Celebrating Behind Walls: Shushan Purim

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Yesterday, the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar, was Purim in most locations where Jews live. However, today, the 15th day of Adar, in the walled city of Jerusalem, the Jewish community celebrates Purim. Today is known as Shushan Purim. Based upon the Megillah, the Jews in Shushan, the walled city where the Purim story took place, had to fight off those who were trying to destroy them on both the 13th and 14th days of Adar and were only able to rest on the 15th day of the month. This 15th day became a day of “feasting and merrymaking” – Shushan Purim. The Jews who lived outside of the walled city of Shushan were able to end their battle with the enemy on the 13th day of Adar and, thus, began feasting and merrymaking on the 14th day of the month. To this day, we are taught that Jews who live in cities that were walled in ancient times (Jerusalem is technically the only city required to observe Shushan Purim) should observe Purim one day later than those who live in unwalled cities.

This year, given that Spring Break fell during the week of Purim, we decided to embrace the holiday of Shushan Purim and do our “merrymaking” today at Kabbalat Shabbat. We hope that you are able to join us at 7:30PM!

It is not an easy time to celebrate Purim. The attacks in Belgium are heartbreaking and frightening. The Jews of Belgium canceled their Purim celebrations. In its place, the country mourned those who were killed and prayed for those who were injured.

While Shushan Purim makes Jerusalem special in that her residents get their own special day of joy and laughter, the fact that those who live in walled cities must delay their “merrymaking” teaches us a very powerful lesson. The Jews who did not live behind walls, the Jews who intermingled with those who were different from them – they did not have to fight for their lives as long as those who lived behind walls and, thus, separated themselves from the rest of the world. In light of the attacks in Belgium earlier this week, barricading ourselves behind walls and other protective borders seems extremely appealing. However, Shushan Purim is there to remind us that when you live behind a wall, it is easy to be surrounded by the enemy. Living behind a wall might make us feel more secure, but, Shushan Purim suggests that it makes us more vulnerable to those who can cut us off from the rest of the world. We can’t be naïve when it comes to security – however, Shushan Purim is begging us to look at how we interact with the world around us, reminding us that walls can, at times, work against us.

After this long, terrible week, we look forward to celebrating with you later today.

Helping Our Kids, Helping Ourselves

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Many of our kids have been deeply affected by the tragic passing of Erik Lemelbaum, a beloved lacrosse coach at the University School. I did not know Coach Lemelbaum, but I know many of his students and it is clear that he played a very important role in their lives. His death is, for many of them, the first significant tragedy that they have experienced. It is more than unsettling. Their whole world has been turned upside down.

It is at times like these that we need to be good listeners. We can’t tell our kids what to feel. They know too well what they are feeling. Many of them are experiencing a confusing mix of very intense emotions. Some of them are struggling with fear and uncertainty. Others are feeling the painful emptiness of the tornado described above by Sylvia Plath. Each of them is wrestling with something unique and upsetting. Our job needs to be to give them the safe space needed to process all of their feelings and anxieties. Hopefully, this processing will include talking about their loss – with us or other safe people. We can’t force them to talk. We can’t tell them we understand what they are feeling – because we each grieve differently. And we can’t rush the grieving process and fix this quickly. We must simply be present – as good listeners and, of course, as good huggers.

Many of the kids who are struggling with the Coach’s death are in middle and high school. They will undoubtedly have some powerful questions over the next few weeks – questions about death, their own mortality and why bad things happen to good people. I know that many of you will have the perfect answers. If you need any help answering these questions, I am always here to offer suggestions. You don’t have to do this alone.

For those of you who are watching your kids (or your students) grieve, don’t overlook the fact that you are most likely grieving too. Yes, the Coach inspired your kids, but, from what I hear, he had a tremendous impact on many of your lives. Give yourself time to mourn his passing – it will help you guide your kids through the grieving process. And if you need someone to talk to, just holler.

In closing, I want to share with you the words of Carol Blackman who, in her poem, Hope, reminds us that we are not alone in our hurt. She also reminds us that, while we might not hear it now, somewhere out there is the small, quiet whisper of hope. Listen for it. In time, you will hear it.

HOPE
Carol Blackman

There are times when each of us is sick with the world
And life weighs upon us like a heavy boulder
We cannot imagine any good or happy thought
We sink further and deeper into the pit of our despairs.

There are times when each of us feels sorely hurt
The very thing we love the most has been taken away
We feel empty, we feel alone, we are afraid.

There are moments all human beings share
When their hearts sink and their minds entertain the worst
Fear assails us all, we tremble and shake at problems facing us.

At these times a little voice from within us rouses us
Often waiting until we reach the very brink of despair
At first nothing more than a whisper,
It tells us that we can indeed prevail.

This little voice abiding in each of us is – hope.
It is not logical or even reasonable.
It is our heart telling our head that we cannot surrender
For to give in to the trials of life is to let them win over us.

From a whisper hope grows slowly
First in a moderate tone and finally to a roar
It supersedes fear, sorrow, and even despair.
It gives us the courage to try again.

Hope abides in each of us giving us the energy to survive. It gives us the strength to turn to God and offer praise.

I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom – one where you can gather together with family and friends and take care of each other.

The Gift Of Judaism

Last month, Dustin Hoffman was featured on Finding Your Roots, a PBS show that gives celebrities incredible insight into their family’s history. Hoffman is Jewish, however, his parents attempted to keep his Judaism a secret from him. While the actor learned about his Jewish identity when he was 10, he had virtually no Jewish upbringing. Influenced by his parents and deeply affected by the anti-Semitism that he experienced as a kid in Los Angeles, Hoffman denied his Jewishness for a long time. It was his second and current wife, Lisa, who encouraged him to explore his Jewish identity and to build a Jewish family.

During last month’s episode of Finding Your Roots, Hoffman was introduced to a powerful part of his Jewish story that he knew nothing about. He learned about his great-grandmother, Libba, for the very first time. When she was 53, Libba was imprisoned in a Russian camp that targeted Jews. Nine years later, now suffering from senility, poor vision and the fact that her left arm had been amputated, Libba managed – somehow, someway – to make it to the United States. As Hoffman discovered the incredible strength of his great-grandmother, her determination to stay alive, her ability to travel to America despite her many challenges, he began to cry and said, “she was a hero.” He was deeply moved as he realized his great-grandmother “survived for me to be here.” Through tears, the 78-year-old actor who grew up hiding his Judaism proclaims: “I am a Jew.” Before he does so, he asks, “Why did they want to erase all this?” Why did they, presumably his parents, want to hide the fact that his great-grandmother went through so much to make it to America, to do whatever it took to ensure that the Jewish story did not end?

It is powerful to watch Hoffman come to the realization that he is the beneficiary of his grandmother’s gift – her Judaism which has become his Judaism. His experience is a powerful reminder, particularly for those of us who take our Judaism for granted, that our ability to say openly and proudly “I am a Jew” is a gift from the generations that came before us. It is a gift that they preserved and cherished and now, this gift is in our hands.

Judaism is changing dramatically. This evolution of our tradition is, despite the handwringing of many in our community, normal. It is also good for us. It will lead to wonderful, new ways to define who we are as a people – that is assuming we continue to appreciate the gift we have been given and we do everything in our power to give the gift to the next generation. We do this not just by remembering our heroic ancestors who kept Judaism alive despite tremendous odds. We must also make Judaism relevant today, accessible and meaningful to the next generation. This means that we can’t just appreciate the inspirational stories of our past – we must live our own Jewish story in a way that ensures another chapter will be written by those who have yet to be born.

At the age of 78, Dustin Hoffman truly appreciates how lucky he is to be a Jew. We should all feel so lucky. We should all believe that future generations deserve to feel just as lucky and do whatever we can to ensure that they get to experience the gift.

Boundaries, Borders, Fences, Walls And Free Of Speech

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As a graduate of Vassar College, I have been involved in the discussion surrounding the well-publicized situation on campus. I have heard from students and faculty who have been impacted by the pro-BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) and anti-Israel sentiments on campus. At a recent campus lecture, visiting Professor Jasbir Puar delivered a message that was not simply anti-Israel, it was dangerous, hateful and anti-Semitic. Jewish students and faculty who are pro-Israel have shared with alumni and others that the feeling on campus is threatening. Many pro-Israel students keep their beliefs to themselves because they do not want to be labeled and attacked. Late last month, The Vassar Student Association wrestled with whether a vote on BDS policy be anonymous as a way to protect those who vote from harassment.

As I shared with you a few weeks ago, I believe we should embrace healthy disagreement. The idea of free, open, respectful debate surrounding Israel (or any topic) is a beautiful idea. But, as we have seen at Vassar, free, open debate is not often respectful and has the ability to become hateful. In addition, we know that attempts to bring anti-BDS speakers to campus have not been embraced by campus leaders. Just last night, however, Peter Beinart spoke at Vassar. While still a controversial speaker when it comes to Israel, his presence was a very small step towards a more balanced discussion.

When it comes to Israel, divisive, hateful speech has become part of the conversation on many campuses (including, most recently, Oberlin). Many state that our college students deserve the opportunity to hear a myriad of opinions on Israel – even those that are anti-Semitic – and should be given the ability to make up their own minds. Unfortunately, we know that the anti-Israel, pro-BDS voices are often controlling the conversation, making it very difficult for voices that disagree with them to be heard. As a result, pro-Israel students can feel alienated and are too often threatened because of their beliefs.

Judaism teaches us that we are obligated to put a fence around the Torah. We have to protect what is near and dear to us. We live in an extremely polarized society. The art of debate is gone. Anger is running high. People are grasping for ways to defend their turf. Some have dangerous, manipulative agendas that can severely hurt a community. While we might not need a towering wall to protect ourselves, a well-defined boundary that demarcates what is fair, just and moral from what is deceptive, dangerous and hateful is necessary. Our communal boundaries need to be built upon the values of the organizations and groups of which we are a part. Judaism teaches us that once we establish these boundaries, we are obligated to ensure that those we invite into our community respect our values. This does not mean that our guests always need to agree with us – but they must understand that we expect them to respect who we are and what we stand for.

Within the larger Jewish community, specifically within Hillels, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, I believe that we owe it to our respective communities to make certain that everyone who wants to be a part of the group feels welcome, included, safe and receives the spiritual nourishment they need. I do believe in free speech, but I also believe in the sanctity of the Jewish community. Outside of our Hillels, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, there are ample opportunities for anti-Semitic voices to be heard loud and clear. Why do they need to be welcomed into our sacred spaces?

In the larger community, specifically our college campuses, free speech and open debate should be encouraged and welcomed. Academic freedom is an essential part of the learning process. This being said, academic integrity must be upheld. Colleges must establish clear boundaries by promoting scholarship that is grounded in research and truth while denouncing hate that is based on a radicalized agenda. In this day and age, creating and maintaining such boundaries is no easy task. It requires academic institutions to think long and hard about what they stand for, articulate their core values and ensure that these values are upheld on campus. It also requires that college administrators ensure that scholarly debate is balanced and students are taught how to engage in respectful discussion with each other. Furthermore, it requires swift and appropriate responses to hateful speech and actions. Perhaps, if more of our nation’s colleges established boundaries that support free, academic speech and balanced, healthy debate, the division that we see playing out on the national political stage would begin to heal and the “other” would become our friend.