Eighteen Years, Six Blessings and One Wish

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Cheryl and I at our wedding, 18 years ago, May 30, 1999

On Tuesday, May 30th, Cheryl and I will celebrate our 18th anniversary. As many of you know, 18 is a powerful number in Judaism – the symbol of life. And, as Cheryl’s husband, I’ve been blessed with a lot of good life in these 18 years.

Numbers in Judaism – so many of them have significance. One/Echad is mentioned in our most important prayer – the Shema – and symbolizes the centrality of God in our tradition. Seven is the symbol of creation, a reminder that God created the worldin six days and rested on Shabbat – the seventh day. Ten reminds us of Charlton Heston (or Moses) and the 10 Commandments that, tradition teaches us, were given to the Jewish people on Shavuot – the holiday we will celebrate on the evening ofMay 30 and all day May 31. Since Passover, we’ve literally been counting the days leading up to Shavuot. This counting, known as Sefirat HaOmer (the counting of the Omer), was an agricultural tradition that evolved into a spiritual practice, one that connects our redemption from Egypt with the gift of Torah given to us at Mt. Sinai. These two important moments in Jewish time are separated by seven weeks and we count each day that makes up these seven weeks. Of course, most of us know that our ancestors had to wander in the desert for 40 years prior to entering the land of Israel. And just this week we marked the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, this Shabbat we read Parashat BaMidbar – the beginning of the Book of Numbers that details how our ancestors counted all of the Israelites. Numbers – they’re a big deal in our tradition.

As I get ready to mark my 18th year as Cheryl’s husband, I’ve been thinking a lot about numbers. Yes, the number 18 – but also the number seven, specifically the Shevah Brachot – the seven blessings – that were chanted by our Rabbis and Cantor at our wedding – the same seven blessings I get to chant for couples whose weddings I am fortunate enough to officiate at:

  1. Blessed are You,Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
  2. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has created everything for Your glory.
  3. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of human beings.
  4. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has fashioned human beings in Your image, according to Your likeness and has fashioned from it a lasting mold. Blessed are You Adonai, Creator of human beings.
  5. Bring intense joy and exultation to Jerusalem through the ingathering of her children amidst her in gladness. Blessed are You, Adonai, who gladdens Zion through her children.
  6. Gladden the beloved companions as You gladdened Your creatures in the garden of Eden. Blessed are You, Adonai, who gladdens these two soulmates.
  7. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created joy and gladness, soulmates, mirth, glad song, pleasure, delight, love, companionship, peace, and harmony. Adonai, our God, let there soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of these married partners, the sound of their jubilance from their canopies and of the youths from their song-filled feasts. Blessed are You who causes these partners to rejoice with each other.

I am fortunate to have blessed many couples with these ancient words and beyond fortunate to have had been blessed, alongside Cheryl, with these same words 18 years ago. I know them by heart and find them beautiful every time I get to say them.

But, it took me 18 years to realize that while the first six of the Shevah Brachot are blessings – expressions of gratitude to God – something changes when we get to number seven.

In the first six blessings we thank God for wine – the symbol of joy, for creating the world, for creating humanity, for filling us with a spark of holiness, for the blessing of the land of Israel and for making the couple happy on their wedding day.

But, when it comes to blessing number seven, we don’t just thank God. We express our hope that the joy of the wedding extends beyond the moment under the chuppah, beyond the moments that follow at the party. We ask that the couple’s joy outlives the wedding day and is passed on to others, spread throughout the city and picked up on by the youth – the children. This is our hope that we share with couples as they stand under the chuppah. This is the desire of every couple on their wedding day.

I am so blessed to be celebrating my 18th year of marriage to my soulmate. We both remember feeling so blessed on our wedding day. We both remember the desire to carry the joy of that incredible day with us and share it with others. Together, over these past 18 years, we’ve learned that the key to keeping that joy alive isn’t simply to give thanks for it. It’s not to assume that it will just be there day after day, year after year. After the wedding, the chuppah gets returned to the florist. The dress and tuxedo are dry cleaned and packed away. The guests go home, the flowers shrivel up and life goes on. And it can be hard. And that joy can fade – especially if you assume it will just be there, just like it was on the wedding day.

The seventh blessing of the Shevah Brachot asks God to give the couple the strength, determination and courage to nurture their love for each other every day. The seventh blessing urges the couple to act in ways that not only cultivates the joy of the wedding day, but turns that joy into something deeper – something that doesn’t need the fanfare and formality of a wedding ceremony, something that brings about serenity and contentment even in the messiness of life.

These past 18 years I have been so blessed to have a partner by my side who has dug deep with me as we worked hard not just to maintain the happiness of our wedding day, but as we found the courage to let this happiness evolve into the beautiful relationship we have today. We think we’ve shared our happiness with our kids. We hope we’ve shared it, not necessarily with our city, but with our family, friends, community.

On this my 18th anniversary, I give thanks to God who causes partners to rejoice with each other. And I give thanks to my wife, Cheryl, for being my partner, holding my hand for all these years and making it possible for us to find new and incredible ways to rejoice with each other. I love you Cheryl.

This is a popular time for Jewish weddings and, therefore, a popular time for anniversaries. If you are celebrating an anniversary at this time, Cheryl joins me in wishing you much joy and happiness now and always. And she also joins me in wishing each and every single one of you a Shabbat Shalom.

My Thoughts on the Religious Freedom Executive Order

In 1954, President Lyndon B. Johnson was a senator from Texas. Frustrated by a political opponent who was receiving support from a tax-exempt organization and using this support to spread accusations that Johnson was a communist, the future President of the United States introduced an amendment to the federal tax code. This amendment focused on tax-exempt organizations, including charitable, scientific, literacy, educational and religious groups. It must be pointed out that the organization that was working with Johnson’s opponent was not a religious organization. Johnson’s amendment stated that any organization that wanted to maintain their tax-exempt status was required to refrain from participating in or intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The amendment faced no opposition and it became the law of the land. As a result, to this day tax-exempt organizations are forbidden to publicly endorse or denounce political candidates. They are also forbidden to raise funds for and make contributions to political candidates. They are not forbidden from engaging “in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and” advocating “for or against issues that are in the political arena.”

Dating back to the birth of our nation and reflecting the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and the desire to separate church and state, making religious institutions tax-exempt has been a longstanding practice in the United States. In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York that the tax-exempt status given to religious institutions helps protect the separation of church and state. This exemption, according to the Supreme Court, “creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state and far less than taxation of churches. [An exemption] restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.” In addition, the Court stated that tax-exempt status “has helped to guarantee the free exercise of all forms of religious belief.”

While President Johnson’s amendment was clearly designed to undermine a political rival, it has helped to keep politics and religion as separate as possible. Granted, many religious institutions cross the line, some going so far as to blatantly endorse or denounce political candidates. The line separating what clergy can and can’t say from the pulpit is often fuzzy. However, the IRS doesn’t strictly enforce the Johnson Amendment. Since 2008, only one of more than 2,000 clergy who have intentionally challenged the amendment has been audited. No members of the clergy have been punished for violating the amendment.

As a rabbi, I’ve embraced my ability to advocate “for or against issues that are in the political arena,” especially when it comes to Israel. While doing so, however, it’s often incredibly challenging not to say things that wind up endorsing or denouncing the positions of political leaders. This is just one of the reasons that I’ve tried to avoid getting political over the past several years – making some of you very happy and a few of you very frustrated.

Last week, President Trump issued an Executive Order focused on religious freedom. The Executive Order states that the government will not:

take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.  As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions…; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.”

In a nutshell, President Trump’s Executive Order states that religious institutions shouldn’t be treated any differently than other tax-exempt organizations when it comes to their freedom of speech. They may speak about political issues, but they may not break the law: religious institutions, like all tax-exempt institutions, may still not participate in or intervene in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office. While this Executive Order works to ensure the fair treatment of religious institutions, it does absolutely nothing to change the regulations of the Johnson Amendment. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations are still limited when it comes to what they can and can’t say about American politics.

The Executive Order also states that the government “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In a nutshell, this means that businesses may be exempt from certain regulations that are part of the Affordable Care Act if these regulations require a business to go against religious beliefs. Again, this Executive Order does nothing to change the law of the land. Back in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that because of religious beliefs, a business may deny employees the coverage of contraception as regulated by the Affordable Care Act.

While this Executive Order has attracted a lot of attention, it changes nothing. Fortunately, the order didn’t go as far as some had predicted – it contains nothing that legalizes the discrimination of the LGBTQ community. This being said, the order does promote the idea that religious institutions are under attack. This is just not accurate.  Religious institutions have tremendous leeway to engage in the political process. I believe that many religious institutions have taken advantage of this leeway and have become too involved in this process, encouraging the overlap of church and state. In addition to breaking the law, this overlap threatens core American values. Further, it denies many the comfort, community and focus that religious institutions have the potential to provide. In our society that is so divided and where civil discourse is a lost art, many people are seeking a spiritual haven within the sanctuaries of their synagogues, churches and mosques. Unfortunately, instead of a haven, they find that these sanctuaries have become extensions of a particular political ideology and the preaching within these spaces does nothing to heal the partisan divide that we are struggling with today. These politically active religious institutions are fortunate that the IRS has not aggressively pursued the Johnson Amendment. Based upon this Executive Order, it’s highly unlikely that the government will begin to enforce the law of the land. However, if it does, religious institutions must remember that they have the right to say whatever they want to say so long as they give up the precious right not to pay taxes.

The Executive Order also suggests that religious freedom is in jeopardy. While there are certainly religious groups in America, including our own, that face challenges, religious freedom is alive and well. This is a freedom that has been protected by the Supreme Court – as demonstrated by Burwell v. Hobby Lobby – and some of the court cases involving the President’s Executive Order on immigration. Unfortunately, some insist upon using religious beliefs as a way to discriminate against, marginalize and dehumanize individuals and groups whose rights are protected by the laws of our country. To argue that our religious freedom is in jeopardy when the religious beliefs of some are used to deny the civil rights of others is to overlook the freedom guaranteed to us by the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” If the religion of one group of Americans is given the authority to deny the rights of another group of Americans, the very fiber of our great nation will begin to unravel.

In summary, this Executive Order does nothing to change the law governing tax-exempt religious institutions. It also doesn’t do anything that the judicial system hasn’t done to protect religious liberty. As a rabbi, I appreciate that the order puts a national spotlight on the fine line that separates church and state and how this fine line can limit what religious institutions should and shouldn’t be talking about. I also appreciate that the order highlights one of our many national challenges: to both protect the religious freedom and uphold the civil rights of every American. This being said, I’m troubled by the narrative that the order presents. While we still have much work to do to create a more perfect union, our Constitution, our laws, our courts, and most of our political leaders and religious institutions are doing a pretty good job at keeping religious freedom alive and well.

 

Why is there a Goat in the Sanctuary?

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Why is there a Goat in the Sanctuary? Learn why below!

I am still processing some of the decisions that were made in Washington yesterday. I do plan to respond, particularly to the Executive Order that gives religious institutions more freedom to get involved in politics. I am putting together a post that I will share on my blog soon.

 My sabbatical year has been a blessing. I am so grateful that the Ramat Shalom community has supported me as I’ve spent the past year learning with some incredible Jewish scholars and exploring innovative ways to make Judaism even more relevant, more meaningful and more transformative. For the past several months, I’ve been sharing a lot of what I’ve learned this year with the professional and lay leadership team at Ramat Shalom. Next year’s programs, services and events will reflect a lot of what I am taking away from my sabbatical year. I wanted to take this opportunity to share just a few highlights of the Ramat Shalom 2017-2018 year that you will learn more about in the near future – some of the things you will see below will look familiar, some are new and some are returning with new, exciting touches.

Here’s just some of the opportunities we can look forward to! 

A Man Called Ove: A Pre-High Holiday Book Club led by Rabbi Andrew

 Rosh Chodesh and the return of Ramat Shalom’s Sisterhood

 “Why is there a Goat in the Sanctuary” and lots of other new family education programs led by Rabbi Andrew, Cantor Debbie and Ms. Beth

 Erev Rosh HaShanah Dinner in the Park – a great opportunity for families with young children to welcome the new year

 Pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations at Rabbi Andrew and Cantor Debbie’s homes

 Kiddush Levanah – a new spiritual men’s group

 Teen Social Action Trip to New Orleans

 A spiritually uplifting High Holiday experience

 The Havurah Adventure – a new way for all of us – adults and kids – to connect with each other

 Sipping in the Sukkah: Etrog Martinis and Cantor Debbie’s Music

 Adult Learning Retreat

 Special Mitzvah Projects for folks of all ages

 Rabbi’s Study Group: The New Testament from a Jewish Perspective 

Shabbat Morning Torah Study and many other Adult Education offerings

And so much more!

 I look forward to sharing more exciting opportunities with you that will be part of the 2017-2018 year!

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs

 

Just One of 8,680,000 Israelis to Celebrate this Yom Ha’atzmaut

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George Deek, a diplomat working at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As Israel turns 69 on Monday evening and celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), her population will stand at 8,680,000 people. Among these millions of people, residing in the city of Jaffe lives George Deek, a young Israeli diplomat working at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. George is also an Arab and a Christian. And he’s chosen to build a life in Israel. Days before we celebrate another milestone in the life of the Jewish State, it’s fitting that Deek has been featured on the cover of the Jewish Journal – the first Arab-Israeli to be given this honor.  Along with the cover photo is an article detailing Deek’s journey. It’s a journey that is complicated, inspiring and filled with hope – a lot like the country he proudly calls home. While the article is long, I encourage you to read it. Make sure to wish Israel a “Happy Birthday” Monday night. Take some time to give thanks for the soldiers who fought for and continue to defend Israel and appreciate that there are many incredible individuals like Deek who are working tirelessly to strengthen the Jewish State.

You can read the article on JewishJournal.com by clicking on the image below:

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