Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Pursuit of Happiness - for the Temple Beth-El Adelante Newsletter for May, 2018

       The inclusion of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence has long set a standard for the lives of people who live in our country.  In our work, our community involvement, our desire to maintain a stable life at home, and our struggle to make ends meet and to face challenging times with courage and ingenuity, we do try to be happy.  

      The website seeks to bring “the science of happiness to life.”  It lists seven habits of happy people:

  • Express your heart (cultivate relationships). 
  • Acts of kindness (volunteer and care for others). 
  • Keep moving and eat well (maintain physical and mental well-being). 
  • Find your flow (engage in an activity in your skill set that gives you enjoyment). 
  • Discover meaning (some identify faith and spirituality as finding meaning and purpose in life). 
  • Discover and use your strengths (identify pursuits in which you excel).  
  • Treasure gratitude, mindfulness, and hope. 

     Rabbi Evan Moffic, in his book The Happiness Prayer, engages in an in-depth discussion of a prayer that comes from morning worship in the Jewish tradition.   I had always thought of the prayer as a values checklist.   Rabbi Moffic’s book made me realize that it could also present a prescription for happiness.  

       Here is the passage:  “These are things that are limitless, of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world....They are: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion/kindness, arriving early for study, morning and evening, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people. But the study of Torah (learning for a higher purpose) encompasses them all.”

     In his book, Rabbi Moffic offers examples of each of these practices and how they can enrich our lives.  At the end of his book are questions that can help the reader determine how his or her current activities resonate with the book’s suggestions for pursuing happiness and how he or she can move further along a path of contentment. 

     This prayer has always intrigued me because it says so much with so few words.  It teaches us that when we honor our parents, we will feel more at equilibrium and, thereby, teach our children (or other younger family members), in turn, to honor us.   It places acting with kindness and caring towards others at the center of what we can and should do every day, by extending a welcome to all people and by being present when people face health challenges, when they celebrate life’s milestones, and when they are in mourning for a loved one.  It recommends that, when we seek to increase our knowledge, we should do so with people whom we will come to know and trust through our study.  This passage directs us to take time out of our routines to contemplate our lives and what they mean and to determine how we can improve them.  It holds in high regard people who find ways to turn conflict into resolution and, eventually, friendship.  

    And, finally, this passage notes that discussing with others how to perform these positive actions has the potential to change the world, because we will put into practice what we learn, with a belief that what we do will make a difference. 

    So may we, in our own way, not only be happy, but do happy, so that we can bring greater contentment to ourselves and to our community. 




Thursday, April 26, 2018

King’s words from 1961 are still touching today - op-ed in Las Cruces Sun-News published on April 22, 2018

      On February 11, 2018, Temple Beth-El’s Social Action Committee and the Dona Ana County Branch of the NAACP co-sponsored the presentation of a recording of a speech delivered by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 12, 1961 at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts.   

     Rabbi Joseph Klein was serving that congregation at that time (as he did for nearly 30 years).  He had kept a tape recording of the speech, which he brought with him when he served as rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces beginning in 1977.  Before he left Las Cruces, when his time here concluded, he presented congregant Frances Williams with a copy of the recording.  

      What those gathered at Temple on February 11 heard was an enhanced version of the recording, with images added by Dr. Bobbie Green of New Mexico State University.  The event included songs performed by the NMSU Gospel Choir and a panel discussion.   

       Hearing Dr. King’s words in his own voice strongly resonated with us, with many of his statements offering a commentary on the issues of his time that could be applied to our time in 2018. 

       One paragraph of his speech touched us all, as we, all too often, fail to engage in respectful conversation and communal connection: “For too often in the South, we find ourselves seeking to live in monologue rather than dialogue.  No greater tragedy can befall a community than this tragedy of seeking to live in monologue.  Men hate each other often because they fear each other.  They fear each other because they don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they can’t communicate with each other.  They can’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” 

       As we have just marked 50 years since the assassination of Dr.King, his sentiments come down to us as a challenge to talk, to listen, to interact, and to get to know one another. 

       We can, and do, create programs and events that enable us to learn about each other’s background and culture or to gather for common celebrations in which we all can share. 

      Temple Beth-El’s Jewish Food and Folk Festival on April 15, now in its fifth year,

provides one such opportunity to gain new knowledge and to enjoy the tastes, sights and sounds that are the hallmark of one of the groups in Las Cruces. 

      There are many other events that take place in our city and county that can bring us closer.    Music, musical theater, drama, dance, lectures, and a variety of themed festivals offer us more than entertainment and edification. They give us a chance to be in the same place for the same purpose.   

      That is the beginning to what Dr. King urged us to do: to make connections with each other that will lead to thoughtful conversation, dialogue and, hopefully, a newfound mutual understanding. 

        May we continue to make that happen in Las Cruces and beyond.  


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Board Meeting - April 19, 2018

God of love and understanding,

Of cooperation and peace, 

On this 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising,

Strengthen our resolve to believe in and act upon 

Our individual vision and communal mission

Remembering those who undertook a fight that might have been 

Futile from the start

In order to assert the freedom they felt in their hearts

As Jews and as human beings. 

On this 70th anniversary of the declaration 

Of the State of Israel as a modern Jewish nation, 

Help us to turn our eyes towards that land 

Mindful of ties to our people and our history.

May we ever renew our connections to the people who live there

Of whatever background and religion, 

As they seek to put the values of our Jewish heritage into practice. 

Enable them to overcome disputes and disagreements

That might prevent a deeper sense of shared purpose and unity 

And may we rediscover in ourselves a desire to support their quest

For the common good, for liberty, for equality, and for the blessing of a peaceful life. 

On this 23rd anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, keep us vigilant to notice and sense any indication that seeds of bigotry have taken root in fellow citizens who may be easily swayed into blaming a particular group for their failures, their challenges, and their personal pain.   May we find partners among people from all cultures and faiths in promoting a greater knowledge of our respective customs and beliefs, so that anyone who may be seen only as a feared stranger may ultimately be viewed as a trusted neighbor. 

And may this day and every day give us the opportunity to join together in common and sacred purpose as we build a community and congregation based on prized values, mutual respect, and enduring hope for a bright and secure future.   

Friday, April 13, 2018

Remembrance 5778 - for the Shabbat after Yom Hashoah

Eternal God,
Creator and Sustainer of us all,
We come together once again
To remember those who perished
Because of who they were
Having preserved the faith of Israel
In their time
Inherited from many generations before
Only to face a new, diabolical force
of bigotry and cruelty
That perpetrated not only prejudice
But begrudged the lives of the people
Whom they despised
To the point of depriving them of
their very existence.
There were Jews and Christians
and Muslims and others
Who were able to places themselves
In the role of support, resistance and rescue,
And, eventually, a to become a broader network
dedicated to resettlement and renewal
in new lands, in new homes,
once the tragic years had come to an end.
We know that You, God of compassion,
Could not break through stiffened hearts
To change their actions from evil to good,
But there were many who let You into their souls
To perform acts of courage
That acknowledged the presence of
Your sacred image in every person.
And so, even now,
We need You, loving God,
To help us break through hardened hearts
To calm the fears harbored by some towards those
who are different from them in any way
To remind everyone that we all face challenges
And that no one group is to blame
Even while demagogues attempt
to create lines of division
Through dehumanization and ridicule
based on half-truths
That work to solidify separations from which 
they derive their power.
May we answer those attempts to sow discord
with understanding, cooperation,
respectful dialogue, and unity.
May Your Oneness, O God, encompass all of us
And bring us hope for a future in which
people throughout the world can thrive
in the shining light of freedom.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Invocation - Board meeting - April 12, 2018

Eternal God,

Source of wisdom and insight, 

Creator of the processes and intricacies 

Of a diverse but unified existence,

Be with us in our deliberations

As we examine foundational practices

And new ideas. 

Infuse our conversations with understanding

And discernment. 

Remind us that there are both agreements and disputes

That can be sacred

When they occur within a context

Touched with holiness.  

May our discourse result

In shared purpose

And continued commitment

To the mission that brings us together. 

Two posts for Yom Hashoah 5778/2018 - Remembrance and Resolve, Even Now

April 11, 2018
In remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and recalling the heroism that created an opportunity for survival that might not otherwise have been possible. These candles were lit at our ceremony for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, at Temple Beth-El tonight led by our Hebrew School students (and me). The 27 of us present represented not only ourselves but also generations past and, most important, the generations to come that will keep the lights of remembrance, learning, freedom and hope burning.

April 12, 2018
I just watched “G.I. Jews,” a film presented on PBS about American Jews who served in the military during World War II. They faced prejudice and taunting themselves - perpetrated by their fellow soldiers - because they were Jews. Eventually, the soldiers who liberated concentration camps 73 years ago, no matter what their religious background, reacted with deep anger to the results of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis that they witnessed during liberation. 
As tears welled up for me as I watched the film, I realize that my response came from more than years of taking part in commemorations of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is today on the Jewish calendar.
My tears emerged because I see too many examples all around us of hatred, prejudice, dehumanization, denigration, bullying accompanied by name-calling and fearmongering intended to raise certain groups of people over others. Even with protests that bring people together to speak out, it is hard not to feel helpless.
Holocaust commemorations offer a platform from which we can realize that we, as individuals and as a community, have the capacity to answer indecency with integrity, to combat injustice with righteousness, to raise our voices for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves.
At Temple Beth-El Las Cruces tomorrow night, April 13, our 7:00 pm service will be based on a liturgy I have used for many years that was originally prepared for an interfaith Holocaust commemoration. While Shabbat is not a time for mourning, it can be a time for remembrance and resolve, and that is what we will do.
I am hoping that such remembrance this year will strengthen our commitment to stand up in ways that will make a difference.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Where freedom and love meet - thoughts for the last night of Passover 5778 - April 6, 2018

A people
Escaped the chains that bound them
To harsh labor
To unbridled cruelty
To hopeless days and nights.
They witnessed
Wondrous power
Pitted against the oppression wielded over them
Signs that directed them to look into their future
To see a new existence never imagined
Only after one who thought he was a god
And his people
Realized that their ability to control
Those whom they had kept under their thumb
For so long
Was only an illusion.
Unable to accept that sudden revelation
They pursued and were overtaken
By raging waters
That completed a rebellion against their assumption
That they could enslave and dehumanize others with no one to stop them. 
These people newly redeemed
Were faced with a new reality, in which they could finally know
The right to question and challenge
The right to work when they knew
That they needed to complete a task
And to rest when they understood
That in taking time away from productivity
They would find themselves.
They would learn
That their newfound liberty
Demanded of them
Establishing their own standards for behavior
Practicing the teachings that had been presented to them
by their God
through their patient, if not beleaguered, leader
Who knew that it was his responsibility
To light the way.
They learned
That they would best preserve their freedom
Not through following a new Pharaoh
But by opening their eyes
To the wondrous world around them
To the relationships they could establish with each other
To the guidance one generation could give to the next
And by setting an example of
Upholding justice
Acting with kindness
Showing compassion
And approaching each other with love:
Love within families
Love within their community
Love that could extend to the world around them
And love that would bring in people
From outside their circle
Not to see them as strangers
But as human beings
Because they knew what it meant
To be a stranger.
Would they be able to transmit their values
Throughout the many centuries to come?
Would they find it in themselves to communicate
How their freedom would endure
If they persisted in finding a reason
to love one another?
And so this people that was bound to their God,
Whom they loved, who loved them in return,
Resolved to sing a song of love
With the arrival of spring
While seeing divine love in their learning,
in the wisdom that blessed their minds and souls,
And in their devotion to the instruction given them
So long ago
that renews itself with creation every day.
May our song of freedom and the lilting tune
That accompanies the declarations of love
That have been understood to express the
Affection and connection between God
And this people
Inspire us to truly spread the gift of freedom
To people throughout the world
in a spirit of unity and endearment
that will find its way into the hearts of
all who live now
And to all who will preserve this message           
in  generations yet to come.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

“Hospitality bears gifts we might not imagine” - column for Las Cruces Bulletin on Friday, April 6, 2018

   A prayer near the beginning of a morning worship service in the Jewish tradition lists values that we can and should put into practice.  One of those actions is welcoming guests, that is, showing hospitality.  

      I learned about hospitality from seeing my parents, relatives and other friends organize and host gatherings in their homes.  

    I also learned about hospitality from the verses in Genesis Chapter 18 that I read when I became Bar Mitzvah just over 50 years ago.  That passage featured the story of guests who appeared at the tent of Abraham and Sarah, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate the usual enthusiastic welcoming that they would give to visitors who came their way. 

     The guests turned out to be messengers (from God) who brought news of the impending birth of Isaac. 

      I was reminded this week of a moment when someone who had once been denied a welcome came with her family to offer me an important invitation.  

       The reminder came with the news of the death of Linda Brown in Topeka, Kansas on March 26. 

     Anyone who has studied “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” the school desegregation case that was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court, may recall seeing a photo of a young Linda Brown standing outside of Monroe School.   That school was two miles from her home, while another elementary school, Sumner, was right across the street from where she lived.   

      Sumner School, however, was open only to white students.  Monroe School was where black children attended.   

       30 years ago, while I was serving as rabbi in Topeka, Linda, her mother Leola, and her sister Cheryl came to my Temple to invite me to be a founding Board member of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.     

       The Brown Foundation successfully worked towards the creation of the Brown v. Board National Historic Site, which was dedicated in 2004 as the National Park Service’s main museum to tell the story of school desegregation.  The Brown Foundation’s first annual commemoration, in 1989, of the May 17 anniversary of the Supreme Court decision (in 1954) featured Rosa Parks as the main speaker.

      Welcoming guests/hospitality is a value that we can and should extend to people throughout our community.   On Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom, the Seder meal held on the first and second nights of the eight-day holiday gives families and congregations the chance to invite friends and guests to attend and to learn about a centuries-old Jewish tradition.   

     Recently, Morning Star United Methodist Church invited members of Temple Beth-El and the Islamic Center of Las Cruces to attend their Palm Sunday service on March 25.  Church leaders acknowledged our presence and welcomed us with enthusiasm.   It was a clear demonstration of how the value of hospitality can building stronger connections and bridges between people that can foster dialogue and even friendship. 

    There are many more examples of welcome that are being offered by organizations and congregations in Las Cruces to create communal connection, and to provide help to people who face serious challenges to their freedom, health, and well-being.  Such efforts deserve our support. 

    May we find ways in our lives to offer a spirited welcome to someone we don’t know well, or to someone we do know, in order to strengthen relationships that could bring us gifts which we might not even be able to imagine. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

New Rooms, New Chapters, New Hope - Column for the Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter for April 2018

    New York City will be thematically and visually represented at this year’s “Chai Five” Jewish Food and Folk Festival. It really isn’t that easy to create an ambience in Las Cruces, New Mexico that truly approximates the feeling of walking on a street in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens (based on my own personal experience). We can, of course, present culinary offerings that are common in or near a city with a large Jewish community. 
     During Rhonda’s and my “spring break” visit to the Big Apple, we were treated to the sights, tastes and smells of characteristic Jewish foods. Eating establishments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (near where the New York Karols live) feature bagels, lox and various cream cheeses; kosher meat dishes (chicken schawarma has become my favorite); and a breakfast cafĂ©, where Adam, Juli and I heard several conversations in Hebrew. A nearby supermarket touted the widest selection of Passover items in the city. One bakery displayed small challot, challah rolls and sweet delicacies right in the window. My choice for lunch at “Russ and Daughters” at the Jewish Museum featured a pumpernickel bagel, cream cheese and lox with a Dr. Brown’s diet black cherry soda.   

While these foods may represent a definite component of Jewish identity, we know that Jewishness goes much deeper than stimuli for our taste buds. Our visit to the Jewish Museum on March 19 was not just about food. There was a major exhibit of items from their long-term collection that are not always on display. That included ancient artifacts that bore a 7-branched Menorah and six-pointed stars; paintings and sculptures that portrayed Jewish holiday observances; and a presentation of home symbols such as mezuzot, chanukiot, wine cups and Havdalah sets in various shapes and sizes. There was an ark that had been housed in a synagogue in Sioux City, Iowa, up-river from my hometown of Kansas City.

    What affected me the most were the items displayed in two adjoining galleries. The first gallery presented items from Terezin, the Theresienstadt "camp-ghetto" in Czechoslovakia, which existed between November, 1941 and May, 1945. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, Theresienstadt served as a transit camp for Czech Jews to be sent to other
camps, and, later, as a ghetto-labor camp where the Nazi regime created a cultural life that successfully concealed the nature of the camp itself and the ultimate deportations. The exhibit included an art piece with verses from Psalms that were suggested to the artist by Rabbi Leo Baeck, a liberal rabbi in Germany who survived throughout the war and settled in London afterwards. There was a chanukiah and a piece of jewelry with multiple symbols, both fashioned in the camp. There were drawings that depicted scenes in Theresienstadt that offer evidence of life there at that tragic time. 

    In the next room was an exhibit of stereographic photographs from the Middle East from the years before and after 1900. There were viewers provided for visitors to look at the images in their “near-3D” format. One stereograph showed worshippers at the Western Wall (men and women together). There were other scenes of Jerusalem and Jewish settlement in the land at the time. 
    Before we moved on to another floor, I took a moment to reflect on what I had just seen. There were images and items that reflected vibrant Jewish communities over the course of centuries. There were paintings and expressions of our ritual and religious tradition that had been created even amid the harsh reality of a seeming ghetto/village that expressed anti-Semitism through subterfuge and hidden cruelty. There were visual portrayals of the developing Jewish community in what is now the State of Israel, which is approaching the 70th anniversary of its creation. 
    As we now observe our festival of Passover, with its theme of freedom, it bears a strong message for us in the present day. We are standing on the shoulders of Jews and their communities that demonstrated commitment and persistence in sustaining Jewish life. We, as members of a Jewish congregation and community in the United States, have the unique opportunity to maintain that spirit for the present and the future. We declare, as the Passover Seder concludes, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” May the “next year” and the decades to come in Las Cruces and throughout the world bring an ongoing renewal of the Jewish soul, in our taste buds, for sure, but, primarily, in our minds, hearts and souls!