Friday, January 29, 2010

Do Shabbat - a powerful pulse in our lives

Jewish tradition holds that the crown of creation is the institution of Shabbat. In Genesis we read: “On the seventh day, God ended the work of creation; on the seventh day, God rested with all the work complete. God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, for with this day God completed the work of creation.” From the very time of creation, Judaism has provided us with a weekly respite from the business of our world, and the periodic respite we so desperately need. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the towering 20th-century figure, wrote: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time.” Accordingly, if we follow Jewish custom, Shabbat is the basic building block of Jewish time. Heschel continued: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. On the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time…to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

Just what is it that Shabbat provides us? “To maintain a powerful pulse in our lives, we must learn how to rhythmically spend and renew energy.” So wrote Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their compelling book The Power of Full Engagement. To this Jewish reader, it sounds very much like another positive plug for Shabbat. Loehr and Schwartz continue: “Healthy patterns of activity and rest lie at the heart of our capacity for full engagement, maximum performance and sustained health.” Loehr and Schwartz call their concept “periodic disengagement”; deeply exploring and explaining the need for real and regular refreshment and renewal, they seem to be arguing on behalf of Shabbat, our building block of Jewish life and time (for more on this book, see

I encourage you to “do Shabbat” – by making the effort to establish a tradition for you and your family. This doesn’t have to be anything monumental or difficult – spend some extra time together; take a break for the hectic tasks of home, work and school; enjoy a meal with family and friends – say a blessing, sing songs, foster a sense of community. Take pleasure in “being” rather than “creating”. Let this time be one of inspiration and renewal, done in small steps, one by one, week by week. And together, we will continue to find meaning in our lives, and bring blessings to our world.

How do you do Shabbat? Share your ideas an others might do Shabbat with you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Power of Jewish Camping

I love camp….always have. Spending eleven consecutive summers growing up at the Reform movement’s camp in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts stands out as a major part of my formative years. I clearly understand how this powerful experience has helped shape the lives of so many of my friends, colleagues, and family members (for a warm, irreverent, fun look at the camp idea, see CAMP CAMP: WHERE FANTASY ISLAND MEETS LORD OF THE FLIES, by Roger Bennet and Jules Shell, more info at

And just what is it about going to camp that can make it among the most influential opportunities for young people? It’s not the program or schedule (with due respect to those of us who work so hard to prepare these items). I don’t even think it’s the time away (sometimes attending one session for 2 weeks is a provocative as returning year-after-year for the whole summer). Rather – beyond the games that are played, the materials that are taught, or the skills that are acquired – the strength of the camping experience is the very atmosphere (as several of my friends call it, “drinking the Kool-Aid"). Chatting with a dear long-time camp friend a few days ago, I was reminded of a phrase that emerged in conversation last year: when it comes to camp, the setting is the text (thanks DL). From the facility itself (good or bad), the complaints about the food or bugs, the openness that young people often feel while being “away from home” to the freedom of one’s own self-expression, it is the different, special, and experimental nature of the environment that allows, promotes, such potent encounters to take place.

Nothing represents this suggestion more so than the relationships that are developed in the camp setting: between counselors and campers, among the staff, with the rabbis or specialists and other “additional” members of the community; and none more significant than the bonds developed among peers – the other kids in the bunk, or tent, or unit. To this day, I am blessed that so many of the people dearest and closest to me are my camp friends. A lot of years have passed, and these connections remain. In many cases, these friendships have continued to deepen – either having been maintained over the years, or reignited more recently (to this point, I was interrupted while writing this sentence by a phone call from one such old friendJ).

I loved being part of the Eisner camp for so many summers. These days I am delighted to serve the URJ’s Olin-Sang-Ruby camp (to support OSRUI, see Camp remains important to me – not only because of my ongoing involvement as a faculty member; more so at this stage, because I see how positive camp is for my own children, and the young members of my congregation. I was fortunate that my family had the ability to send me to camp for those years (you can support URJ Eisner Camp at Now we all have the ability and responsibility to assure that the power of Jewish camping is an experience provided to every one of our precious youngsters (to support Jewish camp generally, see

I know many of you have also enjoyed amazing, challenging, fun and funny experiences at camp. I’d LOVE for you to share one here, so we can enjoy those memories together.

Friday, January 15, 2010

As we approach this weekend of Martin Luther King Day, we commemorate the legacy of one of the great voices for social change of the 20th century. Celebrating MLK’s struggle for social justice resonates especially with American Jews – due to both our historic religious obligation to tikkun olam (being God’s agents in repairing and improving the world) and our intimate involvement in the cause for civil rights in this nation.
This Shabbat, we read from the Torah portion known as Vaera, in which God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they me serve Me.”. These words are familiar to many of us: They are a timeless expression of hope for any downtrodden or oppressed people, as well as a hallmark exclamation in our American struggles for social, cultural, racial and religious freedom and equality.

So, in thinking about these momentous ideas at this time, I am reflecting on a few of my favorite Jewish quotes regarding social justice, and how each of us can be engaged in perfecting the world in our own day.

Justice, justice shall you pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20)
I believe these powerful words to be the origins of Jewish social justice – where our striving for just causes is not merely suggested or inferred, but commanded as part of our understanding of the human condition.

Let justice well up like water, righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)
Our attempts toward social good can always be increased, and we should aim at making our efforts overflow.

In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.
These words were spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, in his remarks at the Lincoln Memorial that introduced MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, August 28, 1963. ‘nuff said.

And finally, a great quote from one of the modern Jewish prophetic voices, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who of course marched alongside Dr. King:
We are commanded to love our neighbor: this must mean that we can.

These are a few of my favorites. What are yours? I’d love to know. More importantly, I look forward to working alongside you that we might together carry on the sacred tasks of those who came before us.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A refreshed commitment - what Jewish networking SHOULD be all about

Here’s a thought for the beginning of 2010, based on a recent re-reading of an insightful, brief magazine column. In the July 2005 edition of FastCompany, author Marshall Goldsmith makes a bold proposition about engaging with other human beings. He suggests that the most vital aspect of human interaction is to be fully present, connecting in such a way that the other person feels like the only person in the room. What a fascinating idea this is to apply to the congregational world. Imagine what it would be like if we – rabbis, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders – worked to foster an environment in which every person who enters the doors of our synagogues and agencies, was embraced as if the only person at hand. These people thereby would come to feel as if they really mattered, and this would instantly elevate their experience, and transform our synagogue community.

We Jews are called to maintain that each and every person is worthy of being viewed through this lens of being someone who matters. And so in our best moments we remember our obligation to consider each other with the highest regard. One of my beloved teachers liked to say “we don’t have to love everyone we meet; but we can try to find one thing about them that is loveable.” This remains a powerful inspiration in my own career. As Jews we are to be actively involved as God’s partners in making right and just conduct the way of our lives. For Judaism to flourish, the treatment we desire for ourselves must be reflected in how we value the people around us. My life and work are enhanced when I am able to demonstrate that our tradition does not want us to live insular lives, as if Judaism itself can survive in a vacuum. I encourage Jewish practice also to enhance the world beyond the walls of the synagogue community.

A REFRESHED COMMITMENT (some might say “a resolution”):

To keep striving toward this goal, I have to continue improving myself. I need to take advantage of a continued commitment to talmud torah – a passionate commitment to life-long Jewish learning for personal enrichment. I also have to take care of myself physically (you know, the old healthy diet and exercise bit). Perhaps by truly bettering myself, I can then make others know that they are “the only others in the room.”

Tell me what you’re doing to better yourself, especially in how you relate to those around you.

(Marshall’s article, The Skill that Separates, can be found at It’s still the reason a continue reading FastCompany.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Twenty-ten and Tikkun Olam

In the passage from the morning worship service called yotzer, we read that God “renews day-by-day the work of Creation”. This suggests that we too, as God’s partners in maintaining the world, have an ongoing, daily possibility to make a difference with our lives. Perhaps our most sacred task is to assist God in the very process of “renewing Creation.” I see this as the origin of our commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, which is the foundation of the Jewish ideal of social justice.

How powerful and satisfying it is to know that striving for social justice – addressing the ills that face our community and world – has always been a priority of Jewish tradition. A vast majority in this community (South Bend, IN) have been involved in a wide variety of historic causes and actions, spearheaded over the years by our congregation and it historic professional and lay leadership. (Truly, I would dare say, a significant number of my own congregation would define their Judaism in terms of commitment to such concerns.) I’m certain that we could share stories regarding every major civil movement of the last century, taking pride in the contributions of members of our families, congregations and communities. Here in my home, we have been bolstered by our recent engagement in Nothing but Nets, Just Congregations, calling for justice in Darfur, and increasing awareness and supporting efforts regarding cancer and disease, just naming a few. (For more on these programs, see and

Most significantly, each of these causes reminds us and guarantees us that the larger effort provided by a community is made up of the actions of individuals, and every one of us individuals can make a difference. Even when these colder days of winter might find us shying away from formal activities – our work of tikkun olam ever continues enthusiastically. We are mindful of the world-wide pleas for humanitarian aid; our challenge to operate our homes and work places more effectively also helps to “green” the world, protecting our environment; and the ever-present conversation about health care access and health care advocacy.

Through these days of a long, cold and snowy winter (at least here in northern Indiana!), we return to our opening blessing: baruch atah adonai – Praised are you, Eternal God, for granting us this sacred opportunity to renew our lives by repairing the world.

What will you do in 2010 to make a difference? I’d love to know.