The Spiritual Gift Of My Imaginary Childhood Friend

I am happy to share with you my latest article published on The Wisdom Daily this week:

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As a child, I admit it, I had an imaginary friend – a bright yellow duck named Peep. Because of this, I was really touched to read about The Imaginary Friend Collection, a recent exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood, featuring eclectic sculptures that capture the imaginary friends of five very real children. Animators and model-makers, relying upon the detailed descriptions of these five kids, used their talents to bring the children’s imaginary friends to life. In addition to creating a truly magical exhibit that included a pink, three-eyed girl, a bespectacled fox with the tail of a lizard and my favorite, Nessi, an eight-foot-tall dinosaur, The Imaginary Friend Collection gave five lucky children the opportunity to meet very real versions of their imaginary friends.

To read more, please click HERE.

When Something Terrible Teaches Us About Something Wonderful – In honor of Sgt. Chris Marquez and the Marines and Soldiers of Iwo Jima

FotorCreated                                                          Marine Corps War Memorial    No Man Left Behind Monument

It is tragically ironic that two military memorial statues have made the headlines this week. The first, the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA, features the famous statue of six servicemen raising the American flag on Iwo Jima in World War II. The second, The No Man Left Behind Monument, located on both Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Bases, captures two marines helping an injured comrade during a battle in Fallujah, Iraq.

Today is Iwo Jima Day. On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines landed on the island of Iwo Jima and began the incredibly bloody battle to take the island from the Japanese. Five few days after the battle began, on February 23, Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, took a photo of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising an American flag on the island. This photo would serve as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Virginia. Three of the six servicemen captured in the photograph and subsequent statue, Cpl. Harlon Block, PFC Franklin Sousley and Sgt. Michael Strank, were killed before the battle for Iwo Jima was over. They were three of the nearly 7,000 Marines killed during the battle. Twenty thousand Marines were wounded during the fighting. The sacrifices made by the Marine Corps made it possible to take control of Iwo Jima and continue the fight to stop the Japanese. Today is a day to remember the heroes of Iwo Jima.

Late last Friday night, Chris Marquez, a decorated Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, was attacked and seriously injured while eating in a Washington, D.C. McDonalds. His attackers were thugs who harassed Marquez before hitting him over the head, attacking and robbing him. Marquez earned a Bronze Star for valor in Iraq and is captured in The No Man Left Behind Monument – the Marine on the left, carrying his wounded comrade to safety. We have no reason to believe that those who attacked Marquez knew he was an American hero, however, as we remember the brave soldiers of Iwo Jima, it is truly deplorable that one of our nation’s heroes was so terribly dishonored.

In 1945, when the fighting came to an end on Iwo Jima, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, planned an interfaith memorial service and asked Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain in the Marine Corps, to deliver the eulogy for those killed in battle. Sadly, the majority of Christian chaplains objected to Rabbi Gittelsohn’s role in the service and instead of an interfaith service, each religious community held their own memorial service. At the Jewish service, which you can watch here, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the eulogy he had planned to give at the interfaith service. Included in this eulogy were the following words:

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price…

Three Protestant chaplains were so disturbed by the prejudice directed at Rabbi Gittelsohn that they boycotted their own religious service and attended the Jewish service. One of the Protestant chaplains took a copy of the Rabbi’s eulogy and shared thousands of copies with his Marine unit. Many of the Marines who received it shared Rabbi Gittelsohn’s words with their families via letters home. The press got word of the rabbi’s eulogy and Time magazine published parts of it and the entire eulogy was inserted into the Congressional Record. The eulogy was subsequently broadcast on short-wave radio to American troops around the world. In his autobiography, Rabbi Gittelsohn reflected: “I have often wondered whether anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon had it not been for the bigoted attempt to ban it.”

Perhaps Rabbi Gittelsohn’s thoughts about his eulogy can help us as we wrestle with the attack of Chris Marquez. I for one was unaware of Marquez, his bravery and The No Man Left Behind Monument. I wish that it did not take the attack in our nation’s capital for me to learn about him and his heroism. But, as Rabbi Gittlesohn suggests, sometimes it takes something terrible to teach the rest of us something wonderful.

Today, we pray for Chris Marquez’s healing and we give thanks for his bravery and the bravery of those who gave so much on Iwo Jima.

Disagreement: It’s A Good Thing

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According to our tradition, if a Jewish court unanimously finds a man guilty of a capital offense, the man is acquitted. Yes, you read that correctly: if a Jewish court unanimously finds a man guilty of a capital offense, the man is acquitted. If no one on the court was able to find something that would redeem the man on trial, rabbinic teaching insists that the court failed to do its job correctly. If there was no disagreement over something as important as capital punishment, the rabbis teach us that there is something very, very wrong.

Judaism teaches us that when we must make a serious decision, if there is no disagreement, we should be concerned. A lack of disagreement is a sign that we’ve missed something important. We must remember that we are descendants of Jacob, our patriarch who wrestled with God and earned the new name Israel, which means one who wrestles with God and prevails. As the children of Israel, wrestling with heavy issues is part of who we are. But, we are living during a time when disagreement is either something we run from or we use to divide us in dangerous ways.

The Presidential primary season has begun. In an attempt to keep the peace, many of us go out of our way to avoid entering into political conversations with family and friends. It’s not just that we’re afraid of getting into a disagreement with those closest to us, it’s that we’re living during a time when too many of us feel that someone who disagrees with us politically needs to be kept at arm’s length. This is one of the reasons why surveys show us that many folks on the right and the left say that it’s important for them to live in a place where most people share their political sentiments. Further, three-out-of-ten Republicans say that they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and almost a quarter of Democrats say that they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Republican. Making matters worse is the belief that those who don’t share our political beliefs are dangerous. Thirty-six percent of Republicans say the Democratic Party is a threat to the well-being of the country, while just over 25% of Democrats see the Republican party as a threat. And, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address last month, “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”

Like you, I experience the rancor and suspicion daily. I find it fascinating that the same folks who are outraged by the personal attacks against their party’s candidates and positions have no problem engaging in similar attacks against the other party’s candidates and positions. We’ve become very good at openly attacking, vilifying and seeing absolutely no value in the political “other” – even though we are, whether we realize it or not, in relationships with those who identify as the “other.” We either see no purpose in hearing those who feel differently than we do about extremely important political issues – or we are so afraid of what will happen if we engage those with different opinions than we do that we remain silent. Even within the political parties, those with opinions that might not fit neatly into the party platform are seen as dangerous, espousing “New York values” and, thus, earning a “special place in hell.” This rancor and suspicion is undermining the importance of disagreement that our Jewish tradition embraces.

As Judaism suggests, when there is no disagreement surrounding something as important as electing the next President of the United States, there is a real problem. Fortunately, in our country, there is disagreement. Unfortunately, we’ve learned to believe that disagreement is a bad thing. Judaism pushes us to appreciate that disagreement can bring about true justice and prevent us from making a terrible decision. The rabbis teach us that any disagreement for the sake of heaven is worthwhile. As Americans, I pray that each of us appreciates that electing the next President of the United States is an extremely important decision. As such, I also pray that we learn to embrace the importance that our tradition places on disagreement and learn to respectfully talk with those whom we disagree. I believe that this is how we will bring about true justice and gain the insight we need to elect our next President.

The Miraculous Legacy of Eric Alterman and Ian Besner

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Eric Alterman               Ian Besner

Four-year-old Jordan Drake is a real, live miracle. Two years ago, she had a heart transplant that saved her life. Now she is running around, living a happy childhood. A vital part of the miracle that is Jordan Drake is another child, Lukas Clark, who tragically died at just seven months because of child abuse committed by a babysitter’s boyfriend. Lukas’ mother, Heather, chose to donate her son’s liver, kidneys and heart. As a result, three children received the gift of Lukas’ life. Little Jordan Drake received his heart. Watch below as Lukas’ mom hears, for the first time, his heart beating strongly inside of Jordan, reminding her that her son is still acting in this world. “He did more in 7 months in life than I’ve done in 25 years of life.”

Last week, my heart was heavy as I went to take part in the FDNow 5K Run/Walk in memory of Eric Alterman, a Ramat Shalom teen who passed away last summer. While Eric’s parents, Carol and Steve, did donate his organs and people have been saved by Eric, I arrived at the 5K last Sunday morning, overwhelmed with grief. I had known Eric for several years, officiated at his bar mitzvah, been with him and his incredible family through the ups and downs of his illness. We knew that he was facing many challenges, but Eric was larger than life, loved and extremely strong. His passing was tragic and this past Sunday morning all of the emotions associated with losing him came back to me. However, as I stood at the starting line, surrounded by so many people, something shifted. In the crowd of runners and walkers, all of whom had donated to fund much needed Familial Dysautonomia (FD) research, I felt the heartbeat of Eric. In the sounds of the sneakers hitting the pavement, the rhythmic breathing of the runners and the cheers as people crossed the finish line, I heard Eric’s heartbeat. My grief turned to awe as I appreciated that this group of runners and walkers was part of the miracle that is Eric. He lives on – not the way we wanted him to be here – but in a way that is transforming the world for the better. Like little Lukas, Eric, in his short life, did more than most people who live long lives. His organs have saved lives and his memory is going to transform the lives of those living with FD.

As a community, we have lost too many of our kids. This coming Sunday, we gather together for the annual I Care I Cure 5K Run/Walk at the BB&T Center. I Care I Cure was created by Ramat Shalom members, Beth and Brad Besner, in memory of their son, Ian, an amazing kid who grew up here in our congregation. Tragically, Ian passed away as a result of the treatment he was receiving for pediatric cancer. I was lucky enough to know Ian and was looking forward to celebrating his bar mitzvah, which we were beginning to discuss when he got sick ten years ago. This Sunday, I encourage you to join me at the I Care I Cure 5K and experience the miracle of Ian Besner. While we all wish that Ian, who would have turned 21 earlier this week, was with us, the energy at the starting line of the race, the comradery along the course and the opportunity to learn how I Care I Cure and Ian’s incredible legacy are saving lives – all of these things are miraculous. When you take part in the 5K, if you listen closely, you will be able to hear Ian’s heartbeat. While you might not have known him, when you join me on Sunday morning, you will experience his essence and the good he is bringing into so many lives. Please, register today by clicking HERE (if you do so, please pick up your race materials Sunday morning, not tomorrow).

May each of us do our part to make certain that Ian and Eric’s memories continue to serve as incredible blessings.