Stick With Love

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As we prepare for the inauguration of President-elect Trump and the beginning of a new chapter in our American story, I find it appropriate to use this week’s letter to share the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whose life and legacy we celebrate this coming Monday. Dr. King’s words, delivered in 1967, capture a powerful message that every American needs to take to heart as we begin 2017.

I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate…I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.

And so I say to you today, my friends, that you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels; you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing. Yes, you may have the gift of prophecy; you may have the gift of scientific prediction and understand the behavior of molecules; you may break into the storehouse of nature and bring forth many new insights; yes, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement so that you have all knowledge; and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but if you have not love, all of these mean absolutely nothing. You may even give your goods to feed the poor; you may bestow great gifts to charity; and you may tower high in philanthropy; but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history’s greatest heroes; but if you have not love, your blood was spilt in vain. What I’m trying to get you to see this morning is that a man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride.

And I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair…we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 16 August 1967, Atlanta, GA.

May we all stick with love.

Israel, America, The UN & Our Own Voices

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This message was sent out to my congregation last Friday morning, January 6. As a result of the attack at our airport in Ft. Lauderdale that same day, it was not posted on the blog until today. Our community sends our deepest condolences to the families of those who were lost and prayers of healing to those who were injured.

I hope you all welcomed 2017 with family and friends. May it be a good year, one filled with happiness, health and celebrations!

It certainly promises to be a busy, complicated political year. Among the many issues that our nation will be focusing on will be the US-Israel relationship.  As you know, late last month, the United States chose not to veto a blatantly anti-Israel resolution (Resolution 2334) that came before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The resolution passed on December 23, 2016 and many in the Jewish world were stunned. Several prominent American Jewish organizations (but not all!) and US leaders spoke out against the resolution, our nation’s abstention and the remarks made by Secretary Kerry after the resolution was passed.

To learn more about why so many were deeply troubled by UNSC Resolution 2334 and our nation’s abstention, I encourage you to read the following responses from these organizations:

The Anti-Defamation League

The American Jewish Committee 

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations

Jewish Federations of North America

Just yesterday, in a remarkable show of bipartisanship, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved their own resolution (by a vote of 342 to 80, including 100 Democrats) that denounces and seeks the repeal or fundamental alterations of UNSC Resolution 2334. The Senate is expected to vote and approve a similar resolution cosponsored by Senator Schumer (D), Senator Cardin (D) and our own Senator Rubio (R), very soon. I know that many of you have been contacting our elected officials, asking them to speak out against Resolution 2334. I thank you for doing so. Please don’t forget to thank them for their support!

While the actions taken by Congress help to secure the US-Israel relationship as we enter the new year, there is still much work to be done. A recent poll shows that 35% of Americans support UNSC Resolution 2334 while 28% say they are opposed to it – and 36% have no opinion. These numbers tell us that if we were appalled by the UNSC resolution, we are in the minority here in the United States. Yes, these numbers, coupled with the actions on Capitol Hill this week, suggest that despite being a minority, our voices are heard and our leaders are responding. But, as with many political issues that are important to us, we can’t stop speaking out and standing with Israel.

Tremendous political changes are coming and we must ensure that President-elect Trump, his administration and the 115th US Congress strengthen the US-Israel relationship. We must also continue to educate ourselves about Israel and the Israel-Palestine Conflict. It is imperative that we get the facts and share the facts– especially since only 28% of Americans were opposed to UNSC 2334. I encourage you to bookmark the following sites that will help you stay up-to-date on important matters affecting Israel: The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Stand With Us and Honest Reporting.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is one of the most important organizations that supports a strong US-Israel relationship. I am thrilled that some of you will be attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington., DC in a few months. While I won’t be able to attend this year’s conference due to my sabbatical schedule, I am glad that Ramat Shalom will be represented! I encourage all of you to visit AIPAC’s website, sign up for their email updates and learn how you can stand with Israel.

If you have any questions about the UNSC resolution or any matters regarding Israel, please don’t hesitate to be in touch!

Happy Hanukkah, New Year & Holiday Season!

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May the lights and the story of Hanukkah,
Inspire us all to make a difference,
Fill us with awe and wonder,
And give us opportunities to give thanks for the real gifts in our lives.

May you have a bright Hanukkah and a Happy New Year!

Rabbis Andrew and Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah Jacobs

Positive Psychology and Judaism

Please watch this short clip of Benjamin Zander, the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, talk about how our eyes sparkle when we’re living a truly happy and meaningful life.

Do you want your eyes to sparkle? Do you want the eyes of your kids and grandkids and other people that you love to sparkle? Of course you do! That’s why I’m excited to tell you that we’re about to embark on a fantastic journey that will make us happier, make our lives more meaningful and, yes, make our eyes sparkle.

Earlier this year, Ramat Shalom was selected to be one of just ten synagogues in America to enter into a special partnership with Clal (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) and The Via Character Institute, a global leader in the science of positive psychology. This partnership is designed to explore and implement innovative ways of supercharging already powerful Jewish traditions with scientifically proven ways of making us happier and our lives more meaningful. This will be the first time that religious institutions have engaged with scientific researchers to examine, in measurable ways, how things like prayer and ritual can enrich our lives. We’re so fortunate to be part of this ground breaking journey.

I started preparing for this journey this summer when Clal and VIA sent me many books and articles to read on positive psychology and character strengths. I just returned from a week of learning in Cincinnati (where VIA is based) with the rabbis at the other synagogues involved in the partnership, the Clal faculty, and VIA’s team of researchers, Dr. Neal Mayerson, Dr. Donna Mayerson and Dr. Ryan Niemic. We were also joined by Pam Saeks who oversees Jewish programming for the Mayerson Foundation, the organization that funds the research being done at VIA.

During our time together in Cincinnati, we dove deep into the science of positive psychology. We also began an in-depth study of High Holiday liturgy, music and practices, analyzing how these components of the Jewish new year can impact our well-being. While I plan to begin incorporating much of what I’ve learned about positive psychology into all aspects of life at Ramat Shalom, the VIA research team will be focusing on our 2017 High Holiday experience, studying specifically the potential that this experience has to transform our lives.

Over the next several months, I’ll be continuing to meet online and in person with the researchers at VIA, the folks at Clal and my colleagues at the other synagogues engaged in this project. Together, we’ll be exploring ways to incorporate what science teaches us about human flourishing into our High Holidays practices. I’ll be sharing what we discuss with Cantor Debbie and the rest of our staff as we work to craft our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur experience here at Ramat Shalom. And, of course, I’ll be sharing with you the insights that I learn about how we can make our eyes sparkle!

At some point in the future, we’ll be asking you to get more actively involved in the process. The Cantor and I will be looking for folks to help us lead and inspire our congregation as we welcome the new Jewish year in the fall. In addition, VIA researchers will be eager to speak with some of you about the impact that our 2017 High Holiday experience will have on your life and your family’s life.

I encourage you to visit the VIA website to learn more about the work that they do and the role of character in our lives. I also encourage you to take the VIA Character Survey. If you do, I hope you’ll to share your results with me!

If you have any questions about this exciting project, please let me know.

May your eyes sparkle!

The Times They Are A-Chagin’

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As you know, I am on a modified sabbatical this year. While I remain integrally connected to our synagogue community, I am taking some time to work on special projects and engage in some wonderful Jewish learning. As part of my sabbatical, I have been invited to be a LEAP Fellow and take part in a year-long learning program hosted by the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This program was inspired by Clal, the same organization that runs Rabbis Without Borders. Clal’s partnership with the Katz Center and the University of Pennsylvania make for a truly unique opportunity.  This year, the LEAP Fellowship program is focusing on Jewish political thought. I just returned from my first session where I had the opportunity to gather with rabbinic colleagues from across the country as we learned from three leading Israeli scholars: Arye Edrei, Julie Cooper, Menachem Lorderbaum.

Dr. Lorderbaum focused on a biblical text in I Samuel 8 that highlights a major change in the way the Israelite people were governed. The people were not happy with the way the government was working. Samuel, who was the chief judge and leader of the Israelites, had recently put his sons, also judges, in charge. But, the people were not happy with their leadership and demanded that Samuel create something new and different: “Give us a king to judge us!” This demand would pave the way for great leaders like Kings David and Solomon. But, at this point, Jewish kingship was a new, radical idea – an idea that Samuel did not like at all. Samuel warned the people about the potential dangers associated with appointing a king and establishing a new form of government. He was, however, unable to change the people’s mind. Samuel goes to God with his concerns. God too was not in favor of appointing a king. Such an appointment was an affront to God’s authority. The people should not need an all-powerful human as a leader when they have an all-powerful deity. This being said, God tells Samuel: “Listen to [the voice of the people] and you shall make them a king.”

What a powerful story for us to look at today, more than 3,000 years after Samuel led our ancestors and oversaw a major change in the way they were governed. Today, our governmental structure is not changing. We are not, despite what some think, appointing a king. However, our government and the way we do business as a nation is about to change. Some of us are like the people during Samuel’s day: we want a change and we’re willing to enter unchartered territory. Some of us, however, feel like Samuel: we’re not happy with this change and we’re fearful.

As the story of Samuel shows us, for thousands of years the Jewish people have struggled with governmental changes. The transition that is described in I Samuel was not the first example of this kind of change, nor was it the last. As God wrestles with the establishment of an Israelite king, God’s wisdom is important to us today: “Listen to the people!”

While the popular vote and the Electoral College vote give us different winners, our voting process says that the latter is the voice of the people. And, in a few days, the Electoral College will elect President Trump, a leader unlike one we’ve seen before. For those struggling with this, our tradition speaks loudly: “Listen to the people!” Please remember that when it came to the governmental change described in I Samuel, God was not happy either, but the voice of the people must be listened to.

Given God’s unhappiness in governmental change, God’s belief in the power of people to bring about change is admirable. In the end, despite God’s concerns, the people not only survived, they thrived. God willing, we will continue to do just this.

My Post-Election Role

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As your rabbi, I’m struggling with how to speak about the election of Mr. Trump and his transition to the White House. While the IRS forbids me from using the pulpit to endorse political candidates or intervene in campaigns, I’m permitted to share my thoughts on and advocate for or against political issues. Over the past 14 years, I haven’t shied away from doing just this. As a result, we as a community have engaged in some fruitful discussions. However, we’ve also had some contentious moments. These contentious moments, which took place during times when the political climate was much less volatile than it is today, taught me that my political commentary has the potential to divide us.

With tensions running as high as they are because of last week’s election, I’m using great caution when it comes to discussing politics – so much caution that I’m finding myself tongue-tied and frustrated. I want to speak out. But, at the same time, it’s my responsibility to help our congregation and the larger community heal and move forward with strength. Reconciling my desire to speak up about important political issues with my obligation to guide a spiritual community is an extremely difficult task.

We’re all feeling the political discord that’s out there. It permeates so many aspects of our lives. Lots of you have asked me to keep this discord out of Ramat Shalom. Our synagogue is one of the few places many of us can go to get away from all the political rancor. But, there are so many issues surrounding this election that we, as a Jewish community, are paying close attention to and worrying about. Ideally, we should be able to discuss these issues within the synagogue, yet, we’re not living in an ideal world. Ramat Shalom is a microcosm of the larger community. We pride ourselves on being a diverse, pluralistic community. But, these attributes mean that our congregation reflects a wide array of political positions. The potential for political conversations to push us apart is enormous.

Some say that rabbis should take a prophetic role during times like these. The ancient prophets received messages from God obligating them to rebuke the community, call out the sins that were being committed and seek societal transformation. While I can’t speak for my colleagues, I don’t think any of them are receiving divine messages that drive them to bring about such transformation. However, I do know that Jewish values, teachings and beliefs certainly call upon us to take a stand and act to improve the situation we find ourselves in today – just like the prophets did.

Others say that, given how divided we are right now, rabbis should be fully embracing their role as pastor. Our pastoral role requires us to listen to and counsel all members of our community. It requires us to bring people together by encouraging us to listen to, learn from and grow with each other. Pastors must lead by example and act in a way that fosters pluralism. Let me be clear, pastors must never empower hate. Hate should have no place in a healthy, vibrant community. At the same time, within a diverse community, we must ensure that one who embraces a different opinion is not incorrectly given a label associated with hate. Pastoral work is not easy work – but it’s the only way to create safe, pluralistic, sacred communities.

Since the election, I’ve spoken with a lot of you as you come to terms with what happened last Tuesday. I’m hearing the anger, fear, frustration and/or resentment from many people who embrace various political ideologies. They’re telling me how this election has led to friendships shattering, families dividing, marriages hurting and parents struggling with how to talk to their children about political issues. As I listen, I realize how committed I am to helping us all navigate our way through these challenging times.

To make things more complicated for me, the regular highs and lows of congregational life have not slowed down because of the election. Whether it be because of a bar/bat mitzvah, a wedding, an illness, a death or various other spiritual issues unrelated to the election, people need me to be their rabbi – their pastor – and I must be there for them. This requires me to be accessible and approachable to everyone in our community – whether or not they supported President-elect Trump. And this demands that any political commentary that I do share is tempered and doesn’t alienate anyone who seeks, in good faith, to be part of our inclusive synagogue family.

As committed as I am to fulfilling my pastoral role here at Ramat Shalom, there will be times when I comment on a political issue. I will not use time during services, when many are seeking time to peacefully reflect, to engage in political talk. I will limit such talk to classroom settings, blog posts or weekly messages. And within the classroom, on the blog and in the weekly message, many other topics will be discussed. Politics will not take over. When I do share my thoughts on a political topic, I hope that you’ll hear my words for what they are – my opinion on an issue that I feel is something we as a Jewish community must think about. I welcome respectful disagreement and debate – things that are integral to any healthy Jewish community. I also encourage you to educate yourselves. Don’t rely simply upon my words. And don’t rely simply on one newspaper or cable news channel. Read up on the current political situation. Don’t be afraid to learn from sources that reflect a point of view that’s different from your own. Attempt to engage respectfully in discussions with folks on the other side of complicated issues. Get involved in political organizations that represent the issues that are important to you, but learn about those organizations that speak for the other side. Be in touch with your elected officials – share with them both the things you’re happy about and the things that concern you. Be a part of the political process.

Yes, this election has brought to the forefront many issues that we as a community of both Jewish Americans and Americans who stand with Jews must pay attention to. At the same time, this election has given many of us the need to find the peace of a diverse, loving, spiritual haven like Ramat Shalom. Together, we can strengthen our synagogue family while paying close attention to the political issues that directly affect us all.

I know that some of you would like to hear my thoughts on a few of the appointments made by President-elect Trump. While I certainly have many thoughts on these appointments, I felt it was imperative for me to address the bigger issue of political conversation within our community this week. If you would like to be in touch regarding these appointments, I hope to hear from you. I do encourage you to read this article that details the various positions that national Jewish organizations and leaders have taken on the appointment of Stephen Bannon.

I’m Hurting, But I’m Hopeful

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I’m afraid to tell you what I’m thinking. What I’m feeling.

But, I will.

Even though you might judge me. Label me. Misunderstand me.

I’m hurting because I feel this way, in the United States of America, where we enjoy the freedom of speech and expression. Where we should be able to celebrate diversity and learn from our differences.

I’m hurting.

I’m hurting because people I love are supporters of Secretary Clinton.
I’m hurting because people I love are supporters of President-elect Trump.
I’m hurting because people I love now hate each other because of who they supported, because of a choice they made, a right they have, a freedom they were given.

I’m hurting because people I love are afraid because of hateful words spoken by our next President. I’m hurting because their fear is real, but their fear is being belittled.

I’m hurting because people I love are now being labeled ignorant racists, bigots, anti-Semites and misogynists because they voted for Mr. Trump – not because they hate – but because they genuinely believe that our new President will make them safer and make their lives better. I’m hurting because none of these terrible labels define those I love.

I’m hurting because people I love are afraid to tell each other who they voted for.

I’m hurting because people I love, after much thought and great struggle, chose not to vote for either Secretary Clinton or President-elect Trump. I’m hurting because these people are being called cowards because they made a difficult decision.

I’m hurting because this election has encouraged those who hate and those who destroy to act. I’m hurting because peaceful protests are turning into dangerous riots. I’m hurting because the KKK is planning to march in North Carolina.

I’m hurting because most of the pollsters and the pundits and the media led us to believe one thing and something else happened. I’m hurting because we trust everything we hear and read and we’ve forgotten how to search for the truth on our own. I’m hurting because we refuse to see the other side of the story. I’m hurting because we can’t see our own hypocrisy.

I’m hurting because we’ve forgotten how to listen to each other. To respectfully disagree with each other. To learn from each other.

I’m hurting because when it comes to politics today, opposing points of view mean the end of relationships.

I’m hurting because last week, the President-elect said he might not accept the outcome of the election if he lost. I’m hurting because this week, we’ve watched as supporters of Secretary Clinton are refusing to accept the outcome of the election. I’m hurting because the vitriol of the campaign is not going away despite the amazing – yet surreal – transition of power that President Obama and President-elect Trump have begun.

I’m hurting because our politicians seem to so easily stand before us one day and bash their opponents. And the next day they seem to so easily move forward and treat these opponents cordially. I’m hurting because we don’t know how to play their game, nor do we want to.

I’m hurting because some want to gloat and some want to give up and there is so much work to be done – work that requires dialogue.

I’m hurting because we are “stronger together”. But, we’re not together.

I’m hurting because America is great. But we’re so broken and we need to “make America great again”.

I’m hurting because so much is broken, but so much has to be done. And in order to get things done the opposite sides must respectfully engage with each other.

I’m hurting.

But, despite my hurt, as odd as it sounds, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because I truly believe that brokenness can inspire tremendous new beginnings. And I believe that many of us can be inspired at this tumultuous time – if we stop labeling, attacking and making assumptions about the other – and start reaching out to, sharing and learning from those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. I believe we can inspire others by respectfully expressing our opinions and, at the same time, truly listening to the thoughts and feelings of those we share our lives with.

I’m hurting. But I’m hopeful because I believe in us.