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.

Coming Together This Veterans Day

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Last night’s flag ceremony at the Heat game.

Cheryl, Abigail, Jonah and I went to the Heat game last night. It was a special evening. The Heat were playing the Bulls and Miami had the opportunity to welcome Dwyane Wade back to the American Airlines Arena. While it was nice to be there to experience this homecoming, what truly made the night special was the way in which the Heat commemorated Veterans Day – which is officially celebrated today. Throughout the night military families were recognized and honored. Heat players wore the names of fallen soldiers whose stories were captured and shared via video presentations. The highlight of the evening was a beautiful flag ceremony led by the United States Southern Command. During this ceremony, as my family and I stood in the arena, surrounded by people of all different races and ethnicities, all of us singing the National Anthem, all of us cheering for our country, I was overcome with emotion.

In that crowd last night, there were those of us who were happy with Tuesday’s election results. There were those of us who were unhappy with the results. And there were those of us who are still trying to figure out how we feel. But, as members of our military held our flag, sang our anthem and honored our veterans, I’m certain that everyone in the arena felt connected to each other, felt a sense of pride for our country, felt honored to be a part of this magnificently complicated nation we call the United States of America.

This election has divided us. Family, friends and neighbors aren’t speaking to each other. Some are overjoyed and wondering why we are offering a Healing Service tonight. Some are overcome with sadness, fear and anger and can’t fathom healing from this election. And this is why we need to gather together, tonight, tomorrow and in the days and weeks to come – not to bash President-elect Trump or Secretary Clinton, not to accuse or label each other, not to gloat about or challenge the election results – but to simply come together with all of our different emotions and experience the power of community.

Hineh ma tov uma na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.
How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters can come together.

It is by coming together – with all of our differences – that we will slowly find ways to listen to each other, hear each other, learn from each other and, most importantly, respect each other.

Tonight, some of us will come together at 7:30pm. In doing so, we won’t fix the division in our country. But, we’ll celebrate Shabbat. We’ll get a chance to wish a “mazal tov” to our upcoming B’nai Mitzvah. We’ll honor our Veterans. We’ll sing and pray with people who share our political views and those who don’t. We’ll wish everyone we spend time with this evening a “Shabbat Shalom” – a peaceful, beautiful, meaningful day of rest. And, in doing so, we’ll all get a little closer to each other. I hope you will join us.

Crossing The Narrow Bridge – A Post-Election Reflection

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The whole world is a very narrow bridge;

The essential thing is to have no fear at all

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

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This morning, they woke up to find before them a very narrow bridge.

How overwhelming, the fear, the realization that in order to get where they needed to go, they had to cross that bridge.

They could turn back, but that’s not where they wanted to be.

They looked below the bridge, at the rocky cliffs, rushing water and the emptiness.

Not an option.

They could sit down and stop. Stay where they were. Wait until a better bridge is built.

But if they looked closely, they could see all that they wanted on the other side of the very narrow bridge and they knew they had to cross.

And so they called their friends, their sisters and their brothers and they locked arms. And slowly, oh so  slowly, they crossed that very narrow bridge. A determined, human chain.

They made it to the other side.

They overcame their fear.

And they discovered hope.

And so will we.

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs – November 9, 2016

What’s Left After We’re Gone?

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My latest article on The Wisdom Daily is based on the words I shared on Yom Kippur this year.

In Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery, there sits a mausoleum built by my great-great-grandfather, Barney Wolff, who passed away in 1925. Around the turn of the 20th century, Barney was a powerful, charismatic, rough and tumble New York City politician. In an article published in The Brooklyn Eagle in July of 1893, Barney is described as follows:

He dressed well, topping off his costume with a carefully brushed silk hat or a stylish derby, while a crop of elegant side whiskers and a swallowtail mustache added considerably to his distinguished appearance. A day or two (after he moved into his Brooklyn home), there appeared above the doorway of the Wolff domicile a sign announcing in glaring letters that B. Wolff was prepared to conduct…business.

Barney, wanting to do what he could to remain a powerful, distinguished presence in Brooklyn even after his passing, had the family mausoleum constructed. He, along with his wife, Augusta, and several of their children are buried within the stone structure that still stands prominently on Ocean Parkway at Avenue K.

The mausoleum was my great-great-grandfather’s attempt to ensure a lasting legacy. Sadly, I don’t think it worked. Had my late grandmother, Florence Wolff Landesman, one of Barney’s many grandchildren, not taken me to visit the mausoleum about 20 years ago, I would know nothing about it. No one’s visited the mausoleum since my grandmother and I were there. It’s maintained by the cemetery, but forgotten about by Barney’s descendants. And today, despite the fact that “Barney Wolff” remains etched in stone above the mausoleum’s heavy metal and glass doors, my great-great-grandfather’s name means nothing in Brooklyn.

I’ve spent years putting together my family tree, researching the various people who make up the generations of my clan. While Barney is one of the more colorful folks on my tree, his legacy, or the story of his life after death, resembles the legacy of every other deceased relative on the tree that I or a living relative of mine was not fortunate enough to know personally. For the most part, these deceased relatives are people who are three or more generations removed from me. I’m fortunate to have discovered historical material that’s given me a glimpse of some of these relatives, including Barney. But, sadly, I still know very little about them. Granted, it’s more than I have for many other relatives who have been reduced simply to a name. Sometimes only a first name. And in too many cases, no name at all. Their stories have fallen silent.

My inability to learn about distant relatives has gotten me thinking about the legacy many of us hope to leave. Every so often a Michelangelo or an Albert Einstein comes along and does leave a lasting mark on history. But, as troubling as it is, my own genealogical research suggests that within a few generations of our passing, the odds are, just like Barney Wolff, the work we do during our lifetime will eventually be forgotten. But, I don’t think that this means we’re incapable of leaving a lasting legacy.

PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE

What Do I Do Now?

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I don’t like sending out this message. I try to send it once a year and, whenever I do so, I hesitate because it’s not an uplifting message. But, it’s a necessary message.

Over the past several weeks, three members of our congregation have passed away. In addition, several of our families are presently mourning loved ones. Today, you will get an email informing you that another one of our families is now preparing for a funeral. I know you dread getting those emails. They are reminders that being part of a sacred community involves being there for each other not just for the happy celebrations but for the challenging moments as well.

As a synagogue family, we must comfort those among us who have experienced a loss. We need to reach out to fellow members who are in mourning by attending a shivah minyan, sending a note and/or working with our Mitzvah Committee to arrange for the delivery of meals to mourners. By reaching out to families at these challenging times, you make a huge difference. I thank those of you who go out of your way to lift up fellow congregants after a loss. There are many of you and for that I am so grateful. And I hope more of us follow your lead.

In addition to supporting fellow congregants through the loss of special people, it is imperative that each of us knows what to do if, G-d forbid, we experience a loss in our own family. None of us want to plan for or think about such a loss, but we don’t want to be unprepared at a time of such heartache. Therefore, I’m sharing with you What Do I Do Now – a packet I’ve prepared that includes detailed information on what to do when you experience a loss. Click here to access the packet. While you might want to ignore this information, I urge you to take a look at it. I hope that you’ll not need any of the information in the packet, but I also hope you’ll read through it . Please, don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or need some guidance navigating end-of-life issues. I am here to help you in any way.

On a much lighter note, I want to wish you all a restful, meaningful Shabbat. As Thanksgiving approaches we are going to be spending time during Friday night services talking about what our tradition has to teach us about the importance of saying “thank you” and expressing gratitude. I hope you will join us!