Sunday, August 12, 2018

Invocation - Board and Leader Orientation - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM - August 12, 2018

Invocation - Board Orientation - August 12, 2018


Eternal God,

Our companion and inspiration throughout our history

Our Guide as we work to sustain our community, 

Be with us as we share our wisdom and insight

And strengthen our commitment to one another.

Through our leadership, enable us to engender

Within our congregation








Common Purpose

A resonance with our heritage and its message

Presence in times of challenge and need


And hope.  

May we rejoice at our opportunities to be together

And may we foster greater connection with our neighbors 

Of all faiths and backgrounds

So that we can build a world based on decency, justice, and peace.  




Friday, August 10, 2018

There are human beings among us - D'var Torah - Parashat Re'eh - August 10, 2018

“There shall be no needy among you.”
   I have been thinking, for many years, about this declaration from Deuteronomy, which is contained in this week’s Torah reading.  
   Most commentaries interpret this statement in light of what we should do to care for those who are in need, whose poverty has become so pervasive, due to their own particular circumstances, that they can’t shake it.
    Moses Maimonides, in his eight degrees or levels of Tzedakah, identified ways in which we can give.  The ultimate and most effective approach to giving, he said, is to offer whatever is necessary to help the person in need be come self-supporting.   
    This passage which I am about to read from Chapter 15 of Deuteronomy requires that we not harden our hearts – calling to mind Pharaoh of the Exodus story, the main purveyor of cruelty in the Torah.
    Rather, the Torah says, we should open our hand and provide what is sufficient to meet the needs of people who are in dire straits.
    We live in a time now when communal programs and policies, which could fulfill the commandments in this section, are looked upon with disdain and contempt by some people in our society.  There are those who proclaim that everyone should be able to take care of their own needs.   No programs of assistance are necessary to raise up those individuals and families who have come upon hard times through layoffs, changes in home values, the high costs of medical treatment and prescriptions, and other challenges.   
    There are some members of faith communities who believe that a person is assigned a particular lot in life by God, and that giving more than modest assistance to them may counter that divine plan.     I would admit, though, that most religious groups teach their members to do what they can to provide assistance when they can.
     All of this is relevant to the plain meaning of this passage from Deuteronomy about helping people caught in poverty.
      Today, something else occurred to me – another level of significance of this passage that I had never thought of before.
       My new insight likely derived from the upcoming first anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last year’s right-wing protests resulted in one death and the sounds of hatred and definite anti-Semitism being chanted on the streets of that city.    Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who called out “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us” as they marched through the center of town defined their place in society.  First, they made it clear that they begrudge the persistence of a vibrant American Jewish community, represented well in Charlottesville.  Don’t think that the rally last year didn’t give Jews in that community concern.  It did, enough that several local citizens who were not Jewish came to offer members of the congregation visible support outside their synagogue during and after their Shabbat morning service.
     “You will not replace us” was a phrase that expressed an all-encompassing contempt for our society that accepts in our country the humanity, presence and participation of people of all races, faiths, and backgrounds.     Yes, these “unite the right” demonstrators first dehumanized Jews, but then, they did the same to everyone else who was not part of their movement.
     I don’t think many people in our country realized that they, too, were being targeted.   On August 24, 2002, a White Unity Rally at the Kansas Capitol building in Topeka brought a handful of participants and Neo-Nazi activists together.   I was among the many peaceful counter-demonstrators standing outside a fence placed on the Capitol grounds to prevent any direct physical confrontation.      We who were outside the perimeter knew on which side of the fence we wanted to stand, and we were proud that we were standing there together. 
     My realization about Deuteronomy Chapter 15, verse 4, “there shall be no needy among you,” somewhat relates to the dehumanization expressed in these “unite the right” rallies.   It is about labels and how we think and speak about people.  It is about which side of the fence on which we choose to stand: lifting up all people with respect and compassion or taking them down and isolating them with words of denigration and prejudice.
      “Needy’ is a word that describes a person’s socioeconomic status.  I think we would all agree that the term has the potential to rob people of their dignity or to create a stigma about them.  I believe that part of the message of this verse in Deuteronomy was that we should not see people as “needy.”  We should consider them to be fellow society members who could benefit from our concern and our help.   They are people like us, who have fallen on hard times. Their difficultie could be alleviated if we followed Maimonides teaching of helping them find a way to support themselves. 
     With a “Unite the Right” rally planned for Washington, D.C. this weekend in Lafayette Park near the White House, I believe that this is a time when Americans need to choose the side of the fence on which they will stand.   Some may join with those who claim that only they have the proper solutions, while their proposals may not actually address the dire situations in which some people find themselves, all the while accusing people facing challenges of creating their own plight.   Some may decide to stand with fellow community members who seek to create approaches than can benefit everyone and raise up every individual as a person of value who can contribute something unique to our world.
      We are members of a community and tradition that values every person, every life.  Let us conclude with the passage from the Mishnah on the handout, one that includes one of Judaism’s central declarations about what binds us together.  It reminds us that we can transcend our differences so that we can see what we continue to hold in common as move forward on our life’s journey:
This is why humanity was first created with a single human being:
to teach you that whoever destroys one life, Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world;
and whoever saves one life, Scripture accounts it as if she had saved a full world.
And for the sake of peace among people, a single human being was created in the beginning so that one should not say to his or her fellow "My lineage is greater than yours."
And a single human being was created in the beginning to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God: for when one human being stamps out many coins with one die, the coins are all alike,
but when the Sovereign, the Ruler of rulers, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamps each person with the seal of the first human being, not one of them is like his or her fellow, [yet they all still come from the same place].  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
   May we always remember what brings us together every moment of our lives.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Psalm - for Sarah Beila - August 5, 2018

(For my cousin Barbara who died on July 31, 2018)

A Psalm 

For Sarah Beilah 

Praise the Eternal One for the gift of our lives! 

Praise the Eternal One with enduring songs of the past!

Praise the Eternal One for the shaping of lyrics and melody into new songs that celebrate, support, comfort, and challenge!

Praise the Eternal One for the sharing of talents where the blessing is found in the giving and receiving!

Praise the Eternal One for the passing of values and traditions to children and grandchildren, and to the generations yet to come! 

Praise the Eternal One for love that we nurture and grow every day, so that love will continue to grow beyond our time together! 

Praise the Eternal One for the expression of spirit through the touch of the fingers on ivory keys, the touch of hands, and the embrace that engenders connection and hope. 

Praise the Eternal One, who binds our souls together in bonds that are everlasting!

Praise the Eternal One for the gift of our lives! 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The timeless messages of healing and hope - Column for Las Cruces Bulletin - August 3, 2018

     I am, at this writing, preparing for a musical evening at my congregation featuring songs from the year 1968 that bring back memories and, in some cases, have stood the test of time. 

    I was an eighth grade junior high school student as 1968 began.   War was raging in Vietnam.   The path towards fully putting into practice the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was moving forward, with success in some communities, but with difficulty in others.   

    I have been reading historian Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, to gain some perspective and how our country has faced and overcome challenges in the past. 

    Meacham’s review of the events of 1968 spurred my own recollections of that year.   

      I watched President Lyndon Johnson announce, in a televised speech on Sunday, March 31, 1968, that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party as a candidate for the presidency. 

      I recall where I was standing in my home when, on Thursday of that same week, I heard the news of the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.

       On the following Sunday, I joined my family and thousands of others at the plaza of Liberty Memorial, Kansas City’s commemorative site and museum for World War I,  for a memorial service for Dr. King.  My rabbi spoke, as did other religious and civic leaders.     

      It was, sadly  the last day that the community would be united for a number of months, as unrest spread there and throughout the country.  

     On my last day of eighth grade in early June, my classmates and I were in shock as we mourned the assassination of Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy the night before.

      I attended an 11-day Jewish overnight camp in Wisconsin that July, which offered me a short break from the news, along with reminders of how my faith teaches me to try to build community, to foster mutual respect and understanding, and to create and spread peace. 

     The unrest that surrounded the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August added turbulence to a nation that so desperately needed healing and hope. 

      That hope came, to some extent, when Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders read the opening verses of the book of Genesis to conclude their television transmission from lunar orbit.   

      Some of the songs I chose for my July 28 program at Temple Beth-El reflected  the values of healing, unity and hope that emerged from that year. 

      Richard Holler’s “Abraham, Martin and John” offered a poignant tribute to American leaders who were violently taken from us.   This eulogy-in-song was tenderly and sensitively sung by Dion DiMucci. 

      Sylvester Stewart, of Sly and the Family Stone, in his song, “Everyday People,” declared “I am no better and neither are you; we are the same whatever we do.” 

     Songwriter Walter Earl Brown was asked to compose a song to end Elvis Presley’s December 1968 live television concert. “If I can dream” included these lyrics: “There must be peace and understanding sometime - strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear....and while I can dream, please let my dream come true right now.”  

     May we continue to find, in our past and present, timeless inspiration and insights which we can, together, give to future generations. 




Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Rice, Gum and Toothpaste - Column for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces August 2018 Newsletter

Rice. Gum. Toothpaste. 
That is what I bought at the store one day last week. 
I did not buy those items as groceries for home. They were for someone else. More correctly, they were for a number of “someones” who needed them. 
   We are hearing many reports about refugees entering the United States either at a point of entry or somewhere else. In a number of cases, they are leaving countries where there is rampant violence which, they fear, will specifically target them. 
    There are, in fact, some adults and children who have been processed by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and have been released to join relatives in other parts of our country. Two Las Cruces congregations have established formal ties with ICE to receive these individuals (and families) every couple of weeks. After a brief stop in Las Cruces, they continue on their journey. Each of these congregations collects supplies for their temporary guests. By the way, the gum is provided in case their trip includes airline travel to their next destination. I also took with me children’s books in Spanish (and bilingual books), provided by the Children’s Reading Alliance (arranged by Rhonda Karol). 
    Project Oak Tree is a similar program, managed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, which collects supplies to support asylum seekers who await further proceedings related to their particular situations. I recently met with Bishop Oscar Cantu to speak with him before he moves to his new community of San Jose, California. He let me know that Project Oak Tree is active. 
    And so, for the aforementioned programs, I have donated on my own, from my own funds, rice, gum and toothpaste. 
    What I have discovered in my own study of American history is that newcomers to the United States were often seen by some previous arrivals as undesirable, unassimilable, and as people who would take jobs away from those who came before. That represented only one approach to those who were seeking freedom and a better life in our country. People have held many positions on this issue across a wide spectrum. That included the perspective expressed by Emma Lazarus in her poem, “The New Colossus.” Jewish immigrants who arrived from 1881 to 1921 quickly discovered that the “Goldene Medina” wasn’t as golden as they thought, but they worked hard, like those who preceded and followed them, to create for themselves a good life in America. 
I have written in the Adelante in past years about my paternal grandmother, Anna Karol, being required to report for an interview at a local post office in Kansas City to fulfill the rules set by the Alien Registration Act of 1940. She naturalized in 1941 (this was the basis of my July 6, 2018 Las Cruces Bulletin column). Recently, one of my younger relatives (her grandfather was my first cousin, and her great-grandfather, my uncle, was a member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for 70 years) posed several questions to me in our correspondence on Where were my mom’s parents married? When did they come to the United States? And I would add: WHY did they come to the United States? WHERE did they meet? Did they have relatives here already? I am now engaged in a search to find some answers. 

    Since my maternal grandparents left Lithuania and/or Poland in the late 1880s, I imagine that the increase in attacks on Jews under Czarist rule was, very possibly, one of the reasons they came to America. Fear of being a target of such violence had to be, at least, in the back of the minds of many of our recent ancestors who made their way to these shores. 
   Once the restrictions on Eastern European immigration tightened in 1921, and again in 1924, Jewish arrivals were limited to a trickle as compared to the previous 40 years. There was strict adherence to the quotas set for the countries with the largest numbers of Jewish immigrants in the past. At times, there were many more spaces available within the quota parameters which American officials did not permit to be filled. 
    There are always issues of security and safety that are related to entry into a country and to border protection. Even at Ellis Island, not everyone was allowed to stay. No matter what the attitudes of American citizens and residents, it seems that people facing oppression or violence at home still look to the United States as a nation that offers greater safety, security and opportunity than did the countries where they have lived all their lives. 
    I am certain that Jewish immigrants —and those from other ethnic groups—did not have it easy when they first settled in their communities. If there was already prejudice against them here before they came, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been once they began living and working in American cities and towns that begrudged their presence. 
   Still, in the United States, newly–arrived Jews were free from state-sponsored anti-Semitism. They could speak Yiddish and/or English in their homes. They could work. They could raise their children as Americans who valued the Jewish heritage that had accompanied them here. 
    I find echoes of the desires and the journeys of my own family forbears in the new arrivals of today. 
    I am guided by Jewish teachings about hospitality, com-passion and welcoming. I will continue to provide rice...gum…toothpaste...and prayers for the well-being of American cities and towns as places that will continue to exude warmth, love and hope. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Prayer for Va-etchanan - How do we love You? July 27, 2018

Eternal God, 

How do we love You

With all of our heart and mind...

With all of our soul and with our very life

And with all of our might and from the depths of our being? 

The commandments that shape our commitment to You

Direct us to keep Your teachings close to us 

To pass them on to a new generation

To act upon them throughout each day.  

Which of your instructions do we follow? 

What do we impress upon our hearts?

How do we serve as Your eyes as we look at the world?

How do our hands become Your hands in our service to our communities? 

When we pray for peace every morning, 

We ask You to grant us 

Completeness and well-being, 




Kindness based in love,

and compassion.   

So may we show that we love You

Through opening our hearts to all humanity

Through seeing creation as a blessing to preserve and nurture

Through scaling the walls that separate us to do even one act of kindness. 

Through forgiveness that can keep us together 

Rather than driving us apart. 

May these be the values that we inscribe on our doorposts 

 And that we see before our eyes

May these be the principles that will wittingly or unwittingly

Move us to act in a way that brings to this world

Your love, Your Spirit, and Your hope

When we sit at home, when we are out in the community,

When we lie down, and when we rise up. 

Gift us with Your light, Your insight and Your truth 

As we continue to move along our life’s journey.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

I am a stone that fell - July 24, 2018

I fell.
I didn’t realize it at first.
I had been in that cozy spot on the wall for two millenia.
Then, I realized, below me, was a structure that was not stone.
Then I remembered a short flight through the air
And that took me back
To my beginnings.
I was hewn from rock outside a shining, beautiful city, and transported slowly to my destination.
I could sense thousands of stones around me
Ready to be added to the next row
As the structure ascended to the top. 
I was put in my spot, affixed with other stones above, beside and below me.
There was a time that I could hear the horns sounding
And I could feel the vibrations of footsteps
Ascending the nearby stairway to a place above me.
There was singing, rejoicing, not just during a few times
When many people gathered there
But a small steady flow, every single day.
Then there was a sudden upheaval.  
Stones above me fell.
Some remained below me ever since their displacement.
New ones were added above me.
There were new and different sounds. 
Different languages.  
New names for the recipient of the prayers that were offered.  
There was majesty, and conflict, and majesty again
In this city that was a flashpoint among the people
Who sought to lay claim to it.
I knew that my builders were long gone,
But came to hear a cacophony of pronouncements
That, to me, sounded like a symphony.
You see, I couldn’t take sides
In the battles that raged around me
I could only do my best to maintain my place
In this wall that had lasted so long.
I understand that people wonder if walls have ears.
For that, I have no answer.
I only know that I, myself, have always heard
The prayers
The debates
The declarations
The edicts
The protests
The misunderstandings
And the attempts to bring
As part of a wall
And a community of stones
That had stood for so long
I was always pulling for the latter – cooperation, harmony, and peace.
Only lately, I realized how tired I had become to hold up this wall
Which became difficult
Without the full support of those walking above, below, and near me
Who mostly approached me with parallel appreciation of my presence
Rather than in a shared wonder at how long I and my comrades had endured. 
It was enough for me to have lasted this long.
So I fell.
I leave it now to others to finish the work
Of binding the people together, somehow, some way
So that they will join in repairing this wall
Without accusation,
With coordinated action.
With love.
And with hope
For the millenia to come.