Thursday, February 25, 2010

Social justice, stuck @ BWI, #brickner

Wow! It’s been an exciting few days at the Brickner Rabbinic Seminar. Sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, along with CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), the seminar kicked off a year-plus program of study, engagement and practical application for a group of 18 rabbinic fellows dedicated to social justice advocacy (for more info about the program, visit I am proud and privileged to be one of the participants selected for this exciting endeavor.

For four days, we learned together with some of the great social justice experts and practitioners from the Reform movement and the broader Jewish world. We looked at a range of topics – from community organizing to lobbying skills – with a specific eye on methodology for excavating our sacred text and tradition to give voice to all sides of issues to strengthen our positions about them. Initially, I understand one of the goals of our work to be sharpening our tool kit in working with people – constituents, politicians, even adversaries – to build respectful coalitions in addressing matter of social concern. Of course the strength that our group brings to the task is the specific mindset of being rabbis, mining the richness of Jewish heritage in crafting serious conversations about such topics.

So here I sit at BWI airport, delayed on my way home, having just the initial chance to reflect on the week’s events. First and foremost, I am delighted to have such a wonderful, diverse, intelligent and dedicated group of colleagues as my chevra on this journey. They have already made the process more than worthwhile. And a couple of key teachings have already emerged: “power is a person’s interest in the interest of others”; “religion should never be used to coerce political action”; and “sacredness is found in the web of relationships.”

For now, I’m going to try to catch a flight home. I’d love to hear your reflections. This way, you can help make my journey even richer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sacred is as sacred does


This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read about the importance of voluntary contributions when fundraising on behalf of a community:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (emphasis mine). And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them...(Exodus 25:1-3).

Throughout the ages, this has been a tricky subject – the balance between awaiting free-will offerings for a cause, and “gently reminding” people of their compulsory responsbility to financially support the community’s endeavors. Yet there does seem to be a qualitative difference between the two. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches:

We are measured not so much by what we buy, but by what we give. The main obstacle to generosity is forgetting where our money came from. I do not mean who wrote the checks, paid your wages, printed the currency, or even how we earned it. I mean by what combination of skill, luck, grace, and blessing from on High have we wound up with this money in our hands. Where did it come from; how did we really get it? When asked this way, only one thing is clear: We do not own what we possess. Like land, which belongs to God, we are stewards but never owners. And if we remember that all our possessions are loaned to us on trust, then we can be satisfied with much less.

After all, when do we have enough? Wealth cannot be measured in absolute dollars. It is the highly subjective sensation of having more than enough, so much that there is money to give away. For this reason, wealth is a function of generosity: The more you give, the richer you feel (The Book of Words, p. 75-76).


And this first ask from God is for nothing short of the construction of the wilderness sanctuary – that is, the first synagogue building campaign! The text clearly states:

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (25:8).

First give willingly, now build the sanctuary – then what? Rabbi Tarfon said:

The Holy One did not cause His Presence to dwell among the Israel until they did some work, for scripture says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that [then] I may dwell among them” (Avot de Rabi Natan 11).

OK – so the whole point of the exercise is to create a space for God. Well, not really – God doesn’t seem to need a roof or walls, or fancy upholstery. Perhaps, however, we do. More than “creating a space for God,” we are striving to create space for God in our lives. It’s as if Torah is reminding us that God is found – not in the sanctuary – and rather in our work together to create sacred space. When we join together for sacred purpose, whatever that effort is, those are the times when we cause God’s presence to be felt among us.

So tell me – what have you done lately to create sacred space? And what exactly is your idea of sanctuary – a holy place? How have you joined with others to make God’s presence known? Hope you’ll share your thoughts – and enjoy the sanctuary you create.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Jewish Mardi Gras? BE HAPPY - IT'S ADAR!

According to the Hebrew calendar, we are now in the month of Adar. This month begins my favorite time of the year. It is during this month that we celebrate the holiday of Purim, perhaps the most fun and festive occasion in the Jewish year. Purim is filled with frivolity and joy, and this is one of the happiest (and definitely silliest) seasons of our religious tradition. Purim is filled with frivolity and joy, and this is among the happiest – and definitely silliest – seasons of our religious tradition.
With the coming of spring we enjoy the returning promise of warmth and milder weather, outdoor activities, and the eventual blossoming of nature. It is also one of the happiest times of the Jewish year.
This year, Purim will be celebrated on February 28. It is customary to include Purim songs and stories, as well as readings from the megillah, the Biblical book of Esther. Of course, we are encouraged to dress up in costume - as a character from the Purim story, from Jewish history, or anything else that strikes you might choose. Purim is the occasion, after the long winter, for us to “let loose” and enjoy the goodness of life that the season represents. How appropriate to know that this accompanies our transition from winter to spring.
As I hope you know, one of the most treasured traditions of Purim is that of mishloach manot (or sh’lach mones in Yiddish) – the sending of gifts. The holiday provides a simple reminder of the Jewish value and priority of generosity. I hope that every one of us will make a special effort to do at least one (more) act of such generosity and kindness for the less fortunate during this month of Adar. Then this season of Purim will truly be a joyous one for the people whose lives we touch. Share your Purim memories and ideas here – and let’s celebrate a season of goodness together…

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Teens, social justice and a message for Iran

A few weeks back, Nancy – a friend from camp and college, contacted me. She asked “hey Eric, do you know any rabbis I can talk to?” At first, of course, I thought this was pretty funny (being a rabbi myself, you know). “Sure,” I responded, “what’s up?” What great satisfaction it was as Nancy proceeded to tell me about a new political action cause that was about to be launched (my friend had been a leading campus activist during our college days at American U. in DC). This effort, called No Nukes for Iran ( is promoting education and advocacy against proliferation, specifically regarding the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran – perhaps the greatest threat to peace and stability in our world, a monumental issue to be sure!

Even more exciting, this effort was initiated by a group of concerned teenagers (Nancy’s daughter among them). For me – this worthy cause is two-fold: one, addressing the issue itself – preventing a nuclear Iran; two, it is a relevant exercise engaging young people in using political activism as a tool of social justice. I learned from our initial conversation that the teens had already designed a logo (to be used on promotional materials, posters, banners, pins, magnets, etc.); had lobbied with legislators in their home state (NJ); had presented at the Jewish Federation’s “Super Sunday”; and even had the chance to meet with Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. As we spoke, I went to the group’s blog (which you can access via the website). In addition to great pictures, the mission statement from its website struck me:

NO NUKES FOR IRAN is a Teen Advocacy Program that is dedicated to raising awareness about the possibility of a nuclear Iran. We believe that a nuclear Iran poses an imminent threat for the United States and the World. We believe that by educating our peers, adults, and world leaders that we can successfully deter Iran from having nuclear capability.

I was hooked – blurting out “what can I do to be involved?!?” Nancy asked if I’d like to acquire some of their materials, hoping to use them to distribute at a nominal fee. I suggested that the cause is so great, and the effort so profound, that I’d rather buy a few banners and a bunch of magnets outright – and give them away to start spreading the message of No Nukes for Iran with enthusiasm (we now have a banner hanging just inside the entrance of the Temple, one ready to be displayed at our local Federation building, and magnets have been affixed to bumpers, starting to spread the word through our community).

I was flattered when a few moments later, she asked “could we promote your congregation among the first to support our cause?” What a great joy to know we are helping to work for justice in the world, raise a next generation that is dedicated to meaningful acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world), and connecting more deeply with a dear friend along the way.

So what can you do? First, contact No Nukes for Iran, and chime in with your support. Next, see how a similar like-minded group of young people in your community – youth groupers, college/university students, Hillel, political activists – can also be engaged to pick up the banner (literally) of this vital cause. Be willing to speak up and speak out – contact your legislators and representatives – making sure they know YOU oppose a nuclear Iran.

And if you know of other similar efforts, or have additional suggestions for action, PLEASE SHARE THEM HERE!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Time keeps on tickin'

Judaism is a clock. Look at your watch, you may think of where you were yesterday at 3. Open your calendar (or your iPhone, Palm or Blackberry), you can recall what you were doing last Monday, or back in November, or over summer vacation. You can also see what you’ll be doing tomorrow and next week, or where you’re supposed to be at different times ahead. Judaism too provides a structure to time – to how we mark, celebrate and evaluate clock – the moments, days, and years of our life. Jewish practice (BEING JEWISH) is based on a daily, weekly, seasonal and holiday cycle that gives shape and significance to how we spend our time on earth. The biblical psalmist implores: “teach us to number our days that we might get a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12).

Often, we think we need to find a single way for our clocks to tick – that is we assume there’s a singular passion or reason to drive us along the path of life. Perhaps we mislead ourselves by looking for that particular passion. Rather than beating ourselves up to find one passion in life – we should bear in mind that real worth is found in the everyday. It’s not the big things we think about that matter, it’s the little things we don’t think about that make a difference. Consider these “regular” praiseworthy acts:

  • The dedicated teacher who spends those extra few minutes with a student in need – either for additional help in a subject or to build confidence as a person;
  • The overworked parent who unfailingly carpools her children, and others, from event, to event, to event – without complaint or thanks;
  • The busy employee who takes time from his crazy schedule to call mom or dad, just to say “hi, I love you”;
  • The tired professional who nevertheless always makes time for the kids to play catch, or monopoly, ride a bike, or roll in the leaves rather than answer that one final email;
  • The anonymous temple member who sets up an oneg Shabbat – not for recognition, to make the experience beautiful for our guests;
  • The caring individuals, who go out of their way to reach out to a person in need – bringing comfort or good cheer to hospital, home or mailbox, whether they know him or not.

These and a million more are examples of what goes on around us every day. It’s how most of us fill our days. And they are heroic, righteous and uplifting.

Jewish customs will always change and evolve: our rituals and prayers, Jewish foods, music and garments, geography and locale. These are just accessories, not Jewish life itself. Judaism is a clock – a timepiece that makes our lives count. And the clock of our life will march ever forward. In this New Year, we will surely struggle to keep up. Let us therefore conduct ourselves with gratitude for the sacred mundane – that each day, every day, fills our hearts with wisdom. Then we will know that life’s precious moments – even, especially, its ordinary ones – are divine.

So what cool, simple and wonderful things are you doing to number your days, earning a heart of wisdom?