, the time, the upheaval of their life. The domino effect was quick. Another shared challenges with their parents, of having to make hard choices for their career and children, the fallout over feelings of abandonment and isolation. Another shared challenges of having children with special needs. In this circle of vulnerability, it took me no time to share my many challenges in the past few years. 

This summer reminded me of something I seemed to forget – I was my best self at camp. Camp allowed me to “let go of who I thought I should be for who I am” (from Brene Brown) in all my messy imperfection. Camp let me “tell the story of who I am with my whole heart” (from Brene Brown) and remember that what makes me vulnerable also makes me beautiful and special. 

As we drove out of camp’s gates and headed home, I was reminded of the saddest part of camp – it’s not year round. For generations now, synagogues have tried to capture the magic of camp with special camp shabbats and reworked teen programs and calling religious school teachers counselors. But it doesn’t work because I think we haven’t been focusing on the right ingredient of camp’s special sauce. 

Brene Brown, the famed researcher of human connection and vulnerability, teaches that connection is the very reason we’re here – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to human life. But she found something strange when researching connection, something so strange that she had to find a therapist to talk it through because she had, in her words, a breakdown. And in her therapist’s words, a spiritual awakening. 

She went in and told her therapist, “I have a vulnerability issue…it seems it’s the core of shame and fear and struggle for worthiness but also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” 

She found that the key to connection – and also the kryptonite that unraveled it – were both vulnerability. On the one hand, in order for real connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen – REALLY seen. On the other hand, vulnerability can lead to feelings of shame, of feeling unworthy, of feeling I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not rich enough. The key to that healthy vulnerability, according to Brene Brown, is simple but hard; we can let ourselves be seen. 

Camp this summer helped me understand that the key, the fertile ground upon which camp blossoms, is that healthy vulnerability. When we leave that safe space, for whatever reason we tighten back up. We snap back into thinking we need to project that everything is ok all the time, that we have it together, that our jobs are great, that our extended families don’t have drama, that we have no sins.  

Depending on the religious community, letting ourselves be truly seen can be a tall task. There are so many barriers – sometimes self inflicted and sometimes community inflicted –  sometimes so many that we just give up. We stop showing up, or we show up occasionally, or we allow ourselves to be passive members of community or even leave altogether. So many of us willingly opt out of the parts of religious life that bring us the most reward because it’s inconvenient, because there’s little instant gratification, because we’re tired, because we think we can replace community with something else.  

Author Jill Filipovich, who is a sharp critic of organized religion and its forceful impact on our politics & country, recognizes the challenge of the societal downturn in religious community participation. She writes: “Where do we come together across…age, class, and educational lines to mull over big ideas and offer mutual support? My answers are all insufficient. There was college. There was work. There was my yoga studio. None offer quite what has gone missing with the end of religion.” 

Filipovic mentions the findings of journalist Jessica Grose of the New York Times who asked what replaced religion for some: “Meditation, long walks, time spent in nature, physical activity.” Filipovic reiterates: “These are all good things, all with proven benefits for one’s mental and / or physical health…You should definitely meditate. You should definitely take a walk. You should definitely marvel at the beauty of the natural world. You should definitely do something physical that challenges you and makes your body feel good. But none of that is a replacement for community and in-person connection, including with people who come from different backgrounds, see the world a little differently, and are in different places in their lives.”

Jake Meador, a journalist at the Atlantic, looked into the reason why Americans are trending away from religious communities. In part, he reviewed a book called The Great Dechurching which had a rather simple finding: “the defining problem driving out most people who leave [religious community] is … just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. 

Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.” If it’s not obvious, this is bad; not just for houses of worship trying to stay open but for society as a whole. 

This summer at camp was a window into a different possibility. Something we have within our hands the power to build, if we have the will. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a beloved Hasidic rabbi in the Warsaw ghetto who died in the Holocaust in 1943, wrote a book in the 1920s called Conscious Community. The book is a guide for his chasidim, his followers, to build community. He writes: “Our goal is to gradually rise above the noise and tumult of the world, by steady incremental steps…The whole premise of our group is the vast human potential for both baseness and elevation. Our bodies and souls are currently quite unevolved, but our potential for holiness is very great.”

This is the task of community in 2023, in 5784 – to rise above the noise and tumult of the world and work to realize our holiness, individually and as a community. 

In our community calendar, you will find more events and programs this year that bring us together to break bread, to discuss big ideas, to hear different perspectives, to sing and pray, to celebrate, to travel. There is one program in particular that I want to highlight for you – Happy Havdalah Hangout.

On most Third Saturdays throughout the year, our whole community will gather – from our tiniest babes to our wisest elders. The building will be full of activities – baby & me, singing, music, arts & crafts, games, Torah study, and so much more – something for every age led by me and Rabbi Neil and Jessica and Eitan and our ECC & religious school staff. Then, after about an hour of activity, we will gather all together to sing havdalah as a community and welcome a new week.   

But gathering is only one piece of the puzzle, only one of our tasks. My time at camp this summer helped me understand that the key to unlocking the type of community that rises above the noise and tumult of the world and helps us realize our potential for holiness is the healthy vulnerability that Brene Brown talks about. 

Last year I stood up here and shared some of the rivers I had crossed in the past few years. Since then many of you have shared with me that that sermon’s vulnerability spoke to you. But it felt like a one-off, one-directional moment. When I went to camp this summer – and experienced the secret sauce of camp as an individual, as a rabbi, as a parent, as a partner – I understood my definition of Jewish Community: 

it’s not simply where Judaism happens, it’s where I feel safe, where I feel seen, where I don’t have to pretend, where I can be my weird, wonderful, flawed self. Where I can scream “I LOVE BEING JEWISH” and know that I can be accepted and embraced and loved.

One of our first days at camp, as we were walking to the chadar ochel – the dining hall – I heard kids screaming but I didn’t know from where. It was distant but, unmistakable – “i love being jewish” 

Apparently this was the place where Sam started this tradition. Campers hike up to the Jewish star on the hill and scream out for all of camp to hear: “I LOVE BEING JEWISH!” By the end of our two weeks at Camp Newman, the I LOVE BEING JEWISH torch had been passed. 

What I inherited from Sam in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania was passed on to Aria & Caleb where Sam started all those years ago. But more than that, I hope they inherit a community – or communities – where they can be their whole, weird, funky, flawed, beautiful, imperfect selves. I hope they can be honest about their flaws, reflective of their mistakes, and loved & accepted in their process of growth. 

There is a Japanese practice and philosophy called kintsugi. When a ceramic dish breaks, it is not only fixed, but it’s new cracks are highlighted in gold or other precious metal.  As a philosophy, it understands breaking and repair as an inevitable part of an object – or a person’s – history. Kintsugi teaches us that that is something to celebrate, not something to hide.

When I arrived at Beth Shir Shalom two years ago, I was a bunch of pieces scotch-taped together. This community – the people on our professional team – especially Cynthia, the people in front of me here this morning, the people watching on YouTube, the students in our classrooms – helped put me back together. It’s been a journey to learn to celebrate the brokenness and not hide it, but it’s also shown me the power that being vulnerable has to heal, to locate joy, to spark creativity, to belong, to Love Where I’m At.

One artist, over the past few years, has really helped me accept my cracks, my brokenness, my imperfections. Allen Stone brings his whole beautiful weird funky self to his music and has helped me love where i’m at in my journey. In just a moment, Jessica & Eitan are going to sing “Where You’re At,” his song about vulnerability, about allowing ourselves to be seen – REALLY seen, about learning to love ourselves.

I hope in 5784, you lean into community. I hope we can rise above the noise and tumult of the world to realize our holiness exists alongside our struggles. And most importantly, I hope we can all learn to love where we’re at and feel safe to share our whole, beautiful selves with the world.

Shanah Tovah!


Can We Do This? – Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5784

I learned much of what I need to know from preschool, Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Mr. Rogers, and Ted Lasso. From the first, I learned to use my words and take turns. From Charlie Brown I learned life is fun, dogs are smart, you can get fooled again, the doctor is in and children are wise.

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask myself, ‘Why isn’t the world perfect?’ Then a voice comes to me that says, ‘We admit it…There are still a few kinks that need working out.’
Charlie Brown.
I love the kind of hugs where you can physically feel the sadness leaving your body.
Charlie Brown to Snoopy.

Snoopy said: ‘Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Then we would have to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I know what I need… I need more hellos.”


From Mr. Rogers I learned:

• “It’s good to be curious about many things.”
• “Listening is where love begins – listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.”

These lessons will be with me for the rest of my life. Although my experience with the fictional characters in the TV series, Ted Lasso. is more recent, I hope the wisdom the actors impart via brilliant scripts will be lifelong principles as well. Ted is a high school football coach hired to coach a professional British soccer team, a sport about which he knows almost nothing. Yet, in the course of the series, what Ted teaches has tremendous impact on the lives he touches, in ways that involve much more than sports.

For example, after Ted tells the story of how he overcame his fear of dogs, he concludes:
It’s funny to think about the things in your life… that can make you cry just knowing that they existed, can then become the same thing that make you cry knowing that they’re now gone. I think those things come into our lives… to help us get from one place to a better one.

In our best moments, I believe that is the way of most human beings. We have our struggles. We hurt others and we hurt ourselves. Hopefully, we try to learn from our mistakes. We try to nuance difficulties that come our way into lenses through which to view similar situations so that we can respond better when they occur. We want to believe in ourselves, one another, and, the possibility that we can always do better.

Let’s accept these premises for a moment and juxtapose them against two questions posed by David Brooks in a recent Atlantic Magazine article: “Why have American’s become so sad?” and “Why have Americans become so mean?” Brooks cites several troubling statistics about the first question that help us understand the second. Among them are:

• The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. 

• More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well.
• The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.

As to the follow up question, “Why have Americans become so mean?”, Mr. Brooks notes several theories that many of us I’m sure have already discussed with friends or colleagues. There’s the social media theory – it’s TV shows, especially reality TV and those programs that masquerade as journalism but are really partisan attack machines, and unmuzzled opinions posted as facts on the internet. Then there’s our sociology: We don’t know how to be communal and we’ve stopped participating in entities that stimulate the formation of community, like synagogues, churches, mosques, temples or organizations that engender moral and ethical questioning, growth, and tolerance. Brook’s article also mentions the deep well of America’s white supremacist underpinnings and the poisonous streams that continue to flow from it. These waters of hate and fear fuel present-day violence in word and action. In addition, he also looks at economic challenges experienced by too many, but notes that while this is a worldwide phenomenon, violence and hostility are not the prevalent responses in most other countries. 

While Brooks acknowledges all these as valid perspectives that explain why American society acts out in such a mean and aggressive manner, he sees the major cause as something more systemic. Brooks says we are horrible at moral formation. Moral formation keeps at bay what he calls “our evolutionarily conferred egotism.” He asks, how do we generate an agreed upon manner for constructive conversation and disagreement, welcoming strangers and teaching morality and ethics in a way that is non-dogmatic, creating a social fiber within which we can all thrive? In addition, how do we reflect upon American values and spread discussion that is constructive rather than combative?

Some of us may say we already constructed a vehicle to produce all of these: the Constitution. Brooks points out that for about 150 years after the ratification of the Constitution, America and Americans actively and assertively supplemented that document’s ideology with morality training in all of our basic institutions, especially our schools. As late as the year I was born, 1951, a commission of the National Education Association, a major teacher’s union of the time, published a brief in which they maintained that American schools must have “an unremitting concern for moral and spiritual values.”
However, “a concern for moral and spiritual values” is different than teaching specific morals and ethics. The American founders tended to accentuate the Jewish attitude of “you’re right and you’re right, too” among the “Judeo-Christian” ideas utilized to form the bases of this nation. To this day, when the Supreme Court renders a decision, the minority opinion is always keenly articulated by one or more of the Justices and it has an honored and respected place in the chronicles of the Court. Why does the American system do that? Actually, it’s quite Talmudic. Our Talmud as you may know is a compendium of commentaries, opinions, and discussions of the first six to seven centuries of rabbinic thought. Just like in Supreme Court records, what each rabbi said during debate is preserved. If a rabbi cited something he learned from a colleague, even if the second rabbi disagreed with his teacher, the first rabbi and his teaching are appropriately respected and attributed. Such an ethic developed in rabbinic circles in order to preserve structure, dignity, and decorum among a group who ordained one another. They “self-conferred” their egotism. They knew the Talmudic process would implode unless there was some regulation and restriction on their egos. No one told them to do that. There was no commission that promulgated a deep concern for moral development. That’s what the rabbis were all about – the development of mores and behaviors that would hold Jewish society together as we began living throughout the globe after the destruction of the Temple, a Diaspora that would last for two-thousand years. And now, for the vast majority of us, despite the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism, the worldwide Jewish people are comfortable being a peoplehood among the nations.
As we developed our American brand of Judaism, especially among Reform Jews, even though it takes a little chutzpah to say it, we’ve kept the Talmudic process going. For most Jewish Americans, our Judaism is about values, ethics, and morals much more than about rituals, customs, and ceremonies. The problem is, it’s difficult to maintain and reenforce values, ethics, and morals without rituals, customs, and ceremonies. 

One of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, described his perspective about Judaism in a recent podcast: “We have so many different kinds of people coming in [to the Jewish community] even the old definitions of who’s Jewish and who isn’t, will have to go. We should rather be thinking about a [ ] fluid state, whereby people are differently involved and at different levels and in different ways, in what I like to call the Jewish conversation. I think we should conceive of Judaism as a conversation in the making, in which we inherit a conversation of the past. And one is Jewish to the extent that one is involved in that conversation. The [prayer] service becomes, therefore, a training ground for the Jewish conversation. Now the question then is, how can we involve people in the Jewish conversation? And how can that training ground, the service, provide an experience that is so positive, that they say, ‘This is a deep conversation!’?” Indeed! Perhaps a “service” should be a gathering of Jews at significant occasions on the Jewish weekly, monthly and yearly calendar to experience music, meditation, and conversation. As Rabbi Hoffman encourages, “services” should be a coming together that includes discussions of individual and group perspectives on values, morals and ethics. What are our values? How do we form them? How do we hold on to them? How do we express them? How do we ensure that the conversation is fluid? How can we keep the conversation inspiring, deep, meaningful, and respectful? How do we bring creativity and innovation into the conversation? How do we bring our conversation as paradigm for the American conversation? 

My longtime metaphor for Judaism has long been a building, in which each generation builds a floor. My metaphor is a cousin to Rabbi Hoffman’s. Every floor is different and every floor stands on all the levels created before. In order to build a floor with integrity every new generation must travel down to the first floor, Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Beginning there and at each ensuing level, we must study and understand the architecture, design, and construction. Even though we may vehemently disagree with pieces of framework and bricks laid in previous generations, we cannot discard anything because the integrity of the structure depends on them. Our job is to use what we consider to be flaws in the previous structure, to create improvements and nuances that reenforce and expand the building. 

We should view America like that. Despite those who attempt to petrify American values or those who prefer that we harken back to previous standards, the American way has been, from its outset, malleable and amendable. Just as we preserve the minority opinion in both the Talmud and the Supreme Court help to support the majority, we build America via deep discussion, a thorough thought process, regular review, and accountability. Jews can give the example of our Jewish conversation and building process to a divided America. At the core of the American building is a flexibility that enabled us to admit, sometimes reluctantly, our past mistakes and create more inclusive and adaptable values, morals and ethics, engaging everyone in the process. We needn’t go too many floors down to see where we missed the mark of our finest American selves when we thought that it was perfectly moral to own other humans, prevent women and blacks from voting, put young children to work, to generate and then ignore unequal access to education, quality food, healthcare, and jobs with a living wage. As we continue to build the next floor up, we need to ask ourselves, “What components of our moral matrix must be reexamined and reconstructed now and for the future? How can we live up to the voting and housing rights to which we already committed? How do prepare for a future for our children and grandchildren that will minimize the effects of climate change we already catalyzed? How do we address previous design flaws in the American architecture and fix them without tearing down the building? How do we ensure that everyone has a seat at the table? How do we enable everyone to have an opinion without repeatedly freezing into partisan deadlock? How do we have decent and productive discussions?” 

That last question seems to me to be at the root of American meanness. Several years ago, our then Cantor, David Shukiar, and I wrote a setting for some words in the prayer book from Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba, (Ch. 21): L’olam y’hei adam y’rei Sha-mayim b’seiter u’v’galui, modeh al ha-emet, v’do-veir emet bil’va-vo, “Each person should constantly revere Heaven in private and in public, acknowledge the truth, and speak it in one’s heart.”

This philosophy goes far beyond the contemporary notion of “transparency. Tanna D’vei Eliyahu digs deeper, assuming we know what the truth is in our own lives and struggle to learn it in the lives of others. Unfortunateley, this source declares that we should be motivated to speak and seek the truth out of fear, specifically the fear of Heaven. That’s an awful reason to be truthful. Not from fear – fear of punishment, embarrassment, and certainly not fear of Heaven! We should fearlessly and purposefully share our feelings about what is true, or what we believe to be true and working toward a shared truth, reconciliation, and peace. 

Recently I began reading posts by Steve Schmidt, the former moderate Republican and party strategist who became disillusioned with the direction of his party and co-founded the Lincoln Project. In some posts over the last few weeks, Schmidt writes about unexpected encounters on the road trip he took as he drove his son to college. Here’s one such episode on the journey:

We began yesterday in Williston, North Dakota, an oil town in “Trump country.” While waiting outside the hotel for my son, I struck up a conversation with Fred, a retired Marine Corps staff sergeant, who supervises 20 oil wells for a global energy company. He was dressed in Trump regalia from head to toe — hat, shirt, belt buckle. Atop his truck were both a Trump 2020 and 2024 flag.
Fred asked where I was from. I told him we were traveling through the country from California.
He said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I said, “C’mon, it’s Reagan country…”
Fred asked me what I did. I told him that I had spent a career working in Republican politics, and had founded the Lincoln Project. I listened to him. I asked him what we were going to do about the country. Before we took off, Fred shook my hand, wished us well on our trip, and said he’d pray for our safety.
I was reminded of these words contained in Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all…
I made clear to Fred that I have no place to compromise — and no room to find any —with a faction that refuses to accept the results of an election. He acknowledged that Trump had lost the 2020 election.
Schmidt concludes: The point of the story isn’t about a conversation. It’s about the good wishes at the end of the conversation, which was civil, dignified and normal on a Wednesday morning out in America.

Actually, I think the point of the story IS about a conversation. I’m glad their talk ended with a handshake and “good wishes,” but it was the reality that their dialogue was civil and dignified that allowed for a conclusion and send off that was similar in tone. THAT is what America needs – conversations.

Social commentator Van Jones recounts a meeting with the singer Bono. Speaking of their national identities, Bono, said, “I’m very proud to be Irish. And, Ireland is a country. America…is an idea.” I’ve always thought about Judaism as an idea. On the other hand, I never thought about America as an idea – and it is! How do we build maintain and grow an idea? – with conversations! That’s what Steve Schmidt had with Fred and that’s what we need to have with other Americas, especially those with whom we probably won’t agree. Steve Schmidt commented that his conversation with Fred reminded him of Abraham Lincoln’s words – “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” Can we do that? I learned in preschool that we must use our words. That’s a conversation. Charlie Brown says we need more hello’s. “Hello,” is how conversations begin. Mr. Rogers wrote a song about it:

It’s good to talk
It’s good to say the things we feel
It’s good to talk
We’re much more real without the lock
Let’s see now…
I like you.
I’m angry.
I’m happy.
I’m sad.
You see that’s not bad.
It’s good. Not bad.

Ted Lasso said we must keep going to a better place. Moving to a better a better place is how ideas grow. Fearlessly speaking the truth in private and in public is how we center ourselves in conversation. I need to hear what those who disagree with me say in their most private moments and they should hear what I say in mine. Only then will we create a nurturing conversation about the American idea – so strong, and so fragile. We’d better say “Hello,” start talking, listen to the “other,” and speak the truth together before it’s too late. The American idea began as a conversation. The American idea ends when the conversation ends.

Standing Together, Sparks Flying – Yom Kippur Sermon 5783

When I was in rabbinical school, my friend and mentor, Zach Shapiro, over at Temple Akiba, told a story about a trip to his student pulpit:

“When I got off the plane for my first visit, the president and her four-year-old daughter were there to greet me. 

The daughter whispered something to her mother, who in turn began to laugh.

”What’s so funny?” I asked.”

”My daughter said, ‘I didn’t know boys could be rabbis?!’

His predecessor had been a woman.

The path to a world where rabbis come in all genders and sexualities wound through the desert before reaching the promised land. This year we celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. Fifty years. To me, that seems all too recent and honestly, a significant departure from the essence of Judaism we read in our Torah this morning. As the Israelites enter into Covenant with God, we see a beautiful, inclusive vision of what could be. We read: “Atem Nitzavim – You stand this day, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God—your tribal heads, elders, and officials; every man, woman, and child of Israel; and the stranger in the midst of your camp; from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deut 29:9-10).  

It’s a powerful image – one that tells us that every single person has purpose and value in living out the Jewish covenant and upholding our obligations as the Jewish people. As Reform Jews in 2022, it’s easy to read this text and feel good about ourselves. We are part of an inclusive movement, one that doesn’t always succeed, but one that strives to be welcoming, inclusive, and representative of our LGBTQIA+ community, Jews of color, interfaith families, families with special needs, and women. Though this effort towards inclusion is modern – and we know of longstanding practices of gatekeeping and discriminating against these groups within and beyond our movement – we see a vision in our Torah of a different path, a path where we all share an equal part of Judaism, of community, of leadership.   

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination – the first female rabbi ordained in the United States – I want to share with you the all-too-recent story of the struggle for women’s equality in our movement and what we can learn from it going forward. And as I begin, I want to thank some of my dearest rabbis in Philadelphia – Rabbi Stacy Rigler and Rabbi Lance Sussman – who’ve shared similar teachings this year and helped me bring this important story to you today.

In 1890, an educator and journalist named Rachel “Ray” Frank wrote a quippy reply to The Jewish Messenger, a national Jewish publication that was seeking answers to the question, “What would you do if you were a rabbi?” In her response, “What a Jewish girl would not do if she were a rabbi,” she writes: “I would not, if I were a rabbi, endeavor to impress the nature of my calling by loud and shallow words, …I would not say to my fancied inferiors, I am the rabbi, and you must therefore do this and that; but I would reach their actions through their hearts…It is, indeed, difficult nowadays to note the difference between the rabbi and his friend the clothier, or the broker; his dress, his diamonds, his language, his very walk is not bookish but business; is not piety but pence.”

That year, Frank traveled to Spokane, Washington to lead a Kol Nidre service for the local community that didn’t have a permanent synagogue. She was the first Jewish woman known to deliver a formal religious sermon in the United States, and was subsequently dubbed the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West.” Though she never sought or attained formal ordination, Ray Frank sparked an important conversation on female clergy in America.

In the coming years, the Women’s Suffrage movement gained traction across the United States. Alongside that national push for the right to vote, calls for female ordination grew louder in some Jewish communities. The 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote, propelled women’s groups to go on and fight for educational access and job opportunities as well. 

That same year, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, a local paper in Kansas, announced that Martha Neumark would become the first female rabbi. After three years of study at the Reform Movement’s seminary – Hebrew Union College (or HUC), Neumark petitioned the faculty in 1921 for a High Holy Day pulpit. As HUC faculty debated their path forward, the professional organization of Reform Rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis or CCAR, began discussing the ordination of women at their annual gathering. 

Rabbi Louis Witt, a leading Reform rabbi, raised his voice in support: “We have witnessed the revolution in the status of women. Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when [women’s suffrage] came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this…I believe that this body of men should do nothing that would stand in the way of any forward movement on behalf of the womanhood of America. I cannot believe that a religion that is so splendidly spiritual and forward-looking as our religion will stand in the way of such a movement. I feel that this Conference can only act in one way, and that is to fall in line with what is the destiny of the women of the future.”

However, on June 29th, 1922, the New York Times reported that the conference attendees opposed the resolution. But the all-male-conference did a surprising thing – they then invited the women present – mostly rabbis’ wives – to join the discussion. After hearing the voices of their guests and tabling the conversation overnight, the CCAR voted to affirm, in principle, the right of women to become rabbis. HUC, however, refused.

Earlier that same year, as Rabbi Carole Balin wrote, “Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan introduced bat mitzvah for his daughter, Judith…at his Manhattan synagogue known aptly as the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. He regarded the ceremony as a corrective to girls’ exclusion from Jewish education but not bar mitzvah’s equal. Judith was allowed to read from her Chumash, a book containing the Five Books of Moses, rather than the Torah scroll as the boys did. Rabbi Kaplan reserved that honor for himself.“

“As hundreds followed in Judith’s footsteps,” Balin continues, “girls began to expect — even demand — to do what boys did. Sparks began to fly…when post-bat mitzvah girls petitioned to carry the Torah. They believed they were at least as strong as “those old men” who were allowed to march with the scrolls on the holiday of Simchat Torah. After winning that battle, they set their sights on regular ritual honors. What was the point of all that religious training if the bat mitzvah ceremony was one and done?” The ball was rolling.

While the debate of the religious participation of women and their ability to be ordained continued in America, Rabbi Andrea Weiss writes that, “the time for the first female rabbi finally ripened in Germany in 1935,  when Rabbi Max Dienemann privately awarded a rabbinic diploma to Rabbiner Doktor Regina Jonas. Jonas taught Torah and comforted people in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power. She was deported to [the] Terezin [concentration camp] in 1942 [and] was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.” 

In her rabbinic thesis, Regina Jonas referenced the idea from our Torah portion this morning that all people stood at Sinai and received the Torah together. She writes, “If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender.” 

God certainly planted in the heart of America’s first female rabbi the skills and vocation of a truly special clergy person. Sally Priesand first visited the Cincinnati campus of HUC as a high school student on a NFTY youth group trip. She raised her hand and asked a simple question: Can a woman become a rabbi?  She received an ambiguous response, only saying it hadn’t happened yet. Soon after, she enrolled in the Rabbinic program.

She later wrote, “When I entered Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I did not think very much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi.” Rabbi Priesand persevered through her education at HUC, a verifiable boys’ club, to become the first female rabbi in America in 1972. Her ordination was rightfully received with much fanfare and press, but privately Rabbi Priesand endured many challenges. 

After leaving her first position at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue she could not find another position for several years. Ultimately she landed at a solo pulpit in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey where she stayed for the rest of her career. She speaks publicly about her decision not to marry or have children, and though she doesn’t focus on the sexism and adversity that she experienced, we know that Rabbi Priesand and the first female rabbis that followed her faced numerous, significant obstacles.

A few years after Rabbi Sally’s ordination, an HUC professor wrote about the decision to ordain women rabbis. “Reform Judaism,” he said dismissively in 1975, “tries to be all things to all people, and must, therefore, take up every fad which comes along.” Still ten years after her ordination, Reform congregations across the country said hiring a female rabbi would be a controversial choice. Though it was clear in 1890 and affirmed in 1922 that women could and should be rabbis, and that our religion would greatly benefit from their leadership, fear of change and deeply rooted prejudice kept the leaders of the Reform Seminary and Reform Synagogues from embracing a more inclusive future. We are so lucky to have Rabbi Priesand as a model of determination and perseverance. Though we’ve made many strides in the past 50 years, and many of my own classmates at HUC were women, we have a long way to go. Rabbi Priesand’s model of leadership is one we will need to continue in our journey towards a just, inclusive movement and society. 

Our movement today prides itself on being “audaciously hospitable” and emphasizes the inclusion of Jews of Color, individuals of varying abilities, interfaith families, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. The problem, as we see in the relatively recent story of women seeking the rabbinate, is that words on paper don’t immediately change the world around us. Words must inspire us to change the world with our hands, our actions, our insistence. As our tradition teaches, “We are not required to complete the work, nor are free to desist from it.” Whether or not we have leadership roles, our voices and our actions are critical to building a better future collectively. We must do the difficult work of ensuring racial equity, gender equity, sexual equity, class equity…in our movement, here in our congregation, and in all of our communities. We might not see the fruits of our labor come to fruition immediately – there’s no Prime shipping on equity – but we have the power to ensure a better future for the generations to come in which all voices will be heard and valued. I always smile when I think of that little girl’s innocent surprise that “boys could be rabbis.” I see that innocence and sense of openness in my kids, too. And I hope for the day when we can approach difference with such open arms, open minds, and open hearts.  

In the 1980s, poet Merle Feld wrote a poem about our Torah portion this morning called, We All Stood Together:

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal

of what he saw

of what he heard

of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record

of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write

I can’t

I’m always holding a baby

one of my own

or one for a friend

always holding a baby

so my hands are never free

to write things down

And then

As time passes

The particulars

The hard data

The who what when where why

Slip away from me

And all I’m left with is

The feeling

But feelings are just sounds

The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard

After all he’s got a record of it

Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together

We could recreate holy time

Sparks flying  

As we enter a new year and reflect on the challenges we’ve faced personally and as a society in the past few years, may we create – together – a beautifully diverse community in which everyone has a part to write. Then, perhaps we might recreate holy time. We might let sparks fly. We might live up to the dreams in the Torah.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah!

No Limit to Concern – Kol Nidre Sermon 5783

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of subbing for our sixth grade class on Sunday morning. Eitan had given me a lesson plan, but, as Rabbis often go rogue, I wanted to discuss three big questions. First – very important – what did they do this summer? Second, do they believe in God? And third, were they interested in learning about the Holocaust this year?   


As for their summers – Wow… you planned amazing summers for your kids and I wish I could swap places with them. Do they believe in God? They have remarkably sophisticated understandings of God, in ways far beyond what you might expect for twelve year olds. (And I encourage you to follow up on this, parents.) And finally, are they interested in the Holocaust? At that question, every single student jumped to share their families’ stories, to ask question, to learn more. It was a familiar reaction because I too was once one of those kids.   


I read every Holocaust book I could get my hands on and watched every Holocaust movie, perhaps seeing Schindler’s List and The Pianist a bit young. I met Holocaust survivors – a group of individuals that is rapidly dwindling – and listened to their stories. As a teen I visited The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with my synagogue – something our community will bring our teens to do this winter. During our tour, I remember when our guide pointed out the famous author Elie Wiesel on the bunks at Buchenwald. Staring at his emaciated face, then and now, I think of his teachings on indifference: “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference…..And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Wiesel focused not on the Nazis or Hitler, but on those who didn’t even lift a pinky to resist one of recent history’s most egregious moral catastrophes. Wiesel was a voice of the victims – crying out – why aren’t you helping us?!  


Moved by the promise of Never Again and perhaps guilted by my own indifference, I got deeply involved in the Save Darfur campaign as a teenager. One Tuesday night at teen programs, I naively asked my rabbi, “Who’s Darfur?” Referencing the green ‘Save Darfur’ bracelet he wore on his wrist. I felt foolish when I received the answer.  How could I not have known about a government-sponsored genocide in Africa? I quickly hatched a plan and created a fundraiser with some friends, helped educate my community, even brought a Darfurian refugee to my high school who spoke to us and helped direct our giving. He said their greatest needs then were flip flops and clothing. With Old Navy’s help, we donated hundreds of pairs of flip flops. One day, I was walking through the cafeteria trying to drum up support for our cause, and a kid I knew responded – “Why would I help? We have enough problems in America.” I’ll never forget that.  

Shortly after, I traveled to Israel to study on Kibbutz Tzuba nestled in the hills outside Jerusalem. On our Reform Movement’s semester-long program for high schoolers – now called Heller High – I visited Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum. I remember so clearly weaving through the impactful museum with my classmates. We eventually stopped at a photo. I remember the docent’s indignation with clarity: Here is an aerial photograph the United States had of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 over a year before the war ended,” she said. The rail lines, the barracks, the gas chambers, the crematoria – seemingly everything to make the moral argument to strike. “Why,” she asked, “did the US do nothing?


One of the most significant ethical questions we face in life is the tension between “Why aren’t we helping to address a moral catastrophe we know is happening?” with the impulse to respond, “why would I help – my small slice of the world has enough problems.” Thanks to globalization, the internet, and the reach of social media, we have access to a staggering amount of information at an instant. 


So, what do we do about the tragedies of the Uyghur Muslim people, oppressed by the Chinese government and forced to endure cultural “reacclimation” to erase their identity? But our streets of Santa Monica are filled with unhoused neighbors amidst an unsustainable housing crisis. What do we do when Russia attacks Ukraine unprompted and rains war on innocent civilians? But there are still cities across our country without clean drinking water. What do we do when the Taliban retake Afghanistan and families are forced to flee? But what about the unabated racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, etc. within our communities that we still haven’t begun to remedy? This, as you know, is a false dichotomy. We can, and must, care about both. 


Ken Burns’ new documentary “The US and the Holocaust” deals directly with the tension of  “Why isn’t the US helping to address this moral catastrophe they know is happening?” and “why would the US help – our country has enough problems and we don’t want yours.”  The documentary spotlights the US reaction to the Holocaust in an incisive and insightful three part series that I hope you will all take the time to watch. One of my first reactions to the series brought me back to Yad Vashem all those years ago and the docent’s question: Why did the US do nothing?   


In the first 100 days of Hitler’s rule, American Papers published 3000 incidents detailing the alarming nature of Nazi power. American indifference in 1933 was not due to a lack of  information. That year, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise pleaded with Americans: “The time for prudence and caution has passed…What is happening in Germany today may happen tomorrow in any other land on earth unless it is challenged and rebuked. . . . We must speak out.”  


But in Hollywood, the opposite happened. Between 1933-1939, not a single word was uttered on screen against the Nazis. The German Vice Consul in Los Angeles had the power to approve or disapprove scripts before production – wielding the lucrative German market. But then Kristallnacht happened on November 9, 1938 – the night of broken glass – a pogrom destroying Jewish businesses, attacking Jews on the streets, a wave of arrests of 30,000 Jewish men simply because they were Jewish, and, after the violence calmed, the Nazis assessed a billion Reichsmark “atonement tax” on the Jewish community for inciting the pogrom against them.


American Newspapers covered Kristallnacht closely, making the front page and shocking Americans. How could a civilized country like German do this? As FDR remarked, “I, myself, can scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization.” Two weeks after Kristallnacht, a poll of Americans asked if they disapproved of the Nazi pogrom – 94% did. They were then asked if America should let in Jewish victims of Nazi aggression. More than 70% said no. 


After Kristallnacht, Nazi efforts intensified to find a solution to their so called Jewish problem and began imprisoning and killing Jews. In early 1942, the Wannsee Conference made official the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to annihilate European Jewry. That same year, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhart Riegner, sent a telegram to Great Britain and the United States sharing his discovery of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews, explaining that between three and a half and four million Jews in Nazi-occupied territory “should after deportation and concentration in east [be] at one blow exterminated in order to resolve once [and] for all Jewish question in Europe.” Riegner, unaware that mass murder was already taking place, sent word that the campaign was planned for the fall, and that the Nazis were considering the use of prussic acid [likely a reference to Zyklon B] to gas Jews. 


“In mid-March 1942 some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse” As Deborah Lipstadt, the historian and US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism says, “The time to stop genocide is before it happens…when Hitler is speaking out and saying these horrendous things and Germany is disenfranchising Jews and conducting things like kristallnacht – that’s the time to take action.” 


When people tell you the evils they want to carry out, believe them – and work to stop them. Both Judaism and Islam famously teach that, “to save one life is to save the entire world.” Repeatedly, though, humanity fails to take action to save even one life. 


A few years after the war ended in 1949, sociologist, author, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois traveled to Poland & Germany for the third time in his life. After his trip, he wrote: “The result of these three visits, and particularly of the Warsaw ghetto, was not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as it was a real and more complete understanding of the Negro problem. In the first place, the problem of slavery, emancipation, and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it. It was not even solely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics, which was particularly a hard thing for me to learn, since for a lifetime the color line had been a real and efficient cause of misery. It was not merely a matter of religion…No, the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching, and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men. So that the ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilization was going to triumph and broaden in the world.” 


I think Du Bois’s revelation in the Warsaw Ghetto about hatreds cutting across “lines of color and physique and belief and status” is neatly summarized in a poem of the same name by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (vees-lava sheembozka): 

See how efficient it still is, 

how it keeps itself in shape— 

our century’s hatred. 

How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles. 

How rapidly it pounces, 

tracks us down. 


It’s not like other feelings. 
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself 
to the reasons that give it life. 

When it sleeps, 
it’s never eternal rest. 
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength;
it feeds it. 
One religion or another – 
whatever gets it ready, in position. 

One fatherland or another – 
whatever helps it get a running start. 
Justice also works well at the outset 
until hate gets its own momentum going. 
Hatred. Hatred. 
Its face twisted in a grimace 
of erotic ecstasy 

Oh these other feelings, 
Listless weaklings. 
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds? 
Has compassion ever finished first? 
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble? 
Only hatred has just what it takes. 

Gifted, diligent, hardworking. 
Need we mention all the songs it has composed? 
All the pages it has added to our history books? 
All the human carpets it has spread 
over countless city squares and football fields? 

Let’s face it: it knows how to make beauty. 
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies. 
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns. 
You can’t deny the inspiring pathos of ruins 
and a certain bawdy humor to be found 
In the sturdy column jutting from their midst. 

Hatred is a master of contrast- 
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow. 
Above all, it never tires of its leitmotif – 
the impeccable executioner 
towering over its soiled victim. 

It’s always ready for new challenges. 
If it has to wait awhile, it will. 
They say it’s blind. 
Blind? It has a sniper’s keen sight 
and gazes unflinchingly at the future 
as only it can.  

Dr. Du Bois concluded his essay by suggesting the response to such bitter hatred is joining together to reassess the problems of our day “whose solution belong to no one group.” In other words, the answer to stemming the tide of apathy and indifference to rising hatred and human suffering – both domestically and internationally – is exposure and engagement with others. The answer to bigotry directed to individual groups isn’t to turn inward and burrow ourselves in a silo, but rather to reach our hands outward and stand with others through their moments of trauma. When we leave our comfortable bubbles, we exercise our empathy muscles and build relationships that broaden that provincialism, Dr. Du Bois speaks of. The answer to hatred – be it antisemitism, islamophobia, anti-black racism, AAPI hatred, homophobia, transphobia, or any other irrational hatred – is to build bridges with allies of different worlds, to break bread together, to sing together, to claim our rightful seat at a long table of people who have rightfully claim theirs. 

This year, our calendar at Beth Shir Shalom focuses on just this – on building meaningful lasting bridges with as many people of different lived experiences as possible – and in fact we’ve already started.  This past year, our community created a HIAS Welcome Circle for a beautiful family fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Ejaz, Marjan, and their baby Mahya made it out on the last plane from Kabul and were welcomed into a foreign land by the beautiful people of our community: particularly Jeff & Layne Lepes, Ellen Satkin, Terry Silberman, Ari Hahyar, & Lisa DeMattia, amongst others and many of you who donated to help them. The bond built was so strong that they consider them family and even call Layne grandma.  

As we look to our calendar for this coming year – and I do hope everyone got our beautiful new program book that was put together by our past president Natalie Rothenberg – we invested a lot of time in building bridges, both internally with things like our progressive dinner for our community to get to know each other, but also externally, like our new four part series with First Presbyterian. Reverend Tim Vance and I will each teach two sessions where Beth Shir Shalom visits their church for the sessions I teach and First Pres will visit our synagogue for Reverend Vance’s sessions. I’ll be teaching the first one on Oct 9th – please join us. This winter our teens will travel to NYC and Washington, D.C. to explore new cities, meet new people, and be exposed to new ideas. In the spring, we are leading a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana to explore Civil Rights, learn about Southern Jewry, and spend Shabbat with the small town Jews of my student pulpit in New Iberia, Louisiana. And in 2024, we are planning a community trip to Israel to build bridges with our homeland and its people as well as explore its many challenges.  

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  

Being a member of Beth Shir Shalom means that we know we are responsible – it means we can never settle for indifference – and it means we must advocate loudly for our Torah’s vision of a just society for all. Being part of our community means we build bridges – as Rabbi Neil has done for his entire rabbinate, a torch I proudly carry on. Being a member of our community means we can and must care both about our neighbors in Santa Monica and those suffering across the world.  


We’re told every year at Passover that each generation must see itself as if they themselves came out of Egypt. The seder is our annual empathy exercise, encouraging us to use our story of fleeing persecution to defend the vulnerable in our day and stand with the oppressed in their darkest moments. This too is the lesson of the Holocaust – not to retreat inward, isolating ourselves and our community from the world. Instead, the lesson of the Holocaust – and the failure of the Allies to intervene in time – is what Rabbi Heschel said: “there is no limit to the concern we must feel for the suffering of others.” Our response to antisemitism in our day must be to continue to care deeply, to reach our hands outward, and to work in messy coalitions striving for a world of justice and equality.  


In This House, We Believe – Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783

In this house, we believe:

Black Lives Matter / Women’s Rights Are Human Rights / No Human Is Illegal / Science Is Real / Love Is Love/ Kindness Is Everything.

There are other lawn signs of this ilk out there as well – some with universal messages, and sadly others with hostile and provocative messages, even occasionally funny ones like: “No lives matter. You all suck equally.”

With these and other messages in mind, I contemplated how we might inspire one another in this longed-for and incredible in-person ingathering. That, in turn, brought up some fundamental thoughts about what being part of our temple community is really about for me. And that caused me to recall the first time I walked into our building at 1827 California Ave. It was just after the ratification of the merger between Beth Sholom Temple, the oldest synagogue in Santa Monica, and Temple Shir Shalom, then renting space in the basement of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Mar Vista. I was the founding rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom, and I’d spent twelve years in an office in the church’s basement. When we did Shabbat services upstairs in the sanctuary, we respectfully shrouded the large cross behind the altar, brought up our portable ark, and plugged in our eternal light (clearly not eternal!). So, on that first day after the merger, when our Office Manager and I walked into 1827, I exclaimed, “Barbara, it’s a JEWISH building!” Among the identifying markers were a Jewish star, a Magen David, a Jewish star on the railing of the steps to the front door, a mezuzah on the front doorpost, and mezuzot on the inside doorways as well. Adorning one wall were photos of confirmation classes dating back to when…Moses’ kids were confirmed. A classically fashioned, Ashkenazi-style ark set deep into the raised bima, the pulpit, and a Ner Tamid, a permanently lit eternal light, hung suspended above. In the rear of the sanctuary was a “Yahrtzeit Wall,” with most of the memorial plaques already engraved or reserved for the future. Even though it was my first day as the rabbi in our building, it felt familiar, comfortable, venerable, home. 

What about all those sacred signs and symbols that made 1827 a “Jewish building” for me? Some of you have heard me pass on a teaching from my liturgy professor, Rabbi Dr. Larry Hoffman, who said, “The phrase merely symbolic should be stricken from the English language. Things are symbolic, or they’re not.” He firmly believes that once an object or a place is long-vested with specific symbolism, either by an individual, a family, or a group of people, especially if customs and rituals re-enforce them, others could not blithely strip that symbolism away. So it was for me at and within 1827 California. 

The Torah contains a story about the earliest distinguishing of Jewish spaces. The story concerns a non-Jewish soothsayer named Balaam, whom a king hires to curse the Jewish people. He blesses our homes instead. He does not do so of his own volition. He hears the voice of God within him, and the Voice mandates that he substitute the curse with a blessing. The words of the blessing are equally well-known, perhaps to some of us here. The blessing says, 

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, 

Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob your dwelling places O Israel.” 

Many synagogues have these words written on a wall of the sanctuary, indicating that the place is also a “goodly tent,” a descendant of the tents Balaam viewed as he proclaimed the blessing. While we don’t have the phrase on our walls at 1827, I hope that many, if not most of us, feel our building is a “goodly tent.” 

Our tradition says we can “turn” the words of the Torah over and over, and we can always find something new in them. This year, I saw something new in this Torah story. I realized the famous words of Mah Tovu were not the only blessing given to the Jewish people by Balaam. The Moabite king, Balak, took him to three different vantage points overlooking the encampment of the Israelites just outside the king’s realm while encouraging Balaam to invoke a curse. Each time Balaam filled his words with praise and adoration for the Jews and their God. Each time the king’s fury grew hotter, and each time Balaam said,

 “I can only repeat faithfully what יהוה, Adonai, puts in my mouth.” 

There was, of course, a reason why King Balak desired a disabling curse upon the Jewish people. He feared them. The text recounts he knew well of our liberation from Egypt and how God cleared a path for us away from the Egyptians and enabled us to defeat many other kings and kingdoms along our journey. Balaam clearly states to Balak that this will be Balak and Moav’s fate as well should Balak try to oppose the Israelites and יהוה, Adonai. After the second curse that became a blessing, Balaam describes our ancient Israelite ancestors saying, 

“Lo, a people that rises like a lioness/Leaps up like a lion/Rests not till it has feasted on prey/And drunk the blood of the slain.”

Before we become too outraged about what the text tells us about that early history, let us remember who this text’s real audience was. It wasn’t Balaam and Balak. The target was the fledgling Jewish people who needed to be assured that God would be with them through their wilderness pilgrimage and beyond. 

Still, I assume some, if not many of us, don’t resonate well with a text telling us our ancestors drank the blood of their vanquished enemies! Further, for some, our theologies are tainted by cynicism in the wake of the Holocaust, other world events, and personal tragedies. We have difficulty believing in a God who defeats our enemies and is the omniscient and omnipresent guardian of the Jewish people or anyone else. 

The dissonance produced by the clash of our mores with those of our ancestors might cause us to ask, “What can an ancient tale like this do for me in 2022, in the midst of a persistent pandemic, the planet teetering on the edge of climate disaster and too much of the world in or near the folly of war?” The answer both stares us in the face and hides in plain sight, much like a lawn sign we see and forget.

We find that answer in the words that Balaam kept saying each time he ignored King Balak’s command to curse the Jewish people, 

“Only that which the Eternal designates for my speech must I heed and speak.” 

However, just before the final blessing, Balaam changes his phrasing, saying, 

“But I told you: Whatever יהוה says, that I must do.” 

In this instance, Balaam goes beyond merely reiterating God’s dictated words of praise and admiration. Now, he’s talking about how he feels he must behave. Proclaiming a moral message verbally – or on a lawn sign – is one thing. Acting in a spiritually inspired manner is quite another. Balaam declares he feels a holy mandate to conduct himself in a particular fashion. 

Holy mandates of conduct have been the Jewish people’s way of being since Egypt. As you probably know, we call them mitzvot, commandments. They define who we are for ourselves and the world at large, but I believe we have a misperception of the source of those mandates. 

The traditional perspective is that God gives those commandments, and we, the Jewish people, fulfilling our part of the covenant, respond. In turn, God protects. However, when we see horrible calamities crashing in upon the lives of innocents, a challenge arises, especially for Reform Jews, between the tradition of “Commander and commanded” and the world around us we understand all too well. God command//we follow/God shelters-and-defends doesn’t seem to work. We can either face this challenge or walk away. Many of us have already thrown up our hands in frustration, even anger, at a theological construct that appears unfair and harsh. We feel no obligation to adhere to what the tradition says are divine mandates because divine recognition for our compliance seems completely absent. Moreover, the dense shadow of the Holocaust shatters the belief that fulfilling the commandments translates into God being our shield. How many thousands of observant Jews did the Nazis slaughter whose faithfulness should have saved them? 

However, later Jewish tradition argues that we should not expect a response from God when we light candles for Shabbat or decide not to have a bacon cheeseburger. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, we are advised that our actions will not result in some sort of compensation. (1:3) Antigonus of Socho, speaking from the teachings of Shimon the Righteous, says, “Do not be like servants who serve a master in the expectation of receiving a reward…” (2:1) Yehuda haNasi says: “…You do not know the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments…” 

Finally, (5:23), a rabbi with the great name of Ben Hey Hey goes even further, saying: “Effort is its own reward.” For one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, this means: “The reward for your effort is the effort itself. Do not imagine that you will earn something at the end of your life; your life itself is the gift. There is no point to living; living is the point. There is no purpose to living; living is the purpose. As long as you imagine that doing leads to getting, you will never appreciate the act of doing.”

Here’s an example from my rabbinate’s early years of the kind of “reward” Rabbi Shapiro elucidates. In 1987 then-Governor George Deukmejian signed a bill granting tax rebates to Californians totaling $1.1 billion. As soon as I became aware of this windfall we were all about to receive, I asked Temple Shir Shalom whether they would join me in signing over their checks to the temple so that we could, in turn, give the money to the homeless and poor. A significant percentage of our members did so, one of whom, Leonard Vine, volunteered to make a giant “Publishers’ Clearing House-style” check to present to a local agency. Shortly thereafter, we handed that check to a local social service organization during a Shabbat celebration.

Such a “reward” happened again three years later, almost immediately after the merger. Two long-time Beth Sholom members, Doris and Norty Smirlock, who volunteered weekly for “Meals on Wheels,” approached me with a concern. They said Meals on Wheels did not operate on Christmas Day and thought the newly formed Beth Shir Shalom should take over. So we did, and so we’ve continued to do for thirty-one years. Why did we do these things? That California tax rebate was rightfully ours to keep and spend individually. No one “told” us to give the funds away. Instead, we did it because we felt an internal spiritual and social mandate. Likewise, Norty, Doris, and the countless volunteers over three decades who made a Christmas Day meal for Meals on Wheels clients felt a call from their kishkes. The soothsayer Balaam might say, “God told them to do it.” I don’t think that all, or even most of those who gave and continue to give, feel that. Instead, a sense arose in this community, creating a determination that something barely seen as a possibility needed to become a must.

That legacy rests on our shoulders and hearts. What are our “musts?” Where are the places we must show up? What are the actions we must take, the petitions we must sign, the letters we must write, the social responsibilities we must take on? 

We may look no further than a lawn sign for the answer, but there’s a Jewish version of these notions that, I believe, should be the lawn sign of our building at 1827 California and perhaps our homes as well. Our version comes from a Mishnah, our oldest rabbinic Torah commentary. Versus the now ubiquitous emblem, this lawn sign doesn’t say what we believe. Instead, it declares what we do. So, the sign I envision would say: “These are our actions. Their value is priceless. In and outside this house we:

Respect the past and, in it, implant new seeds. 

Act with loving kindness. 

Engage in lifelong education. 

Welcome the stranger. 

Celebrate all loving families. 

Honor the circle of life. 

Pray with our hands, our hearts, our breath, our minds, our eyes, our ears, our mouths, and our legs.

Much as I felt the impact of those Jewish symbols that first day at 1827, I was wrong. What defines Beth Shir Shalom as a Jewish community is not the various accouterments and accessories commonly extant in Jewish buildings. It’s not our beliefs either. It’s what we do. Our synagogue isn’t a “goodly, Jewish tent” because we’re in it. Our tent is “goodly” because of how we choose to behave in it and what we do from it – outside its walls. 

Here, in this beautiful moment, as we meet in person for the first time in two years for our holiest days, we lift up our values and mandates and commit ourselves to the actions that make us a Jewish community, the Beth Shir Shalom community. 

From the depths of my heart and soul, I wish you a good year – reflective, fulfilling, and healthy. Shana Tova

On River Crossings – Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783

Growing up in Philadelphia made me feel close to history. If you’ve ever visited the Old City – or seen the movie National Treasure – you’ve seen the *riveting* Liberty Bell, inscribed with the words of Leviticus. Across the street, where the bell once rang, is Independence Hall – the site where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted. There’s the reconstructed foundation of The President’s House where George Washington & John Adams lived when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, and Elfreth’s Alley, one of the oldest continually lived on residential streets in America adorned with cobblestone and all. Philadelphia is even home to the oldest, continually operating synagogue, Mikveh Israel, which has been active since 1740.

But living in Philadelphia also means your life sometimes coincides with history. My mom’s family celebrated Christmas and so, we too celebrated at my grandmother’s in New Jersey. Every Christmas evening, on our way home from the festivites, we’d cross the Delaware River and some years as we did I thought about how George Washington had turned the tide of the Revolutionary War by doing the same on the same day in 1776. Some years as we crossed, I thought – yikes, this weather is atrocious. I cannot imagine being in a little ferry crossing the ice-choked waters of the Delaware. Some years as we crossed, I thought – Washington would’ve loved this 65-degree Christmas. 

Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware River was an important turning point in the Revolutionary war. In November of 1776, the Continental Army didn’t have much of an army left. They were soundly defeated in New York and limping their way south through New Jersey. More New York and New Jersey colonists were signing up for the British army than George Washington’s. The remaining troops were exhausted, demoralized, and low on resources. 

Luckily for Washington, one gentlemanly custom of 18th-century warfare was a solid Winter Break (much longer than UCLA’s); the armies did not fight during winter. This opened up an opportunity for Washington to plan a surprise attack, the first time in the war that the continental army went on the offensive. The first step in Washington’s meticulously planned attack was for four units to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on December 25th, 1776. 

A frigid storm that evening made the journey particularly perilous; only one unit succeeded in crossing the icy river as freezing rain pummeled the soldiers. Once across, Washington’s troops surprised the Hessian soldiers fighting for the British and quickly overtook the city. A few weeks later, Washington did the same in Princeton. These victories began to change the tide of the war, and they started with Washington’s bold move to cross the river.

Rivers in general, but in American History, particularly the Delaware River, provide a powerful metaphor for liminal space & for transition; for opportunity & for danger; for forward movement & for the unpredictable, uncontrollable unraveling of life. Rabbi Alan Lew teaches that, “Rivers only run one way. The home we leave to begin [our] journey [through life] is necessarily a different place than the home we arrive at in the end.” 

Our patriarch Avraham, the midrash teaches, gained the nickname Avram Ha-Ivri – the one who crossed the river. His biblical journey begins when God tells him, “Lech L’cha!” Go forth – or more literally – go to yourself. Leave this place, God tells Avram, so that you might find yourself, your destiny. Leave your father’s home and set out.  Cross the Euphrates river away from here to a land and a future that I will show you across another river, the Jordan river. But Avram Ha-Ivri & Sarai are not the only patriarch & matriarch to meaningfully cross a river in the Torah. 

When Jacob flees his home after stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing, he heads to Haran and leaves across the Jordan river. Like his grandfather, he journeys away from home to mature and discover. After twenty years away, he returns a different person. No longer is Jacob the meek, conniving, domestic, indoor kid. Now Jacob has journeyed hundreds of miles, wrestled with the divine and acquired a new name, Israel. He’s been married and had children. He’s acquired herds and wealth and aged. As he returns homeward, standing again at the Jordan, he notes the transformation:

“With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

Rabbi Ayala Miron teaches that, “Before crossing back, [Jacob had] to go through three confrontations: with his deceiving uncle and father-in-law [Laban], with his deceived brother Esau and with the angel of God, or [perhaps] with his higher self. She says then, that, “Crossing the river means leaping into a new stage in Jacob’s spiritual life: leaving his evasive nature to develop the courage to confront – to stand face to face against danger, against injustice, against his innermost feelings. It means becoming Yisra’el- the one who struggles- rather than Ya’akov, the follower. Crossing the Jordan thus represents transformation.” 

Consider the well-known saying, “You never step in the same river twice,” which is often used to refer to the changing nature of the world, and the water beneath our feet. But that’s only half the quote, and half of the meaning. The full adage, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” 

A little over a year ago I found myself sitting alongside the other Philadelphia river, the one outsiders have a hard time pronouncing: the Schuylkill. Like others before me, I was in liminal space – amidst a transition – my life on the verge of massive transformation- and somehow, unintentionally, I had landed at a river. As the world shut down in March 2020, a cancer diagnosis rocked my world. The experience uncovered needs I didn’t know I had and changed my priorities overnight. In the same period, my experience of Judaism in our world was upended and reshaped into something new. And divorce loomed. Everything in my life seemed controlled, predictable, rosy – until it wasn’t. 

Two years, four surgeries, a global pandemic, and a divorce later – my journey through life is much different than I could’ve ever anticipated. I am so different physically, mentally, and spiritually than I could’ve ever anticipated. I’ve failed in ways I never thought I would and loved in ways I never thought I could. I’ve reached heights I yearned for and lows I that seemed inescapable. Life, it seems, runs much more like a winding river than the straight line Hollywood suggests, our one-way path chiseling the landscape beneath our feet. 

For some of us, Abraham’s path rings true. We were spared trauma in adolescence but crossed rivers in adulthood. After Abraham leaves home at 75, he experiences famine, marital strife, the birth of his son Ishmael with Hagar and their exile, the birth of Isaac with Sarah and the trauma of his near sacrifice.

For some of us, Jacob is a more appropriate fit. We crossed rivers early in life, persevered through adversity in adolescence. Once Jacob leaves home at 17, he dreams of a ladder to the heavens and has a religious revelation. He is deceived repeatedly and saddled with the consequences. He is married twice and has thirteen children in seven years. He wrestles with God, himself, and his faith, an experience so pivotal that he changes his name to “the one that wrestles with God” – Israel. 

The rivers we cross – whether shallow or deep, raging or trickling, anticipated or unexpected, literal or figurative – offer a powerful lesson for all of us trying to traverse the terrain of our lives. 

How many of us have had our lives radically changed in the past year or two or five? OK, perhaps the better question is, who has NOT? Who has welcomed new life into the family? Who has lost a parent or sibling or friend? Who has been married or divorced? Who has been diagnosed with illness,hospitalized, or cured? Who has lost their job or financial resources or come into wealth and stability? Who has escaped a challenged relationship or found their bashert? 

The river Jordan, our Talmud tells us, originates in Gan Eden – the garden of Eden, in paradise – and “tracks its endpoint to the time of redemption.” Somewhere between those points, then – perhaps at a particular river crossing – is revelation. Theologian Martin Buber teaches that, “Creation is the origin, redemption the goal. But revelation is not a fixed, dated point poised between the two. The revelation at Sinai is not this midpoint itself, but the perceiving of it, and such perception is possible at any time.” 

Perhaps on the shores of the Delaware George Washington had a revelation “that the entire movement for American independence was on the verge of extinction” and he needed bold action. Perhaps crossing the river was the first act towards the redemption of the American dream. Perhaps Avram’s revelation in which God told him “Lech L’cha” was made real when he crossed the Euphrates river of his home and set the entire Jewish people on the path towards their future, towards a new home across a new river. Perhaps Jacob’s revelation had to happen after he crossed the Jordan a first time, and perhaps his personal redemption had to happen after he returned 20 years later to cross again. Or perhaps, the physical act of crossing a river in our narratives as Americans and Jews simply serves to mark the moments we move towards our destiny – towards our becoming – towards redemption. And we leave the previous chapters behind. 

“It is said that before entering the sea a river trembles with fear,” Poet Khalil Gibran writes in his poem Fear. 

“She looks back at the path she has traveled, 

from the peaks of the mountains, 

the long winding road crossing forests and villages. 

And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, 

that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever 

but there is no other way. 

The river can not go back. 

Nobody can go back. 

To go back is impossible in existence. 

The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, 

because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, 

but of becoming the ocean.”

We must not fear becoming…growing…changing…evolving. For we are but sticks in a stream, borne along by a current we cannot impede. Sometimes becoming means we must leave the comfort of home to find a new home.  Sometimes growing means we might hurt others and get hurt along the way. Sometimes changing means we can no longer live up to promises we once made and must chart a new path. Sometimes evolving means we must adapt after failure and learn a new way forward. In other words, sometimes – perhaps often – we’re human. 

The Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – provide us with a moment to confront that humanness, that fallibility. We pause every year at this time to do cheshbon hanefesh – to do an honest accounting of our soul – and acknowledge where we were human, where we weren’t our best selves, where we failed. This afternoon, Jewish communities like ours will perform the ritual of Tashlich, casting our sins into the water and marking the transition to the new year. Most congregations meet at a creek, or a river – and don’t have the privilege of the Pacific outside our front door.

But whether we stand physically or spiritually on the riverbank of the year to come, we seek revelation from God, our tradition, and ourselves in order to cross the river towards redemption. As we move into a New Year, may we approach the crossings to come with humility and openness. May we embrace change and evolution in 5783. And may we take steps, together, toward who we becoming in the year ahead. 

Shana tova!