Memorial Day Post – A Bit Late

I forgot to post this last week!


As we prepare to mark Memorial Day, I want to share this moving obituary with you:

Major John Alexander Hottell, III graduated from West Point in 1964, tenth in a class of 564. He was a Rhodes scholar in 1965. In Vietnam he earned two Silver Stars as a company commander. He later became aide to the First Cavalry Division commander, Major General George W. Casey. Both were killed in the crash of a helicopter on July 7, 1970. He was 27 years old at the time of his death, which occurred about one year after he wrote his own obituary and sent it in a sealed envelope to his wife, Linda. It was published in The New York Times and reads as follows:

“I am writing my own obituary for several reasons, and I hope none of them are too trite. First, I would like to spare my friends, who may happen to read this, the usual clichés about being a good soldier. They were all kind enough to me, and I not enough to them. Second, I would not want to be a party to perpetuation of an image that is harmful and inaccurate; “glory” is the most meaningless of concepts, and I feel that in some cases it is doubly damaging. And third, I am quite simply the last authority on my own death.

“I loved the Army; it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. We all have but one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning, it finds it in the service of comrades in arms.

“And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything – not my country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties. I knew this, and accepted it, but my love for West Point and the Army was great enough – and the promise that I would some day be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough – for me to accept this possibility as a part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value. If there is nothing worth dying for – in this sense – there is nothing worth living for.

“The Army let me live in Japan, Germany and England with experiences in all of these places that others only dream about. I have skied in the Alps, killed a scorpion in my tent camping in Turkey, climbed Mount Fuji, visited the ruins of Athens, Ephesus and Rome, seen the town of Gordium where another Alexander challenged his destiny, gone to the opera in Munich, plays in the West End of London, seen the Oxford-Cambridge rugby match, gone for pub crawls through the Cotswolds, seen the night-life in Hamburg, danced to the Rolling Stones, and earned a master’s degree in a foreign university.

“I have known what it is like to be married to a fine and wonderful woman and to love her beyond bearing with the sure knowledge that she loves me; I have commanded a company and been a father, priest, income-tax adviser, confessor, and judge for 200 men at one time; I have played college football and rugby, won the British national diving championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round, and played handball to distraction – and all of these sports I loved, I learned at West Point. They gave me hours of intense happiness.

“I have been an exchange student at the German Military Academy, and gone to the German Jumpmaster school. I have made thirty parachute jumps from everything from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I have written an article that was published in Army magazine, and I have studied philosophy.

“I have experienced all these things because I was in the Army and because I was an Army brat. The Army is my life, it is such a part of what I was that what happened is the logical outcome of the life I loved. I never knew what it is to fail. I never knew what it is to be too old or too tired to do anything. I lived a full life in the Army, and it has exacted the price. It is only just.”

May the memory of all of our fallen soldiers only serve as a blessing.

Redefining Synagogue Membership



For a few weeks now, the office has bombarded you with email asking you to “Activate Your Synagogue Membership”! A significant number of you have done soand we continue to be inundated with both renewal and new membership applications. I am truly grateful for each and every one of our members.

This being said, one of the things that I took away from my recent fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders is that asking people to become “members” of a synagogue sends the wrong message about the congregant-synagogue relationship. One becomes a member of a gym, a professional organization, a store like Costco or a beach club by paying a fee and, in turn, receiving specific benefits. In order to enter the gym and exercise, one must be a member. As a dues paying member of a professional organization, one receives professional support and guidance. Only Costco members can shop in their stores and you can only enjoy the beach chairs and umbrellas if you purchased a beach club membership.

Obviously, there are benefits to being a member of a synagogue. A synagogue member is entitled to certain “perks” including but not limited to free High Holiday tickets, rabbinic officiation at life cycle events, religious school for children and a reserved bar/bat mitzvah date for one’s child. This being said, synagogues are not and should never be seen as private clubs. One does not need to present a membership card in order to partake in certain aspects of synagogue life. And none of you who have “activated your membership” at Ramat Shalom would want us to turn someone away from our community because they could not pay to “activate” their membership.

The notion that one becomes a “member” of a synagogue and thus joins a private club, encourages us to see the synagogue as an institution that is there solely to provide specific services to dues paying members. This notion is why it is a common occurrence in most American synagogues for families to drop out after the youngest child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah. “Membership” fosters the idea that after the last bar/bat mitzvah, service has been rendered and there is no longer a need to pay for service. But, in most cases, the family that drops out after the last bar/bat mitzvah will continue to turn to their Jewish community and their rabbi for guidance, religious services and lifecycle events.

While I would love to not flood your inbox with “activate” emails, the truth is that Ramat Shalom and most American synagogues are organized in such a way that makes us financially dependent upon the income we receive from membership dues. However, it is time to toss the notion that one becomes a “member” of a synagogue. We must abandon the concept that one joins a synagogue simply to get something in return. Instead we must appreciate that by supporting the synagogue, we are insuring that it will be there when our kids get married, when we suffer a loss and need comfort, when we yearn to begin the new Jewish year with spirituality, when our grandchildren are born. While, in return for our support, our synagogue should absolutely give us “perks”, we must stop thinking of ourselves as “members” of an institution that provides specific services to us and begin to think of ourselves as investors in something much larger than us, something that will continue to give for generations to come.

On behalf of all of us who have benefited from Ramat Shalom over the past 38 years and those of us who will benefit in the years to come, thank you for investing in Ramat Shalom. Your investment not only helps to activate the services, classes and programs that will define the 2014-2015 Ramat Shalom year, your investment also activates the bright future that we all want for our community.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy 15th Anniversary to my wife, Cheryl!

“What Do I Say?” – How To Speak (Or Not Speak) To Mourners


In memory of my congregant and friend, Brian Sigal z"l and in honor of his beautiful strong family

In memory of my congregant and friend, Brian Sigal z”l, and in honor of his beautiful family

“What do I say to them Rabbi?” This is a question I have heard so many times this week as we rally around one of our families that has suffered a tragic loss. We want to offer comforting words. We want to be able to make some sense out of this horrible situation. We want to be able to use our words to explain why this tragedy occurred not just to console the family, but to console ourselves.

The wise and powerful King Solomon teaches us that “closing one’s lips makes a person wise.” (Proverbs 10:19). There are no words at this time. There are no answers. Trying to make sense of it all is futile. In times of grief, the one who is wise sits with the mourner in silence, holding their hand, wiping their tears, simply being there with the mourner. For so many of us, it is so hard not to fill the silence with words. Silence feels so empty, especially in the home of mourners. It makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. But, the rabbis teach us that “the vehicle for wisdom is silence” (Pirke Avot 3:13). When we are present but silent with someone experiencing an inexplicable loss, we give the mourner space – space to feel, space to breathe, space to appreciate that they are not alone and, most importantly, space to eventually begin speaking and filling the silence with their thoughts and feelings. The words of the mourners – these contain the wisdom we need at this time. These words contain the memories and stories that will give us all the strength to move forward. May we all find the courage to embrace the power of silence, giving those we love and care for the power to speak and share precious wisdom.

Yiddishe Momme – Happy Mother’s Day!

In celebration of Mother’s Day, I want to take us back in time to the 1920s as the Russian born American performer, Sophie Tucker, was making the song Yiddishe Momme famous. You can hear Ms. Tucker sing this song, which was written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack here:

While others sang Yiddishe Momme, Ms. Tucker made the song a Top 5 USA hit in 1928. Her recording was released on a gramophone record that had the song in English on the first side and in Yiddish on the flip side.

Yiddishe Momme reminds us of a time gone by, a time of immigrants and tenements, a time when Yiddish was spoken in Jewish homes, a time that was simpler yet so much more difficult. On a deeper level, the lyrics of the song are timeless, encouraging us to remember, appreciate and celebrate the women who put up with us and worked hard to get us where we are. For many of us, our mothers do/did not fit the physical description of the Yiddishe Momme that Ms. Tucker sings about. Most of our mothers are fortunate enough to live much more comfortably than the Yiddishe Momme. However, most of us are lucky enough to have a Yiddishe Momme, a woman to whom we owe what we are today.

Take the time to celebrate and thank and in many cases remember your mother this Sunday. Happy Mother’s Day!

Purifying Our Lives

Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge

Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge

Last month, many in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, gathered for their annual Prayer Breakfast that is held on Good Friday. The guest speakers at the breakfast were Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge – both from Florida and both forever linked to each other by a terrible choice that radically changed their lives.


On May 11, 2002, Eric drove drunk and killed Renee’s daughter Meagan and Meagan’s friend, Lisa Dickson. Both girls were 20 years old. Eric was 24. In 2003, Eric was found guilty of two counts of DUI manslaughter and began serving a 22 year prison term, 11 years for each of the lives he took. However, a few years into his term, Lisa and Meagan’s parents came forward and asked the judge to release Eric early. As a result of much soul searching and discussions with Eric himself, the families felt strongly that he was truly remorseful. Lisa’s parents, said: “in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the humiliation, in the midst of the anger, there is healing.” In 2012, in response to Lisa and Meagan’s parents, Eric was released from prison.


The Torah teaches us that there are times in all of our lives when things get extremely messy, complicated and painful. At these times, we run the risk of becoming “contaminated” by life’s complexities. The Torah explains that even the holiest of men, the priests in the ancient Temple, were not immune to this contamination. The Torah describes how simply suffering from a skin affliction or coming in contact with people who were ritually impure would render a priest contaminated and prevent him from taking part in the holy rituals that defined his life. However, the Torah explains that a priest’s contamination was reversible through a purification process that, once completed, allowed the priest to rejoin his colleagues and perform the rituals of the priesthood. Purification could take place after the sunset on the day that the contamination occurred and required the contaminated priest to immerse himself in water. The details of the purification process are not important. What matters is that the Torah teaches us that contamination need not be a permanent state. Healing is possible.


The deaths of Lisa Dickson and Meagan Napier, the reckless behavior of Eric Smallridge and the grief, pain and anger of the Lisa and Meagan’s families contaminated too many lives. Remarkably, the Dickson and Napier families understood that, while they could never bring their daughters back, they could move beyond the contamination. “I could hate him forever and the world would tell me that I have the right to do that,” explained Renee Napier, “it’s not going to do me any good, and it’s not going to do him any good. I would grow old and bitter and angry and hateful. In my opinion, forgiveness is the only way to heal.” And heal they did. As they did in Sioux City last month, Renee and Eric now speak together about the dangers of DUI and the incredible power of forgiveness.


The Dickson and Napier’s ability to forgive is truly astonishing. Many of us have far less serious issues that continue to contaminate our lives. We struggle with people and events that fill us with anger, frustration and pain – keeping us from fully embracing a meaningful life. The Torah teaches us that like the Dickson and Napier families, we can move beyond this contamination. We do not have to live with it forever. And certainly if the Dickson and Napier families were able to let go, we can as well. It won’t be easy. But, we can forgive. We can purify our lives,. We can start over, living a life of purpose and determination – the kind of life we all deserve.