Thursday, March 30, 2017

Love each one as yourself - Passover Article for El Paso Jewish Voice - April 2017

     It is hard to say when “Pesach season” begins.   We could say that it begins when local grocery stores begin to carry Kosher-for-Passover food products, or when we issue invitations to friends or family for a home seder.   We could consider the end of Purim to be the beginning of "Pesach season” because the next holiday is our annual celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery. 
    This year, Pesach has taken on a special significance, due in no small part to the waves of bomb threats, vandalism, and violence against Jewish institutions and communal sites.  
     It isn’t that there is nothing good on which we can focus. Of course, there ALWAYS are good deeds, acts of kindness, and meaningful mitzvot being performed.   Still, the sting of hateful acts tends to linger and keep more than a few of us up at night. 
    On March 9, the Las Cruces Film Festival featured a screening of “School Ties,” the 1992 movie that told a fictional tale of David Greene, a quarterback at a Scranton, Pennsylvania high school whose Jewish identity was not a secret in his hometown.  He was recruited by a Massachusetts preparatory school for his senior year to lead the football team to victory, especially against its rival school.   David decided to keep his Jewishness secret at his new school, especially due to anti-Semitic comments he heard from his classmates.  Eventually, his identity was revealed and he was subjected to a barrage of harassment and hatred.  When a fellow student cheated on an exam and accused David of the honor code infraction, their classmates met to render a judgment against one student or the other. 
     Well-known actor Brendan Fraser, who portrayed David Greene in the film, appeared at the Las Cruces Film Festival and joined Rabbi Bery Shmukler and me on a panel to discuss the film and its take on anti-Semitism.   Mr. Fraser explained that he thought that the “judgment scene,” at which classmates had to determine who cheated, was the moment when everyone’s masks came off.   Some refused to see David’s humanity.  Others came around to accept David as a hard-working, all-around good person and student who lived a life of honor.    
     The message of Pesach is embedded in the view of the Egyptians that the Israelite slaves in their service were not human beings. They were strangers. They were different, and they were fit only for the harsh labor that had been forced upon them.   
     For me, this year, the words from Leviticus Chapter 19 reverberate in my soul: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.”
     May each of us find meaning in this story of liberation that will guide us to extend our helping hand to others, and to look into each other’s eyes and see a spark of the divine.  Happy Pesach! 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Passage from Proverbs Gives insight to hate - Column for Las Cruces Sun-News - March 23, 2017

For 15 years, while I was serving Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka, Kansas, my wife Rhonda and I witnessed a small group of people foment hatred through the picketing of businesses, religious congregations, schools, the local university, musical and dramatic performances, government offices and ,eventually, military funerals. The Westboro Baptist Church expressed hatred against many groups of people over those years, and does so still. One of their signs I remember all too well said, “God’s hate is great!” It was a statement that elicited within me a profoundly negative resonance.

Many people throughout the Topeka community worked hard to make alternative declarations about hate, about greatness, and, of course, about God. At that time, in my own search for words that presented a different perspective than that four-word picket sign, I looked to this passage from the Book of Proverbs (Chapter 6). It takes a very different approach to what one can hate (and not whom):

“Six things the Eternal One hates, seven are an abomination. Haughty eyes (excessive pride), a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, A mind that hatches evil plots, feet quick to run to do evil, A false witness testifying lies, and one who sows discord among brothers and sisters.”

I thought of that passage when I attended the screening, at the Las Cruces International Film Festival, of the 1992 film, “School Ties.” Brendan Fraser, who starred in the movie, spoke to those assembled about one pivotal scene that dealt with prejudice and morality. Fraser’s character, David Greene, was a high school quarterback (who happened to be Jewish) who, in the mid-1950s, was recruited in his senior year from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to lead a Massachusetts college preparatory school’s football team to victory. Greene did not reveal his identity to his classmates, especially after hearing anti-Semitic comments soon after his arrival. He easily made friends by “fitting in.” Once his identity became known, he was the victim of hatred and harassment from his peers.

Toward the end of the film, a student who cheated on an exam (an act witnessed by Greene) publicly accused Greene of being the one who cheated, thereby violating the school’s honor code. Greene immediately revealed that he saw his accuser breaking the rules. A committee of students privately met to judge which student was guilty. Fraser explained that, during that class meeting, everyone’s masks came off. The students’ views were exposed. Some assumed that Greene was guilty merely because of his background. Others believed that Greene’s personal sense of honor was proof of his innocence.

We are living at a time when, more than in recent decades, people’s masks no longer conceal unfortunate expressions of hatred and prejudice against too many different groups of people.

Whether we are part of a faith community or not, the words from Proverbs still speak to us in the here and now. They apply the concept of hatred to the process of ridding ourselves of specific behaviors. They can lead us to dedicate ourselves to the values of humility, truth, peaceful and cooperative engagement, seeing the goodness in everyone, and finding ways to resolve conflict. They call on us to run to do good, and to find more partners to join us as we move forward.

It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our feet, our minds and our hearts will go.

Friday, March 24, 2017

"If I can help somebody as I pass along" - Reflections on the CCARConvention in Atlanta (March 19-23, 2017) - D'var Torah forVayakheil/P'kuday - March 24, 2017

        This has been a difficult week.   Some news commentators would likely apply that thought to what happened in the House of Representatives today. 
    Others might cite the Westminster attack, which is part of an unfortunately persistent wave of hatred and intolerance borne out in violent actions and murder.
    Many Jews around the world might be thinking of the young Jewish man in Israel who is now the main suspect identified as the perpetrator of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the United States and two locations in Australia and New Zealand.   We are still not certain whether we will ever be able to explain his actions, even with reports that a medical condition may have affected his judgment, making him somehow see his actions as appropriate.  This particular situation leaves us asking more questions, even though we may have a partial answer. 
     In both of those cases of threat and tragedy, the perpetrator wanted to tear down a house, so to speak, or a society.   There may have been a desire to replace the house with something else.  Or the motive may have been simply to derive a sense of twisted satisfaction by exerting personal abilities and power to sow chaos, disruption, or even loss of life.    
    During the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlanta which I attended over the last several days,  my colleagues and I saw other examples of attempts to create chaos and act upon prejudice.   
The site of the Pencil Factory
     Some of us participated in a tour of Civil rights sites in Atlanta on Sunday morning. Our first stop was at an apartment and shop complex called the Pencil Factory.   I immediately knew where we were.  Leo Frank had moved to Atlanta from New York in 1908 to take over a pencil factory at that location.  In 1913, one of his employees, 13 year old Mary Phagan, came from Marietta to pick up her paycheck and never returned home.  As best as we can tell, after the revelations provided in the 1980s by Leo Frank's office helper Alonzo Mann, custodian Jim Conley had murdered Mary Phagan. Mann, who saw Conley carrying Phagan's body, was told by Conley that, if he told anyone, he would be murdered, too.   The prosecutor in the case didn't believe that Conley, a black man, could have perpetrated the crime.  The guilt was, instead, pinned on Frank, an easy target because of his Jewish identity.  
     Frank was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death, a judgment commuted by Governor Jim Slaton in 2015.  Soon after that, Leo Frank was taken from a prison hospital by a group called "The Knights of Mary Phagan" and lynched.  The Knights actually distributed post cards that bore photos from the lynching at that time.     From those events emerged the Anti-Defamation League and, sadly, an emboldened and renewed Ku Klux Klan.    So, standing at the Pencil Factory was simply chilling, and a reminder of how stereotypes and hatred can tear down decency in our midst. 
The original Ebenezer Baptist Church
    We then visited the graves of the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. And Coretta Scott King.  We sat in the pews of the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr.'s father had served as pastor and where King himself sang in the children's choir.   We attended the service at the current Ebenezer Baptist Church. Last Sunday morning, 1500 people gathered to celebrate the 131st anniversary of the church.   The service featured music led by different generations of singers and instrumentalists, dancers, a bell choir, and an inspiring sermon delivered by the Rev. Traci Blackmon from St. Louis.    While the death of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the result of yet another person - or a group of people - who wanted to sow chaos in society, the church itself, both old and new, signified  how a holy space can yield the creation of sacred partnership from one generation to the next. 
     Our final stop on the tour was at the NAMES Project/AIDS memorial quilt headquarters.   What we heard from the project's president and CEO, Julie Rhoad, was that this organization began as a way to draw people's attention to the challenge of AIDS through reflection and remembrance.   That left an impression on me.   They hoped to make great strides in medical research that would ultimately lead to a cure for AIDS.  Their means to reach that end became the creation and public displays of quilt pieces sent to them memorializing individuals who died of AIDS and donations that came in from all around the world.   I admire their continuing efforts and their peaceful approach that has woven together so many relatives and friends of persons with AIDS who died  into a human tapestry of hope. 
Julie Rhoad, Director and CEO of the NAMES PROJECT
AIDS Memorial Quilt, at its Atlanta headquarters
     And that brings us to the Torah reading for the week.   Moses called upon selected artisans, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, to come forward to fashion the Tabernacle, the Israelite house of worship, and its furnishings.   The people were asked to donate materials that could be used in the creation of the Israelites' sacred space. 
     So, they brought their contributions....and then more, and even more...until what they were donating became overwhelming.   Bezalel and Oholiab and their colleagues had accumulated enough raw materials to move forward with their work. They told Moses to announce to the people to stop!   The Torah says that the people "had brought enough for the work to be done, and even more."   
     Here was a group of people, in the wilderness, having just escaped slavery, that was able to be exceedingly generous.    After some of their fellow Israelites had previously given their jewelry to create the golden calf, a sign of communal breakdown and chaos, the people had learned from the past and reached a new level.  They understood unity.  They understood the honor of giving to something sacred.  They understood how important it would be, in their present and their future, to build up, whether it was raising their own spirits or raising a structure where they could go to feel the presence of God with them.    
Mary Gurley sings "If I Can Help Somebody" at the morning
service of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
convention in Atlanta, Georgia on March 20, 2017. 
     One moment that I haven't mentioned from the convention exemplified how history can create a holy foundation upon which we can build in the here and now and in the future.   Mary Gurley, who is now 88 years old, sang in the children's choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church with Martin Luther King, Jr.   During the funeral of the civil rights leader, she was called upon to sing a song called "If I Can Help Somebody."   Just before the Kaddish during our convention service this past Monday morning, the service leader spoke about Mary Gurley.  Then, to the surprise of some of us, she herself walked up to the stage in the hotel ballroom, took her place at the microphone, and sang these words: 
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain!
   Know that among the 500 rabbis and other family members and guests gathered for that service, there was likely not a dry eye in the house.    
    That song's lyrics describe some of the most crucial building blocks of community because they direct us to act with kindness, with compassion, and with enough of a sense of fellowship to reach out to support others along our shared life's path.     
    What we do in our lives should not be about power, or control, or being more important and precious than anyone else. 
    We can be like the Israelites who brought their best to build a holy space where they would meet God.  
    And we, in our day, can do the same with generous hands and open minds and hearts.   
    May the space we create allow all people to enter, remembering that God's house can and should always be a house of prayer for all peoples.   May we make it so.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Walls - March 7, 2017

Some expanded thoughts on "walls.' 

     We are hearing a lot about walls in recent days.   
     Walls can keep people out. 
      Walls can keep people in.  
    Walls can separate between people so that they don’t have to get to know each other, deal with each other, or even look at each other.  
      It is curious that this description of walls does not have to be about walls make of stone, or wood, or about fences, all of which create physical separations. 
      These days, we may be grateful to the existences of the walls we can’t touch but serve the same purpose as the “real thing.”   Ideological walls, divisions tower over us due to disagreement, may create a comfortable space for people where their views are not challenged.  
     Those walls, even though they are not physical, blind us to real aspects of our lives that we share. 
      We work hard. 
       We want to have a roof over our heads that will not take us to the point of bankruptcy. 
      We want to bring home enough money to pay our bills. 
      We want to have a secure future. 
      We want safe communities for ourselves and our children and grandchildren, neighborhoods and cities where we can get along and work with the people we meet to make good things happen. 
       We want to see opportunities for people of all ages to learn, to expand their horizons, and to be engaged with other people in common pursuits and interests.  
      We want to see children and grandchildren go to college without accumulating a mountain of debt.  
      We believe in helping people in need in some way.   
       If we face an illness, we want care that will help us stay stable, get better, or give us comfort as challenges to our well-being increase. 
       There are walls that go up when we begin to discuss how to make all these “wants” become real.   Some people believe changes should happen only in the way that they recommend.   
       And some people believe, for the sake of community, that “give and take,”
 what is still called “compromise,” can help us to accomplish those goals.   
       Sometimes it seems that compromise now has a high wall around it, and it can’t get out of its confined space to guide us to work together.   
       Perhaps, if “compromise” could speak to us, it would ask us to put some doors in the wall around it and, at the same time, to install new doors into our minds and hearts to let other people’s ideas and feelings seep in to our experience so that even the beginning of new conversations might be possible. 
        That dialogue, even in the face of a wide gulf of disagreement, might be a first step to getting us somewhere better.    
        I, for one, am ready to listen.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Despite different names, all religions share similar values" - Column for the Las Cruces Bulletin - March 3, 2017

   On February, 7, a group of local community members joined me at Temple Beth-El to discuss selected letters (sent to our new national leadership each day) as part of the American Values/Religious Voices campaign ( that I featured in my article last month. 
  To begin the program, I told about being the chair of an elementary school site council in Topeka, Kansas that dealt with school environment as directed by state standards in the early 1990s. Our charge was to ensure that the school was doing a good job of building community and maintaining morale at a high level among faculty, staff, parents and students. As the father of a first grade student at that school, I was happy to serve in that position.  I worked closely with the school principal, who was very active in her church.  I always felt that there were values from our service to our respective religious congregations that translated into positive community building. 
     I asked the participants present on February 7 to suggest values which the principal and I might have shared.  They listed the principles of consideration, equality, lovingkindness, justice, hospitality, honesty, family, respect, acceptance, love, learning, and teaching. These are tenets that lie at the foundation of most any productive and purposeful community.       
    Our February conversation about several of the "American Values/Religious Voices" letters yielded a list of values that bore many similarities to the one that emerged from my beginning story.  
   The writers of the letters at teach religion at universities and seminaries in the United States.  Most of the letters (more than 30 now) include a quote from sacred teachings or stories.  As we read the letters as a group, we listed their central principles,  which, at that session, included justice, mercy, humility, self-control, support of the vulnerable, compromise, diversity, a focus on the common good, creating common ground, seeing the whole as greater than its parts,  responsibility, religious freedom, respect for all people, forgiveness, charity and building bridges.
    The “building bridges” reference came from a post by Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University in New York City.  Professor Ruiz noted that the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who delivered a sermon in conjunction with this year’s presidential inauguration, quoted a passage from the book of Nehemiah that referred to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls. Nehemiah encouraged the people: “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem!” (Nehemiah 2:17). To this, the people of Jerusalem responded, “Let us start building!” Then “they committed themselves to the common good” (Nehemiah 2:18) and together rebuilt their city.
   Professor Ruiz noted that, for the people of Jerusalem, building a wall was not about division, but about creating a physical and communal infrastructure.  It was about building bridges towards one another as well as adding gates to the city walls (likely 10 gates) where visitors would be welcome to enter. 
    The values that we share offer us a moral infrastructure that can enable us to act in concert with each other for the common good.    I, for one, hope that can be our goal as fellow citizens in our community and nation. 

Standing up for - and with - our community - Article - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Newsletter - March 2017

I recently devoted an evening to watching two documentaries aired on PBS which were recommended to me.
    One was "Birth of a Movement," which chronicled the protests of African-Americans against showings of D.W. Griffith's film, "Birth of a Nation." Griffith’s work, based on the book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, cast citizens of the American south as total victims in the Civil War and during the ensuing period of Reconstruction.  The film visually presented African-Americans in the worst possible way.   In the book, Dixon had advocated for suppression of a number of groups in America, including Jews.  The protests did not end the showing of the film, but they demonstrated how a community could empower itself to make its views known to our national leaders.
     The second program I watched was "American Experience: Oklahoma City."  On the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, I had a morning meeting with Congressman Sam Brownback.  While I waited, I watched news reports about the bombing on the television in his office. The congressman and I spoke briefly about the reports that had come in so far.   As we all learned more about Timothy McVeigh after the bombing, it became clear that the network of hatred of which he was a part believed that Jews had taken over the government, and that Jewish power must be eradicated.  The net effect, for me, of watching those programs one-after-the-other was that it was obvious whom these groups considered "real Americans." They did not include Jews and other non-Christians (actually, non-Protestants) as acceptable.   It was as if there was a nearly straight line from an earlier version of white supremacy to its more recent incarnation.   
      I have been participating for the last few weeks in a discussion group (with a diverse membership from the community) on Dr. Jonathan Sarna's book, American Judaism.   In this work, he outlines the development of the Jewish religion in the context of our nation's ever-developing story.  I came upon this paragraph about the attitudes that prevailed in the 1920s, just before the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924: "Immigration restrictions that sought to restore the nation's ethnic mix to its nineteenth-century white Protestant character also aimed directly (though by no means exclusively) at Jews. The House Committee on Immigration received a report prepared by Wilbur J. Carr, the director of the Consular Service, and approved by the secretary of state, that described Jews who desired to migrate to the United States as being, among other things, ‘undesirable,’ ‘of low physical and mental standards,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘un-American,’ and ‘often dangerous in their habits.’ Resulting legislation never mentioned Jews, and it restricted other ‘undesirable’ immigrants like Italians and Slavs no less stringently, while Asians were barred entirely. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American Jewish leader of his day, recognized. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’”
    This passage from Dr. Sarna's book reveals how the racism of the late 1800s and early 1900s targeted Jews as different and outside the mainstream of those who could be considered "acceptable Americans." 
    It is difficult to hear those comments from nearly 100 years ago at this time, when unknown perpetrators have phoned in bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and vandals have toppled headstones at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia. This follows a year when Jewish journalists faced horrifying anti-Semitic responses to their tweets (with their faces often placed in an image of a gas chamber), and white supremacists have been emboldened by the current political climate
    This is most definitely a time to be watchful and vigilant. It is not a time to be afraid. Recently, someone sent Temple a vase of flowers to express appreciation for our presence in the community.  Members of the Islamic Center of Las Cruces have personally expressed concern to me about the threats against the American Jewish community (concerns which I have expressed to them in the past 14 months in the wake of threats to their well-being).  People who have shown public support for vulnerable groups in our locale have asked me if we need a rally in support of the Jewish community in the wake of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and incidents of vandalism in recent months.
     I believe that what we need to do is to realize we are not alone.  After officials in our area contacted local Jewish institutions in light of recent events, I visited the Alevy Chabad Jewish Center and spoke to the teachers who were in the building.  I left a note for Rabbi and Mrs.  Shmukler (they were not there) that offered a prayer for our well-being.  Such prayers can help us feel that there is a Presence that can provide us a sense of protection and security.
       Purim is coming soon, the holiday on which we mock the one who hated the Jews of Persia and cheer for the bravery of Mordechai and Esther for standing up for their people.  
       It is always time to be like Mordechai and Esther in how we view our Jewish identity and in how we can find ways to stand against hatred in cooperation with partners in the greater local community.   History has taught us that those connections can bring us both strength and hope, so let us pursue them in the days to come.