Friday, November 27, 2015

Gratitude beyond a moment - Giving thanks in our time - November 27,2015

[In Vayishlach, the Torah reading for this Shabbat during Thanksgiving weekend, Jacob showered his brother Esau with gifts out of fear that Esau's approach, along with several hundred men, had the purpose of revenge.  Instead, it was a touching reunion that ensues, only after Jacob had wrestled with a "man" when he was left alone.   As Esau saw Jacob's generous sharing, he said, "I have enough, my brother."   Esau offered for Jacob to follow him.  Jacob said he would come later, and never did keep that promise.   The momentary reconciliation remains, though, as does the giving spirit that resulted in a glimpse of family harmony.    That moment inspired this expression of thanks]. 

At this time of in-person reunions
And long-distance contact,
Full stomachs 
And giving to others so their lives can be more full, even in a small way,
We give thanks. 
We give thanks for those charged with defending our country
Those who provide leadership
Those who see every shade of difference in our nation
And those who seek to bridge divisions to create shared understanding.
We give thanks for those who guard and sustain traditions
Those who infuse the old with the new
Those who view their increasing years as a source deepening wisdom
That can keep them as young as the brightest lights of a new generation.
We give thanks for fighters for freedom who use words and ideas that challenge
And those who seek any measure of revolution through peaceful, cooperative change based in justice and compassion. 
We give thanks for seekers, helpers, healers, peacemakers
Those who give their hope to the despairing
Those who offer their love to anyone unloved and forgotten. 
We give thanks for dancers, singers, playwrights, composers, songwriters, choreographers, artists, and authors who find new ways to add beauty, appreciation and depth to our lives. 
We give thanks for hard workers, whether owners or employees, no matter what their assigned role or chosen occupation or calling, who see the value of dedication, devotion, commitment, responsibility and dependability and reward a job well done with mutual affirmation and respect.  
We give thanks for mountains, hills, rains that quench a thirsty land, lakes and rivers, seas, grasses, and trees that all fill us with wonder.  
We give thanks for a world that enables us to have enough, to be happy with what we have, and to share our own bounty as a demonstration of our gratitude. 
For all these and more, Eternal God,
We thank You.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I/We give thanks for - Expressions of Gratitude from the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Community - from members of ALL ages - November 25, 2015

I/We give thanks for:
  • Kindness
  • Things that give inspiration
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Caring community
  •  Those who reject violence
  • A beautiful environment
  • Life and all the joys and sorrows that make it worth living
  • Disagreements that can clear the air and provide for opportunities and growth
  • New opportunities
  • Smiles
  • People who care about preserving the earth
  • Clothing
  • Food
  • School
  • Insightful people
  • Patience
  • Companionship
  • Every day
  • Every second
  • Every new person I meet
  • The ability to love and be loved
  • Sunshine
  • Chances to be giving 
  • Israel
  • Torah
  • Talent
  • Water
  • Time for reflection
  • Wisdom that comes with age 
  • For loving and being loved
  • Energy to meet new challenges
  •  Enjoying new experiences
  • Striving for greatness
  • Health
  • Goodness in the world
  • Beauty in the world
  • Shelter
  • Study
  • Learning
  • God
  • A good life
  • Being able to contribute to society 
  • Oxygen
  • Small miracles.
  • Parents and Grandparents
  • Children and grandchildren
  • Being able to giving to those in need
  • Mobility
  • Understanding
  • People who volunteer time and energy in the community
  • A loving God
  •  Knowledge
  • Friendship
  • Light not darkness
  • Being able to speak my mind 
  • Special people
  • Safety
  • Striving with others around the world for peace

Friday, November 20, 2015

Climbing the Ladder of History - A Modern Midrash/Allegory - Parashat Vayeitzei - November 20, 2015

[There is a rabbinic story that tries to answer why there were angels going up and down the ladder in Jacob's dream, rather than down and up, as we might expect.  That explanation suggested that each angel that went up and down represented the ascent and demise of great world powers.  Jacob never seemed, in these stories/midrashim, to get the opportunity to get onto the ladder himself for his people.   Here is my take, in light of world events and how people are talking about each other, especially those different from them, on how Jacob might take his place on the ladder of history]

Jacob took from the stones of the place and made a headrest. And he laid down for the night, and fell asleep.
He had a dream.
It was vivid. 
He felt awake.
He felt alive.
He was amazed.
He saw a ladder going up to the sky. 
There were angels going up and down on it.
But he noticed something strange. 
The angels that were going up and then down
did not get back on the ladder and ascend again.
It was one trip up, one trip down, and gone.
Jacob was puzzled.  He had no one to ask.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, God materialized, taking a spot by the ladder to heaven.
Jacob knew who it was. He didn't have to ask. 
"God, what's going on with these angels?  I would expect angels to come down from heaven on the ladder and then go up.   What I am seeing is just the opposite.   I am baffled!"
 God stood silently, pondering how to answer this young man who had left his home to flee from the wrath of this brother Esau, who was still angry with him. 
Jacob was obviously struggling to come up with solution to his puzzlement.
God finally spoke up, "There is a reason for what you see.   Do you remember what your mother Rebekah told you about what she heard before you were born?"
Jacob instantly recovered the memory of that divine promise and prediction.  "Yes, God, I do.  She said that Esau and I would become two nations, that one of us would be greater than the other, and that the older would serve the younger....or was it, the older brother the younger one would serve?  She could never get that part straight."
 God replied quickly, "There was a good reason for her uncertainty, Jacob.  You see, it's all up to you.  You will serve your older brother unless you become the best of what you can be.  Reach your potential for cooperation, for compassion, for leadership, and you and your future generations will endure.   I can't reveal what that greatness will mean exactly, because I don't know the whole story myself.    You will be in charge of making your own history unfold.  But you will be great, and the people that will one day name themselves after you will do their best to set an example of conscience for the world." 
Jacob was still perplexed as he looked at the ladder.
"God, what about the angels?  I am still confused.  Who are the angels on the ladder?"
  "Why, Jacob," God said as if a wise teacher, "those angels represent the nations of the world that have not yet come to be.   Each of those great civilizations will rise, going up each rung as they grow in the knowledge they acquire, the land and wealth they amass, and the support that they give one another in their society.  They will even find ways to make people from the outside, foreigners, feel welcome inside their cities and towns.    Then something will happen.  It's just human nature.  It will all go wrong.   They will forget about how to be generous to strangers.  They will look at them with suspicion, with disdain, and, finally, with contempt.  Eventually, that is how they will begin to look at each other.   Compassion and mutual support will disappear from their relationships.   They will stop trusting those who govern them, even if they are ruling in good faith and with a sense of responsibility.   They will care only about gaining power over each other until their lack of human kindness and humility will destroy them and their nation."
Jacob was shocked, and afraid.  He thought to himself, "How could a world exist if this is how people would act?" He spoke up, "God, thank you for showing me this vision.  I would never even think of getting onto that ladder now!"
God was taken aback.  "Jacob, don't you get it?  You have to get on the ladder.  How else will you become the great nation that I promised your mother and father, and your grandparents, that you would be?   You have to be brave and take a chance."
"God, you just told me what will happen to all of those other great nations.  They will, by the end, be corrupt and self-serving. They will forget what it means to think positively about other people and other nations.  I don't want that to happen to my descendants.  I am not climbing up even one rung!" 
God was silent for a moment, for a few moments, for what seemed like an eternity.  And then God said, "Jacob, don't be afraid.  I am here with you now, and admit to yourself, you had no idea that I have been your invisible traveling companion for all the years while you have been growing up.  I have been watching.   You have such potential.   When you wake up, you will realize that I was here with you.  You will put up a stone and call this place Beit El, the House of God.   And you will declare that this spot is a gateway to heaven, the very spot where you realized that a divine presence is constantly accessible to you.  That is why you have nothing to fear." 
Jacob still wasn't convinced.  "God, every other nation seems to forget about you.  I know that you are One - my parents told me that my grandfather Abraham realized that we are all connected in your Oneness.  And that is what made him special.  What if we forget that, God?  What will happen to my people?"
God was pleased at hearing Jacob think so clearly.  "Jacob, that is the right question.   I will be sure that your descendants will remember that I am One, and that they will teach each new generation that my Oneness means that all of you human beings, even when there are deep divisions between you, are still One.  Someone has to remember that.   One day you will be called 'Israel' - I can't tell you why right now.  You'll see soon enough.   But generations of the people of Israel will recite the words, 'Hear, O Israel, God is ours and God is One.' Some of them will recite those words every week, some every day, some more than once a day.  You have nothing to worry about.   But that will all happen only if you have the courage to get onto that ladder."  
"But God,” Jacob insisted, “what if they still forget that You and we are all One?   You have seen how Esau and I have fought each other.  What if all humanity is locked in bitter conflict like we have been?"
"Don't worry, Jacob, even if there is conflict.  You will get through it.  Just don't be afraid of anyone.  Consider everyone as a potential neighbor, not an automatic stranger to be kept at arms length.   Love me, love yourself, and love those around you as you love yourself.   If you take to heart those words and let them guide you, you will find your way back to the right path even if you go astray.   Are you ready to get on that first rung now?"
Jacob felt a calm overtake his entire body.  A smile came to his face, one that reflected the brightness and wonder represented by this spectacle of a ladder reaching to heaven.
"I am ready, I go...."

And Jacob awoke from his dream, and said, "God was in this place, and I had no idea.  I hope God will be with me wherever I go."    And Jacob set up a stone to mark the spot, and went on his way.  

A House of God - Rabbis' thoughts on Temple Beth-El Las Cruces, NM -talk given at the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society Conference on November 15, 2015 in Las Cruces.

Beth-El - a House of God.   The name evokes the story of a place that was unknowingly holy. 
     This tale begins the Torah portion for this week.  Jacob had left home to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, who was angry at him for the loss of his first-born birthright and blessing through persuasion and motherly deception.   Jacob came upon a place and laid down for the night and dreamed of a ladder with angels going up and down upon it and he encountered God in his nightly vision.    Only when he woke up did he realize, in retrospect, that God was in that place, and he had no idea whatsoever of the divine presence that was right there with him. 

     That divine presence offered Jacob a sense of connection when he was alone.  That connection what we hope for when we join and serve a Jewish community.
With Rabbi Howard Laibson
    I am here to represent myself and my full-time rabbinic predecessors at Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces.  Together, we have logged over 30 years of rabbinic service to this community and to Southern New Mexico.  
    To collect comments for this presentation, I contacted my colleagues Howard Laibson, who was here in 1984-1989; Cy Stanway, who served here in 1990-1998, and Paul Citrin, who arrived in 2008 and left in 2011.  Cyrille Kane, widow of Rabbi Gerald Kane, who died this past May, offered reflections on Jerry's years here, from 1998 to 2007.    My wife Rhonda and I arrived here in late June of 2011. 
With Rabbi Cy Stanway
    One of my first impressions of Las Cruces had nothing to do with the meaning of the city's name, understood by many as "the Crosses."  What I did realize is that Las Cruces reminded me of Beersheva, Israel, in its appearance and size.   Once I checked the latitude of both cities, I realized why I sensed such a similarity.  Las Cruces sits pretty at the latitude 32.3144 degrees north.   Beersheva is 31.2589 degrees north.   Immediately, I felt a strong bond with a city in Israel I had visited only once, and with this city that would become home. 
With Rabbi Jerry Kane (right) and
NMSU President Garrey Carruthers
    So what is unique about being Jewish in Las Cruces and southern New Mexico, according to rabbis who have served here?   There is an awareness of being a minority and, perhaps, being on guard due to possible expressions of prejudice.  That feeling has always been balanced with a strong desire to become immersed in community life.   There is a sense of independence, freedom and, in the words of one rabbi, "cowboyishness" that comes from living in this locale.   
    Some people in the general community in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County have had little contact with Jews living here.  Others shopped at the stores run by Jewish New Mexicans and got to know their Jewish neighbors well.
With Rabbi Paul Citrin
    Rabbis who have come to Las Cruces noticed how much Jews have actively participated in city and community life.   Jews have been involved in all manner of organizations in Las Cruces: non-profit charitable groups, service clubs, the local symphony, and the professions (especially law and medicine).    One rabbi noted that if there was any perspective of the Jews in the community held by non-Jews, it was more favorable than the Jews might have thought themselves.  There were many Jews involved at the university, with some of them affiliated with the congregation and others not. 
    There were opportunities for rabbis to be involved in the campus ministry association, now the NMSU interfaith council, and with the Las Cruces Ministers' Association, which now takes the form of a monthly breakfast gathering.    Those groups offered rabbis, ministers and other spiritual leaders an opportunity to engage in meaningful and fulfilling discussions. 
    Rabbi Jerry Kane was particularly close with Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, a relationship cemented at the time of the 9/11 attacks and that continued in the years following.     Rabbi Kane also taught "Studies in Film: Jews on Screen" at New Mexico State University on a regular basis. 
      Rabbis who have served here have felt privileged to hear of or to get to know founders of the congregation and active members in the greater community, such as Sam Klein and the late David Steinborn, who both served as Mayor of Las Cruces.  Members of the Las Cruces Jewish community have served as State Senators and representatives, and as local judges.   There are congregants known for their artistic abilities who share their talents in local circles.  
         And there are the stories that Frances Williams, Bea Klein and other long-time members tell of the history of this community.  I would add the late Mel Taylor to that list as well, for his several decades of involvement at Temple Beth-El.  
I asked my colleagues about milestone events during their time here. A food bank was created at a local church in the late 1980s, along with the serving of a hot meal to people in need.  Temple Beth-El was involved from the beginning in those efforts.  Now, we donate food to the Casa de Peregrinos food pantry, and members of the Jewish community serve at the El Caldito Soup kitchen every week.   We have, for the last several years, taken a breakfast every December 25 to Camp Hope, where people who are homeless live in tents for a time with the possibility of receiving housing and getting a job. 
    In the 1980s, Temple Beth-El hosted a legislative luncheon, where congregants and community members gathered to interact with city, county, state and federal officials about current issues important to constituents. 
    In the 1990s, Rabbi Cy Stanway established a Talmud class that is still continuing its long run today.    Temple's major fundraisers, the Gala dinner, and serving signature pastrami sandwiches at the local annual Renaissance Fair, were well-known in the community. 
      During Rabbi Kane's tenure, Temple Beth-El received awards from the Union for Reform Judaism for the best Adult Education program of a congregation its size.  
     Rabbi Citrin led the congregation in commissioning the writing of a new Sefer Torah in 2010-2011, which culminated in a community wide event held at Temple. 
     One major milestone of the last 10 years is the creation and completion of the new building for Temple Beth-El in the Sonoma Ranch part of town and its dedication in 2007.   The new facility was many years in the making.  What impresses me most is how much this building reflects the creativity of Temple members. David Steinborn worked hard to see the project come to fruition.  Talented congregants fashioned the ark, the main lectern, the candle table, the stained glass windows, the depiction of the Burning Bush on the Ark Doors, and the frame and lettering of a verse from Psalms above the ark.  I have never seen such involvement by Temple members in the creation of their congregation's sacred space. 
      In recent years, Temple's Golf Tournament has enjoyed the support of many friends and neighbors.  This year, the tournament was titled the MATZO BALL OPEN and held at Picacho Hills Golf Course.  Some of the proceeds this year went to Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity.   
     Temple Sisterhood has held events over the last few years that have included a Tzedakah component with a gift presented to a local charitable organization.  The Sisterhood Judaica shop remains as a central source of Jewish items.
     In 2012 and 2013, Temple Beth-El hosted “A Night with Judaism.”  We invited community members to learn about Judaism by attending a service and a very enhanced Oneg Shabbat that included a question and answer period.  
     In 2014 and 2015, Temple Beth-El embarked on a new fundraiser for the community to come and enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of Jewish culture.  The Las Cruces Jewish Food and Folk Festival was created and was successful both years. Planning and designing the event drew on the knowledge, experience and wisdom of congregants who worked on the Gala and Renaissance Fair and on the energy and ideas of new members. 
     The spirit of volunteerism and a commitment to joining together as a community for holidays and social gatherings continues here. 
     Our Frances Williams Library has an extensive collection of Jewish books and resources.  And this is the only community which I have served with its own Chevrah Kadishah.
     Music has become an important part of Temple worship and education over the last several years.  Our choir turned intergenerational for the 2015 Jewish Food and Folk Festival, demonstrating the special spirit that knows no bounds based on age.  
    Temple's Wednesday breakfast, with a speaker every week, draws people from the congregation and greater community. 
    Adult education continues with programs that attract people from all over Las Cruces on a regular basis.    Learning among our children, even in a small Religious school, continues with enthusiasm and quality.   Teens still participate in the Southwest Region of the North American Federation of Temple Youth. 
    Individually and as a congregation, we remain connected with our neighbors, hoping to improve life for our fellow citizens in the city, county and country. 
     In the Torah reading for this week, Jacob was amazed at the angels going up and down on that ladder in his dream, and at God's appearance next to that stairway to heaven.  
     In this beautiful area of New Mexico, with stark scenes, incredible sunrises and sunsets, overwhelmingly frequent sunshine, and amazing mountain views every day, we have a sense that we can be angels for one another to keep Judaism vibrant and to preserve the warmth of community among us.  
      And we can lift our eyes to the hills, and look into each other faces, and know that God is in this place, God who is the Oneness that will continue to bind us together to perform acts of lovingkindness, righteousness and justice for ourselves and for our neighbors

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Opening the Golden Door - thoughts on welcoming refugees - November 18, 2015

I believe this article offers an accurate portrayal of how Jews were viewed with great suspicion in the 1930s and that is what fueled laws that restricted immigration to the US from countries where many Jews lived from 1924 on.  For my rabbinic thesis, I studied and catalogued editorials written by Rabbi Abraham Feldman in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger that quote the "sermons" on the radio of Father Charles Coughlin, who was notoriously anti-Semitic.  I had thought that we had outgrown xenophobia in this country, but the experience of the last few years has shown me that the attitudes of Father Coughlin against Jews are now applied to "anyone who is different" - different from what?   Different from whom?  I relish being part of a multicultural and interfaith community where there are people from whom I can learn new things and share a our uniquely American journey.  The extensive refugee vetting process of the United States is very effective.   Perhaps we all need to read Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" every day to remember who we should be as Americans and America.  I am praying for a welcoming spirit, for trust, and for hope.  And remember - The French president, even after the attacks of Friday, and the raids this morning on a cell that likely planned Friday's attacks, was insistent that refugees will still be welcomed in his country.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Struggling Towards our Destiny – Sermon – Parashat Toldot – Rabbi Larry Karol – November 13, 2015 (in conjunction with the meeting of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society)

The boys yet to be born struggled in Rebekah's womb.  She cried out, "If this is what is happening to me, why do I exist?"  So she went to inquire of God. God told her that both sons would become great nations.
As we know from the rest of the story, that greatness would come only with challenge, struggle, disappointment, and then, eventual triumph and tranquility.  That peace was accomplished by Esau going his way and Jacob, who had been asked to follow Esau, going in a totally different direction.
  Still, both Jacob and Esau would emerge as confident adults who had all that they needed for themselves and their families.
    Wherever Jews of previous generations have lived, what Jacob and Esau eventually had is all that they sought and desired: a place to find a comfortable life where they and their Judaism could flourish, a land where they would be safe from discrimination of any kind, a home where they could, in the words of Emma Lazarus, breathe free.
    Reaching that goal never came easily.   James Carroll's master work, Constantine's Sword, accurately portrayed how Jews were treated as the proverbial "out-group" in Europe.  Nevertheless, they succeeded in creating self-sustaining Jewish communities that endured for many centuries.
And then there was the arrival of 23 Jews in 1654 in New Amsterdam.  Governor Peter Stuyvesant used every anti-Semitic epithet he could think of in his condemnation of these weary travelers who were fleeing the arrival of the Inquisition in Brazil.   The Jewish Community of Amsterdam successfully prevailed upon the Dutch West India Company that created that colony in the New World to let the new arrivals remain.
    Within 12 years, New Amsterdam became New York, a city and metropolitan area in which many members of the New Mexico Jewish community were born and raised.
     This past March, I had the opportunity to see the exhibit at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish history which featured George Washington's letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790.   How many of you have visited Touro Synagogue in Newport?  How many of you have been to the National Museum of American Jewish History?
   It was this nation's first president who, by his words, began to erase the possible conflict between being American and being Jewish.  All we had to do to be accepted, he wrote, was to participate as good citizens of this country.  Washington wished the Jews of Newport the opportunity to play a significant role in the growth  of the new nation which he was just beginning to lead.
    We know that the 225 years since Washington expressed those sentiments have included many times of challenge.   There have been incidents of misunderstanding, hatred, prejudice and discrimination.   Those events have existed alongside success stories for unknown individuals as well as people whose names we know well and whose leadership has left a lasting impact on who we are.   Like Jacob and Esau, our struggles in our beginnings gave way to parallel and sometimes shared achievement that is cause for celebration.
  This week, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America met in Washington, DC.  The theme of their gathering was "Think Forward."   It was a well-chosen title in a year when Jews disagreed with other Jews on the issue of how best to approach a nuclear deal with Iran.   The intersection of political partisanship and Jewish identity likely exacerbated levels of internal conflict and consternation.  Hopefully, there is a healing process in progress as we seek to continue to support the State of Israel.  In this same year, I was asked to join other rabbis and Jewish leaders in New Mexico to send comments through the Anti Defamation League that would, hopefully, prevent the success of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions forces at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.   The particular threat from the BDS movement, which often disintegrates into anti-Semitism, has a way of bringing members of the Jewish community together across a wide range of perspectives.   Such issues that touch the very core of our being seem to offer us a chance to demonstrate unity of soul and purpose that should not be so elusive at other times.
    I don't believe that I have ever lived in a state with a Jewish community that encompasses a broader range of Jewish expression.   That is a strength of New Mexico.   Even if we may tend to stay within our own congregations, it is difficult in this era of the internet and social media not to know what else is happening in our corner of the Jewish world.  We know that we have many choices for celebrating Jewish time and space and marking personal and communal milestones.  Like Jacob's and Esau's resulting relationship at the end of their story, we may appear to go our separate ways. Yet, we do know all along that we are still family.  And we realize that, sometimes, it is important to reunite to strengthen who we are so that our path towards a Jewish future will offer us all meaning and inspiration.
     This past week, I was privileged to attend the Union for Reform Judaism's 73rd Biennial Convention.  Our contingent from New Mexico was numerous enough that we frequently happened upon one another as we went from session to session.   There was the usual Shabbat worship with 5000 people that was uplifting and overwhelming.  I had conversations with fellow participants that demonstrated how our personal struggles to apply our Jewish values in daily life are crucial to keeping Judaism vibrant in our communities.  And there is no better way to do that than to develop and tell our own stories of how we got to where we are now.  In that spirit,  I should ask about the beginning of your stories: How many of you are from New Mexico originally?  How many of you were born and raised in the American southwest?  How many of you are from the East Coast?  West Coast?  Midwest?  South?  How many of you are originally from other countries?
We each have our own tale to tell.  And part of that narrative includes our life in New Mexico which, we know, is different from any other place where we have lived before.    Whether we reside in this state for 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, 50 years or more, our time in New Mexico leaves its mark on us. And it is where each of us now considers how our Jewish identity will play out in our own lives and enrich our communities in ways that we and our neighbors may not ever have imagined. 
    In telling the story of Rebekah's reaction to Jacob and Esau struggling in her womb, we are reminded how beginnings are not easy, and how our experiences can pose obstacles and challenges that we must overcome if we are to move forward.   That is very much the Jewish story.  And even if we don’t see eye to eye all the time, and even if we find ourselves on differing spiritual or cultural paths , we know that we are part of one community. We can, if we choose,  move forward in step with each other.   Celebrating holidays and life events, joining our voices in prayer and song, and reflecting on the meaning of our history are reasons that we can be optimistic that we will always recognize the need to stay together as we interact with the greater community in which we live.   For ourselves, for our state, and for our role in making new history, may the words of Psalm 133 guide us - HINEI MAH TOV, UMAH NAIM, SHEVET ACHIM GAM YACHAD - how good and how pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity, sharing our stories from the past so that we can ensure our vitality in the years to come.