Thursday, April 28, 2016

Goodness, sweetness and light - D'var Torah for Temple Beth-El Board Meeting - April 28, 2016

In the book of Isaiah, Chapter 5, the prophet presents a series of complaints and challenges to his people in Judah and Jerusalem.   
In the middle of his pronouncements, he declares
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.
Who present darkness as light, and light as darkness;
Who present bitter as sweet and sweet as bitter. 
Woe to those who feel they are so wise in their own opinion
So clever in their own judgment. 
     As we discussed this passage in Tanakh study on Wednesday, the first word that I mentioned in connection with these verses was "spin."  
In this passage, Isaiah noted how many of his people were turning from God's teachings, which were supposed to guide their actions. 
So a God that didn't act with the promptness that these skeptics expected was seen as uncaring. 
     Those who tried to emulate God's mercy in their behavior were viewed as weak. 
     Those who neglected the care of those in their society who needed help and support were seen as acting appropriately, even when the rules of their heritage called on them to extend their hands with generosity. 
     This week, in preparation for the Annual Meeting, I compiled a list of Temple events and programs that were held throughout the year.   It is a list that is rich in its substance.  It demonstrates the result of dedication, commitment, partnership and teamwork.   It reflects an openness of the congregation not only to members, providing moments of celebration, but also to the greater community, offering opportunities to be enlightened by new ideas and entertained by the wealth of culture embodied in our locale and by visitors to our city.   
     The question is, how will members of Temple Beth-El consider such a list? Will credit be given for our successes?  Will we learn from challenges we encountered?   Will we encourage positive partnership and teamwork at all levels of leadership and participation, which most congregations would only call good, and sweet, and reflective of the light of our heritage?  
     How we view what we do and how we do it is up to us as leaders and as members of this community.   May Isaiah's words lead us to open our hearts to the needs of one another and continue to make Temple Beth-El a place of goodness, sweetness, light and blessing.   

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Learning from the Holocaust: Acts of Courage" - Remarks at White Sands Missile Range Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust program on April 15, 2016

Well before my wife Rhonda and son Adam and I first visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 16 years ago, we were very familiar with many of the stories of the Shoah. The Nazi Holocaust  was perpetrated against Jews along with atrocities committed against people throughout Europe whom the Nazis deemed undeserving to live because of who they were or what they believed.   We found several exhibits at the Holocaust Museum to be more striking and poignant than the others, including the collection of shoes from the victims, a high column of photos of families in which all members had likely died, and the photos of Allied soldiers entering the camps as World War II neared its end.    I don't think I have ever been to a place in the United States where such a feeling of solemnity and sadness came over me.  And that feeling was only matched by my two visits to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the holocaust in Jerusalem. 
   One of the first items we saw when we walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum was the IBM Hollerith punch card machine used by the Nazis to catalog the names of people, especially Jews, whom they deported.  That early piece of computer technology made it all too easy for the Third Reich to send many eventual victims to concentration and extermination camps.   Our visit to the museum came only months after the chaos that was anticipated with coming of Y2K, the change from 1999 to 2000.  Many of us thought the arrival of the new millenium would wipe out our computer hard drives due to an unanticipated glitch.   A patch that was provided to users supposedly saved the whole world from technological ruin.   Would that it would have been so simple for someone at one of IBM's European subsidiaries to have said "no" to the Third Reich, when they asked for the Hollerith technology. 
    Over the years, I have had the opportunity to hear a number of well-known Holocaust survivors speak.  One was Gerda Weissman Klein, the subject of the Oscar winning documentary, One Survivor Remembers."  That film was based on her now classic book, "All But My Life."   When Gerda Klein ascended the stage to receive the Academy Award in 1996 for that film, she would not leave when the music began to signal her to exit.  Instead, she remained at the podium to deliver her all-important message:  "I have been in a place for six incredible years, where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day. Since the blessed day of my liberation I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here? I am no better.’ In my mind’s eye I see those years and faces of those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do that in a better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who knows the joy of freedom is a winner. On their behalf I wish to thank you with all my heart."  I believe that what Gerda Klein did that night took courage.  She knew that everyone present and everyone watching needed to hear what she had to say out of the depths of her experiences and her heart. 
   Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel waited 15 years before he told his personal story of surviving the Holocaust in his book, "Night," published in 1960.   I heard Wiesel speak several times in person over the years.  His speech that most impressed me was the one he delivered on April 22, 1993 at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  This is part of the message he offered that day:  "We believe in the absolute necessity to communicate a tale. We know we cannot, we never will, explain...It is not because I cannot explain that you won’t understand, it is because you won’t understand that I cannot explain. How can one understand that human beings could choose such inhumanity? How can one understand that in spite of everything there was goodness in those times, in individuals? There were good people even in occupied countries, and there was kindness and tenderness and love inside the camps among the victims.   What have we learned? We have learned some lessons, minor lessons, perhaps, that we are all responsible, and indifference is a sin and a punishment. And we have learned that when people suffer we cannot remain indifferent."
     The statements by Gerda Klein and Elie Wiesel both resonate with this year's theme for Holocaust Remembrance:  "Learning from the Holocaust: Acts of Courage."   It took courage to show kindness and tenderness in the camps and to be a good and decent  person in occupied countries.   It took courage to defy the unbridled evil that was all around in Nazi-controlled Europe.   It took too many years for those stories to emerge, but they did come out in many forms.   And it takes courage to share stories of heroism that people may not want to hear or that they know but prefer to forget.  Children in schools are reading Gerda Klein's book, "All But My Life."  They are reading NUMBER THE STARS, by Lois Lowry, which recounts the rescue of most of the Jews of Denmark by their fellow Danish citizens, who sent the Jews on boats to Sweden in a matter of a short few days.    Perhaps the most widely read book in schools has been THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.   It was well after the diary was published  that we learned more extensively about the great work of those who cared for Anne Frank, her family and the others hiding in the Secret Annex.   The strong business relationship and friendship between Otto Frank and Miep Gies led Miep to put her life in danger to keep her friends hidden.   She was recognized for her bravery and her caring by Israel, Germany and the Netherlands in the 1990s. 
     During my years as a rabbi in Topeka, Kansas, I served on the Kansas State Holocaust Commission.    We sponsored a screening in 1993 at a local movie theater of the newly-released  Schindler's List to which state legislators and employees were invited.      In making that film, just after finishing his masterpiece Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg took his own courageous step to present a lasting chronicle of one man's central and personal shining moment that stood out in his life.  Oskar Schindler didn't intend to be a rescuer, but circumstances put him in a position to save the lives of 1000 Jews who would have died otherwise.   One of the most meaningful scenes in the film depicted hundreds of descendants of the SCHINDLER JUDEN, the Jews protected by Schindler, walking together in Israel.  Spielberg's desire to tell the stories of survivors did not end with his Oscar winning film.  The year after its release, he founded the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. This organization is still working to create a visual and oral history of the testimony of survivors that will be accessible for generations to come.  
     Sometimes, the preservation of stories of heroism from the Holocaust comes from what may seem to be unlikely sources.  17 years ago, three students at a high school in a small town in southeastern Kansas were choosing a theme for their group entry in the National History Day annual competition.  In 1999, the national theme was "Turning Points in History." While sifting through materials to find a subject, Uniontown, Kansas high school student Liz Cambers discovered this paragraph from a 1994 article in US News and World Report that was entitled "The Other Schindlers": 
She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping.
When Hitler built the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind its walls to await liquidation, most Polish gentiles turned their backs or applauded. Not Irena Sendler. A Warsaw social worker, Sendler wangled a permit to enter the teeming ghetto and check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto.   Shocked by what she saw, Sendler joined Zegota, a tiny underground cell dedicated to helping Jews, and she took on the code name “Jolanta.” The deportations had already begun, and although it was impossible to save adults, Sendler began smuggling children out in an ambulance. “Can you guarantee they will live?” Sendler recalls the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. “In my dreams,” she says, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities. To remember who was who, she wrote the real names on sheets of paper, burying them in jars in her garden. Finding Christians to hide them was not easy.  "There weren’t many Poles who wanted to help Jews, [even] children.” But Sendler organized a network of families and convents ready to give sanctuary."
Liz Cambers read that description and wondered why Irena Sendler was not better known.  This Polish Social Worker had obviously risked her life every time she took a child from the Warsaw Ghetto to safety in a new home.  Liz and her project partners, Megan Stewart and Sabrina Coons, set out to discover what made Irena Sendler perform these many courageous acts. They were supported all along by their teacher, Norm Conard, who encouraged them to dig deep into this tale.   The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous gave the students more important information as they gradually developed their performance piece for History Day entitled "Life in a Jar."  Just before the Kansas state competition, they received a crucial piece of information, some these girls didn't yet know.  Irena Sendler was still alive and living in Warsaw.    After Liz, Megan and Sabrina had presented "Life in a Jar" in and around Kansas and Missouri, a benefactor made it possible for the girls to visit Warsaw and to meet Irena Sendler in person.   They developed a close relationship, like family, over the course of the coming years until Irena's death in 2008.                 
      Irena Sendler's rescue of 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto was not well known because of politics.   The Communist government of Postwar Poland saw the members of Zegota and other resistance groups as fascists and anti-Communists. They were not to be considered heroes even though they acted with such great courage. Their stories would not be told to the populace.   It took three girls from Uniontown, Kansas and their supportive teacher to make the name of Irena Sendler known to the world.   In the first letter she wrote to the "Life in a Jar" history project team, Irena Sendler explained what moved her to perform the acts of courage for which she became known.  "“Despite the fact that in the world history there have been cases of oppression of Jews, there has not been a country whose agenda would be the extermination of the entire nation.   For that reason your work has a great value for the world. These monstrous crimes/atrocities cannot be repeated!    My parents taught me that if someone is drowning, one always needs to/should give a helping hand/rescue them. During the war the entire Polish nation was drowning but the most tragically drowning were Jews. For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart.”
In 2003, Irena was recognized with the American Center of Polish Culture's award for valor and compassion.   Irena's statement on receiving the award was read by the First Lady of Poland at the ceremony.  She said at that time, " “This award is not for me only. I accept it on behalf of all those who helped me. I am the only one left. There were so many Jewish resistance fighters, not only the ones with guns and Molotov cocktails, but those who ran the House Committees and Youth Circles and kept hope and civility alive, especially for the young people. So many agreed to take in the children – at risk of death.
You award me because I am one of the few remaining to bear witness. But I tell you, I only did what any decent person would do in such horrible times.  I do not consider myself a hero. The true heroes were the mothers and fathers who gave me their children. I only did what my heart commanded. A hero is someone doing extraordinary things. What I did was not extraordinary. It was a normal thing to do. I was just being decent.”    A Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," would likely not have been made were it not for the determination of Liz, Megan and Sabrina in reminding the world of Irena's amazing work of human concern and kindness. 
      There are many other stories of individuals whose acts of courage stand out from that dark time. There were diplomats from various countries who  could not stand to see the Third Reich rob so many people of their dignity and their very lives.   Raoul Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews and others while serving as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest, Hungary in 1944.   Dr. Feng Shan Ho, who served as Chinese Consul General in Vienna in 1938-1940, facilitated the safe departure of thousands of Jews from Europe to Shanghai even when his superiors told him to stop.  Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Kovno, Lithuania.  He disobeyed his government's orders and issued visas that allowed thousands of Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe via Japan.  After doing such amazing work, Wallenberg was arrested and likely ended up in the system of Soviet prisons.  He is thought to have died there in 1947.   Both Ho and Sugihara were forced to resign their posts by their home governments, but their persistence and bravery made a lasting impact on the lives they were able to save.  
     All of these examples of simply doing the right thing, being decent people, seeing all human beings as worthy of respect, have the power to continue to inspire us today.   At Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, we recently received a letter from a 6th grade teacher at a school in Cairo, Illinois.  The teacher, Mrs. Mary Beth Goff, noted that Cairo has a history of decline and racial tension.  The school where she teaches is 98% African American and has a free lunch rate of 100%.  Mrs. Goff is trying to get the students to think beyond themselves.  They were inspired by the story of students at a school in Whitwell, Tennessee who collected 6 million paper clips to create a Holocaust memorial.   Mrs. Goff's students decided to focus on the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.  They are asking people from around the country and the world to send a penny for each child victim as part of this project, called Pennies As Promise.  One of our Religious School classes at Temple responded to their request and wrote letters of encouragement.  Here is a text of a letter from one of our Temple fifth graders:  "Thank you for caring about the Holocaust and Jewish history.  We will gladly send you as many pennies as you need.  The Holocaust was a sad and miserable time - families lost all their belongings, memories, and courage.  Some people lost all hope, but some kept fighting for freedom.  I hope your project works."  
    There is always an even greater project at work  - living in this world; building, making and preserving peace; assuring that people of all ages all over the world have all that they need; and turning conflict and hatred into cooperation, partnership and love.   It takes courage to attempt to reach those goals, because too many people think only about their own needs.   These words of the great Rabbi Hillel can direct us to do good and courageous work in our own time: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?"  The time is now to be courageous, to overcome fear and to restore respect and hope for the entire human family.  May we succeed in our efforts because it is a need of our hearts - and so may our hearts guide us.  

Friday, April 8, 2016

Old Rules, New Rules - Seeking Holiness Then and Now - Meditation for Parashat Tazria - April 8, 2016

Eternal One, Creator and Sustainer of us all,
On this Sabbath that marks the beginning of a new month,
The month called "the beginning of months" in Exodus Chapter 12, 
We recall the commands to the Israelites, still in Egypt, to prepare for their first Passover.  
The Torah notes that those instructions were given to them while they were still slaves in anticipation of their coming freedom.
It took a special type of faith to even consider the possibility of celebration at that time, an optimism that years of bondage would finally end.
And so they did.
Those old rules are ever new for us.
The way that we mark Passover has changed over these many centuries.
We still fight for those who are oppressed and consider bringing freedom to those who are not yet free,
And, in any way we can, we seek to provide all members of the human family an opportunity to taste liberty that they may have never experienced.
In the Torah reading for this week in Leviticus Chapter 13, 
We learn that the Israelite priests assumed a special role in
Identifying maladies that appeared on the skin of community members.
Their diagnosis was not in the realm of medicine, but of spiritual purity. 
There were cases in which purity was not restored.
Yet, the intention of their prescriptions for quarantine and treatment was to preserve the place of each person in the community
Even when they were facing this challenge of illness
When they needed to know that separation did not mean lack of caring and concern.
The goal was to make them spiritually pure again, if at all possible.
When we read a section such as this in the Torah,
We may see ourselves focusing on its tendency to draw distinct lines between the clean and unclean
The pure and impure. 
There are situations which may demand of us to make such a stark identification.
But we know, God our Healer and Source of wisdom,
That life usually isn’t like that.
Perfection is, for us, a goal that only rarely achieve.
Purity is admirable.
Cleanliness may be next to godliness.
Striving for perfection is what we could call  human.
Attempting to be sure that the motives for our actions are pure is human.
Doing all we can to assure that what we do is drenched in goodness, kindness, respect, and concern for the well-being of the community is human and, even more, it is a way we strive to be godly – to be like You.
So help us, God, to provide a way back
To people whom society does not understand but are in need of support
To those in need of forgiveness
To those who are objects of hatred
To those who face oppression
To those who have been ostracized for their good intentions
To those who want to change.  
May we be like the ancient priests
Who had the responsibility to say TAMEI – impure or TAHOR –clean
But in our minds and hearts
May we be guided by your love and your compassion
So that our eyes and our perspective are directed by the knowledge
Of what it means to be human
to ever strive for the highest potential that we can muster
in all we do and in who we are.
May these ancient rules inspire us anew
To bring Your holiness into the world
As long as we live.


Friday, April 1, 2016

"You Know the Feelings of the Stranger" - Article for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter - April 2016

 "Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)
     "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him/her, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21)
   "When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him/her. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him/her as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Eternal One, your God."  (Leviticus 19:33-34)
    "In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we went free from Egypt." (Passover Haggadah)
    Passover is coming once again.   Along with members of Jewish communities all over the world, we will prepare and join together for Passover Seders.   Many will change their diet for the week, choosing their own ways in which to fulfill the command to refrain from eating leavened foods as a way of remembering an ancient flight to freedom.  Some will invite friends and neighbors who are not part of the Jewish community as guests to the Seder as a way of sharing a time-honored Jewish tradition, while performing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests/hospitality.   When our own Passover table reflects the diversity of the greater community, it offers us an opportunity to spread the message of liberation and liberty. 
     The central value of Passover, overcoming oppressors and oppression, is embodied in the very observance of the Seder.  By remembering that "we were slaves," and declaring that, "now we are free," we are called upon to look out to the human community, in the here and now, and to make a difference in the ongoing struggle for freedom.
    This message of Passover is based upon statements in the Torah about how we are to view the most vulnerable members of society because “we were slaves.”  To know and relate to the feelings of another person is a call to show mercy and compassion to someone in need without judging or dismissing that person's predicament.  These teachings about showing empathy towards individuals in dire straits direct us to refrain from viewing other members of society with disdain, arrogance, prejudice, or hatred.   
    Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has cited a passage from Deuteronomy (Chapter 10, verses 16 through 19) to strengthen this ancient reminder of how God wants us to reach out to others with generosity and mercy “because we were slaves”:  "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.  For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, mighty and awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing.  You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." 
    Each of us may choose, if we wish, to combat all types of  oppression that surround us and to alleviate suffering.  We may devote ourselves to opposing anti-Semitism and other expressions of bigotry directed towards particular groups of people.   We may pursue a variety of strategies to stand up to bullying or abuse of power in all sorts of contexts.   We may donate food and clothing for people in need through local agencies in which congregants already participate.   We may work for equality and fairness locally and throughout the world. We may consider avenues to assist people fleeing from oppression and violence. We may simply sit and listen to stories of people inside and outside our community to broaden our own body of knowledge and awareness of the wide range of possibilities for how we can live our lives and how we can deal with challenges and celebrate the joys that come our way.  

    As we sit down at our Seder tables, may we give thanks for what we have and identify the messages and values we can share with the greater community and with the world.  By seeing ourselves as having been freed from slavery, the lessons we learn from this festival can enable us to move into the future with confidence, compassion, resolve, and hope.