This is Us.Working at the heart of Temple Israel, I get to see the many different facets and organs of what we do. The weekly newsletter must seem like a laundry list of Come to this… and Come to that… But when we stand back and see the whole picture, it is very rich indeed, as we express our mission to be the vibrant center of Jewish life in Franklin County.I want to share with you a bit of the vibrancy I see:Shabbat Community6 temple members (including Friends and committees) have hosted ReKindle Shabbat dinners this year with financial support from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Some were hosted at TI and others at private homes. You don’t have to get a grant to have Shabbat dinner with friends…but the special feeling of a Shabbat dinner is such a good community builder. We all need community – never more so!LearningMembers are reading several books in parallel: Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses. This book is an overview of the different ways Jews have spoken of God throughout history. In its examination of 4,000 years of Jewish thought, it presents the broad spectrum of theological opinions that have been explored and affirmed by great Jewish thinkers, ancient and modern. Sure to broaden the mind.Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is a ground-breaking book on healing intergenerational trauma. In her deeply observed and researched work, Rabbi Tirzah compassionately analyzes the “epi-genesis” of trauma and describes ways that people can become aware of and heal from it. There is a copy available in the library and the book is available for purchase from TI at $20 – I got a discount from the author!I have also forced a number of people to read A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell. It is a deep and funny historical fiction, spanning the period between Freud and the Warsaw Ghetto.We’ve offered Hebrew, 2 siddur classes, a series of programs on anti-Semitism, a training on safety practices for building use, a climate change event, a book review and workshop on conscious grieving, a cooking class for families. All of these classes attracted members and new friends to TI.ArtsCreativity and play are important for social and mental health. TI is proud to be in the second year of production of a readers’ theater. We are preparing for our next presentation of 25 Questions for Jewish Mothers and picking our next play. The teen program this year is also built around theater arts. The teens (and some playful adults) are deepening their work with improve and other production skills.In addition to theater arts, we plan to add baking, craft, music and clay into our offerings for all ages: A Jewish Make It-Take It.BereavementSadly we have buried quite a few members this year. In each case, we accompanied the families with love and grace.Ritual/SpiritualWe have a rotation of Shabbat services and have added a Tuesday morning minyan to our tableau of offerings. We have (and will continue) to offer interfaith and public gatherings for shared responses to tragedies and cahllenges.These are few of the many ways we have been a resource to our members and community.
Basic Jewish Mysticism. I like to share a basic idea that has very helpful insights for people who are beginners or people who are deeply immersed in Jewish practice and sources. The simple idea is called The Four Worlds. The concept is that we humans are layered beings with four centers or brains or levels. In each of these four levels, we are, of course, participating in the layered universe, generated by The Creator. We are in The Image of God, on all these levels. We have a unique role in creation. As humans, we can unify the Four Worlds. We can bring consciousness and intentionality from the highest world into the lowest. Isn’t this a lovely way to imagine our special role in creation? What are the Four Worlds? You might even be able to generate them for yourself with a little contemplation: Action, Feeling, Mind and Spirit.Obviously, we are physical beings, subject to the laws of creation, decay and recreation. This is the world of action. The laws of physics apply in the world of actions. We are bound by linear time, here. In other words, we can imagine future events, but the events can only unfold in the fullness of linear time. The symbol and container for this world is the human body. The torah of the physical world is the guidance, laws and practices of the mitzvot. The second of the four levels we posit in Judaism is the world of feeling. Feelings are somewhat physical, interpenetrated with the endocrine system and hormones. These are the organs and functions that signal and capture the emotions in our circulatory system. Emotions are less subject to the laws of physics than actions. Experiences from long ago, and future experiences that we imagine can effect us in a real way NOW. In the emotional world, we can live in the future and the past. We can become more aware of our feelings – in each present moment – thru attention. We can cultivate perspectives that help us establish helpful emotional responses to present conditions. These attributes include objectivity, fairness, gratitude, sincerity, trust and others. There is a whole system of emotional development in our tradition, called Mussar. A loose translation is internalized ethics or emotional intelligence. Many of you, mature and loving people, whatever your level of Jewish education and observance, have been exposed to ideas and practices similar to mussar. Jewish emotional intelligence parallels other systems influenced by mindfulness and psychological health. The third world is the world of thought and mind. There are layers upon layers of thought in all of us. We can think, we can solve math problems. We can remember dreams or past events. We can imagine, we can direct our attention in prayer and self-study. The medulla oblongata is the “brain” that connects to certain automatic functions of the reptilian survival instinct in the body, the world of action. The limbic portion of the brain is the repository of the emotional intelligence. The hemispheres of the brain correspond to mental activity such as learning and computing. The complicated and late-evolving components at the center and front of the brain are the parts of our brain that connect to higher mental functions, such as self-awareness, intentionality, prayer, and contemplation. When we purposefully create a quiet mind, our very brains become receivers, or perhaps reflectors of the higher world, the world of spirit.The fourth world, the world of spirit, does not exactly correspond to a bodily organ or system. It is rather the unity of the three lower worlds that gives us access to the higher world of spirit. The world of spirit, self-awareness and consciousness is always available but never automatic. WE have to be available: body, heart and mind. This powerful and simple system has an implicit message: We are bodies with a soul. We are spiritual beings with physical bodies which allow us to function in the manifest world. As much as we have a capacity to digest food, we have a capacity to receive spiritual influx. Each of us. It is in our nature, or perhaps our natures, to connect “heaven and earth,” the spiritual and the physical. Carry on with your important work!
Rosh HaShana approaches with the smells, tastes and colors of the fall. Memories of past years and excitement for new projects co-mingle. Shanah means two things in Hebrew: to repeat, as in the Hebrew word for the number 2, shnayim; and to change. Paradoxical, right? To repeat and to change seem to be opposites! But THIS Rosh Hashana and LAST Rosh Hashana are not the same. We are not the same. Some of us lost partners or friends. Some of us wed or separated. Some of us gained children or grandchildren. We are not the same this year as we were a year ago. Earth has continued its dance thru the cosmos, with all of us along for the ride. Each and every minute is new.This month of Elul and the coming moon of Tishrei, the new year, are times for intentional self-reflection. How ARE we the same and how have we grown…or diminished… over the past year? Have we discerned well? Have we spoken truth, from the heart? Have we cleaned up old tensions, inside or between ourselves and others? This is the season to see ourselves both objectively and compassionately; and then to see others thru that same lense of clarity and compassion.It is only in objective self-reflection, and in the eyes of others, that we are clearly seen. God did not equip us with eyes that look inward, only out! So each of us is a mirror for the other. It seems to me that to see another with calm eyes and a calm heart is an intimacy that can brings tears, a love that is not sentimental or pitying. The gift of our attention is a kind of food which literally nourishes us.Wherever you spend your holiday – try to take moments to really see the people around you. Take in their wholeness, their innocence and beauty, their trials and fears. This petri dish of self-acceptance and acceptance of others will create the right climate for our high holiday moments of prayer to be moments of alchemical change for us – repeating the words, customs and actions yet renewed and alive.
My Dear Community-I came to TI 4 years ago now, with a seven-year plan in mind. I felt I had one more good piece of work in me. My time here has been amazing and interesting. I am challenged on many levels, in a good way. I feel my main purpose here – embedded in the davening and the administration and the education and the pastoral care and the social justice work – is to effect human development and organizational development.Human development happens inside me, as I work to stay centered, humble, loving and clear as decisions and inevitable conflicts arise. When I can do that, I earn the label of “spiritual leader” of our community. If I am doing my own work, I can be part of a mechanism for human development for others who are part of our community.Organizational development occurs when we all, a little more and a little more, bring our insight and an objective estimation of what is best for the community when decisions and inevitable conflicts arise. OD does not happen all at once. Sometimes we have to live with the stretch and discomfort of being in tension, even around issues that seem urgent and about which people have strong feelings. That does not mean we are failing as a community. It means we are growing.As examples, two issues are in front of us now that have some of this urgency and strong feeling.We are weighing the importance of decorum during services VS distracting sounds. To be honest, I have only been bothered at the bima once and that was the sound of a frustrated adult! But recently, young families have attended a few services and this question arises. There is not a right or wrong. There is not a good or bad. There is a changing weight of needs and priorities. Since, in this case, I do have the “power of the pulpit,” I have asked people to allow me to determine the level of distracting noise during services. (As Mel Brooks would say: It’s good to be king). I expect push back and I expect people to continue to shush people. I cannot control that. Neither do I plan to blatantly ignore distracting and inappropriate behavior! Again, there is not a right or wrong. There is not a good or bad. There is a changing weight of needs and priorities. The second issue around which we are now in a stretch is our response to anti-Semitism and our security efforts. I was in the “life is risky” camp. I am often in the building alone. If there was a violent attack here, I would die as I have lived, in service and faith.But the moms have a vote. We were asked by a number of families to do due diligence to keep their kids safe and we initiated a policy of locking doors and started a process of self-education around Run-Hide-Fight and other strategies for minimizing risk.When San Diego happened after Pittsburgh, rabbis in the valley were told that after 2 incidents, there is a risk of copy-cat events. The weight of risk shifted. A team of TI members is studying other measures and the board is digesting their input. As we evolve security measures, I will cooperate because we carry a risk as a public facility, not just as Jews. We will work to reduce risk and harm but we will not hide. We are planning programming at TI and in the town to address anti-Semitism. I am offering my time to meet with Christian congregations to open dialogue and relationships. The first such meeting: “What Do Jews Believe?” will be hosted at Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls, July 14 after worship. You are welcome to attend.Our numbers, our vibrancy and our programming have increased with steady leadership and support at all levels. Paradoxically, this growth will challenge us all to keep an attitude of generosity, listening and inclusion as decisions and inevitable conflicts arise.
My heart is broken and I am afraid.A woman came in today to ask me questions that I ask myself. How are you keeping your spirits up? What do you think we are facing? What should we be doing about this? The “this” is the slide into dangerous conditions for Jews and other minorities. The “this” is the deteriorating conditions of life itself on this beleaguered planet.There is no exact quote in the Talmud for “this.” The many sources of wisdom in the Jewish tradition offer us advice for how to live, how to value life. But the absurd, cruel, divisive conditions we are facing today are better addressed by Jewish history than Jewish wisdom. We are in 1939 Germany. I am a rabbi. You are a community of Jews and fellow travelers. It’s bad. It can happen here and it is happening here.The United States of America is running a string of concentration camps across our southern border with zero access to information about conditions of the men, women and children there.Neo-Nazis – in the literal sense of New Nazis- interrupted a Holocaust commemoration with chants of “Six Million More.” Jews, Muslims, Christians are shot and killed at worship. Children, shoppers, theater goers are shot and killed at their daily activities.And the ticking clock of environmental disaster affects more and more sectors: the seas, the farms, the storms. Food and water shortages and local weather related disasters only add to the mounting stress we are living with. Our civic dialogue is utterly deadlocked. We speak past each other in rhetorical phrases on issue after issue.I am sorry to trigger you with these lists. Overwhelm and despair do not help us. Rising blood pressure does not help us. The stress response does not help us.The woman did not get an answer for me about what to do. She got affirmation and connection from me, because I too am heartbroken and afraid.We all face the abyss of death, whether individually or collectively. How do we want to live?Framed this way, the woman said “Joy!” She talked about loving the hills of Deerfield and the many new experiences she wants to embrace at this stage of her life. She mentioned some of the toxic habits and relationships she was liberating herself from. She said how much joy she gets from the volunteer work that she does, from caring and helping.I shared two other tools with the woman. Come to services! We really can be nourished together from our connection to a higher source. And I encouraged her to keep her eyes on the truth. Use the right words to describe what we see. Call out abuse and cruelty. Don’t use soft words to describe hard things.I said before that the Talmud doesn’t have a quote for this time, but there might be one. We are supposed to avoid despair and to consider that the world is always in a state of balance – good and evil being even. And that our next act, our next word, our next emotion will tip the balance…this way or that.
It’s been three months since I’ve updated this column. The topic that kept coming to mind is difficult and important to speak of. Without repeating the tropes and memes of anti-Semitism, we do see it. We see thoughts, rhetoric and actions deeply rooted in it. This is inevitably alarming to Jews even as we see and know that other targeted groups are similarly threatened by white nationalism. Part of the anti-Semitic trope out there, posits that Jews are a privileged group of “elites,” controling undue power. All the more is our need to keep our eye on the ball of scapegoating and race baiting. All the more is our need for allies. Please listen to this podcast for an illuminating conversation on this topic between and civil rights activist Eric Ward and Rabbi Sharon Brous. Because I read of it in history class, in 5th grade, I assumed that 30′ and the 40’s of the last century were safely ensconced in history. That Nazism had surely been chastened. But trends like this are the fabric of history. The past is prologue and character is destiny. I am at a loss with how to probe and counter the fear mongering of which anti-Semitism is a part. I know we are not alone with so many good and loving allies in the valley alone and good-hearted persons everywhere. But the fear, the triggering language is hard to shake. In a way, the fear factor is over all of us, intensifying and fueling the dark dangerous rhetoric and easy escalation in the tenor of so-called civil discourse. How can we respond to pure tribalism without being tribal? If I am just for myself, what am I? And how to speak of anti-Semitism, without as George Lakoff points out, amplifying it by repeating it? And how will we take care of ourselves in these jittery times? How will we be patient with ourselves and others when we feel distressed and there is so much to do. How much we are tired. How much we feel urgency without knowing exactly what to do. How much we are all in this together. I have asked my colleagues in the Interfaith Council of Franklin County to bring their hearts and attention to anti-Semitism by holding a public study. We plan to do in an intentional way in the next programming year. I also hope to continue the conversations we are having in various temple sectors about anti-Semitism and internalized anti-Semitism, and our varying levels of interest around issues re: Israel and Israel/Palestine. I quote Rabbi Kalanymous Kalman frequently. As you may know, he lived and taught in the Warsaw Ghetto and died in a labor camp. Sadly, his teachings in dire circumstances seem to be timely today. His most repeated message was: You can always do a little kindness. In any given moment we can be calm internally and connected to others. Meaning, connection and purpose can be infused into our simple interactions. Maybe one of the messages of “hard times” is to bring us more pointedly into the moment, the opportunity of Now.