Friday, January 28, 2011

Not strangers... - January 28, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This verse from this week’s Torah reading, MISHPATIM, resonates with two anniversaries remembered this week.

January 27 is designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of the Auschwitz/Birkenau Nazi concentration/extermination camps in 1945. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon paid special tribute this year to the women who suffered in the Holocaust in his official statement for this commemoration: "Mothers and daughters, grandmothers, sisters and aunts, they saw their lives irrevocably changed, their families separated and their traditions shattered. Yet, despite appalling acts of discrimination, deprivation and cruelty, they consistently found ways to fight back against their persecutors. They joined the resistance, rescued those in peril, smuggled food into ghettos and made wrenching sacrifices to keep their children alive. Their courage continues to inspire. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us honor these women and their legacy. Let us pledge to create a world where such atrocities can never be repeated.”

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle accident which many of us, I am sure, vividly remember. The deaths of Dick Scobee. Michael Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Ronald McNair. Christa McAuliffe and Gregory Jarvis were a tragedy that touched everyone. It was a crew that was multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith, united in their quest for knowledge that would enhance the human experience. Many people in New Hampshire knew Christa McAuliffe because she was teaching in Concord, New Hampshire. Because Christa McAuliffe was a teacher, she seemed close to all of us - a woman representing any personal quest we may undertake to broaden our horizons. Rhonda and I were shopping for a crib for our soon-to-be-born child when we saw the first news of the accident on the television in that store. We quickly found out that one of our congregants in Topeka, who grew up in Cleveland, knew the Resnik family, and that Rhonda’s brother, Alan, had gone to school in Framingham with Christa’s sister. In all such tragedies, the world should seem close, even without trying to determine our “degrees-of-separation,” because we are all part of one human family. All of us have challenges through which we must find a way to move forward, and, also, to appropriately and sensitively remember so that we can continue to discover and generate hope and light for the future.

It isn’t easy to create a community where no one feels like a stranger. Yet, the best of our tradition calls on us to try our best to bring down barriers and see the interconnections between us all that can enable us to find healing and renewal together. May we continue to join in this task and calling.


Rabbi Larry

Friday, January 21, 2011

Every One - and Everyone - a Treasure - January 21, 2011

From the Union for Reform Judaism-January 17, 2011
Parashat B’shalach
DAVAR ACHER (Alternate Interpretation)
Every One—and Everyone—a Treasure
Lawrence P. Karol

Over the years of my rabbinate, I have written, spoken, and composed songs about creating community. Through these kinds of activities, we can do what Rabbi Dan Levin describes (in his featured interpretation for this week) as “weaving a web of relation with each other,” which can, in turn, build a relationship with God. Weaving that web of relationships requires listening to much-needed counsel, as Moses did with his father-in-law Jethro, and, at times, “taking oneself out of the equation,” which Moses learned to do as the Israelites, united as one, promised to follow God’s commandments. Moses, the leader, was reminded that he was both a leader and, still, one of the people.

The word “listen” is prominent in Exodus 19:5, in which God declared, “ ‘V’atah im shamoa tish’m’u B’Koli—Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully [literally, “listen to My voice”] and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.’ ” The next verse takes the special nature of the Israelite people even further: “ ‘but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ ”

God’s words were conditional: You will be a treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy people if you keep the covenant. This parashah highlights, as integral to that covenant: truly listening to each other and to a still, small voice that offers guidance and strength, and acting upon what we hear; being humble enough to see oneself as part of the people, willing to put collective needs before personal concerns for the greater good; and recognizing that everyone has the potential to be a treasure and to offer a unique contribution and spirit that can enrich the entire community. May each of us fulfill this for ourselves and lead others along that path to creating a kahal kadosh, a sacred community, wherever we may be.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Beloved Community - January 14, 2011

Shabbat Shalom.

“There are certain things we can say about this method [of non-violence] that seeks justice without violence. It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. I think that this is one of the points, one of the basic points, one of the basic distinguishing points between violence and non-violence. The ultimate end of violence is to defeat the opponent. The ultimate end of non-violence is to win the friendship of the opponent…the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Justice Without Violence,” April 3, 1957 and “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of the “beloved community” came to mind for me in a variety of ways this week. Tonight is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, when we remember the Israelites rejoicing by the Sea of Reeds after escaping the pursuit of the Egyptians, who had hoped to recapture the Israelites to make them slaves once again. The rabbis wondered why the women happened to have timbrels with them by the sea so that they could break into song and dance, led by Moses’ sister Miriam. They explained that the women had faith that miracles, such as gaining their freedom, awaited them, so that they would have a reason to celebrate. The women carried with them the hope and love of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke.

Many members of the worldwide Jewish community have mourned this week the death of songwriter/songleader/performer/teacher Debbie Friedman in California at age 59. I posted some extended comments about Debbie on my personal blog,, recounting some of my more memorable moments with Debbie, beginning even before I met her in 1975. Rhonda and I watched the funeral (you can see it at or, along with the evening minyan, at this past Tuesday, hearing eulogies from well-known rabbis and teachers, and marveling at the strength of the musical performances by Craig Taubman, Josh Nelson, Julie Silver, and Cantor Linda Kates. Debbie had a way of bringing people together, not only through song, but through prayer and study that emerged from the lyrics and melodies she composed. Her concert performances, workshops at conventions, healing services in many communities, and teaching at camps, congregations and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion gave many people a common experience and a shared musical language. That unity has been evident in comments that have pervaded several e-mail digests and facebook over the last few days. The lyrics of Debbie’s song, “One People” reflect Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a beloved community: “We are one people seeking justice, one people seeking freedom, one people seeking hope, one people seeking peace.” Her English setting of a phrase from Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” also conveys a similar message of hope which can guide us in how we view our relationships, including within congregational life.

The tragedy in Tucson this past Saturday has touched our entire nation, and perhaps the world as well. Congressional representative Gabrielle Giffords continues on her difficult road to recovery. I am sure that many of us read in Foster’s Daily Democrat that our congregant Todd Selig has met and gotten to know Representative Giffords:
I was in contact on Wednesday with two rabbinic colleagues who were touched by this sad event, one who serves the Conservative synagogue in Tucson, the other who was organizing a candlelight vigil at the Claremont Colleges in California for Representative Giffords, who is an alumna of Scripps college. Such ties make the shootings in Tucson seem even closer to us. In an email last Friday night to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (soon to be director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics), Giffords told her friend from the Republican party: “After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation. I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down,” This vision represents a step towards “beloved community.” President Obama echoed that vision as he memorialized 9 year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green: “Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted….I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

In our nation, in our community, in our congregation, the vision of a beloved community can guide us along a hopeful and productive path, one on which we are traveling companions who are able to engage in civil conversations that can take us forward to achieve our shared goals. May the thoughts we share with one another and the songs we sing continue to make us one people seeking freedom, justice, hope and peace.

Rabbi Larry

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remembering Debbie Friedman - January 10, 2011

I am sure that many of you have heard about the death of Jewish songwriter/performer Debbie Friedman, whose music permeates not only our services but worship all over the world.
I know that some of you have had the chance to see Debbie in concert and perhaps, even, to meet her and get to know her.
Here are a some of my recollections about Debbie.
The first of Debbie’s songs I heard was “Thou Shalt Love,” which our Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth songleader had brought back to our regional institute in August of 1971 from the Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York, Two years later, my brother, Steve, brought home Debbie’s album, “Sing Unto God,” after his summer working with Debbie at the Chalutzim/Pioneer Hebrew-based program at Olin Sang Ruby Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I was excited to hear this new music on the American Jewish scene on that album and on Debbie’s second album, “Not By Might, Not by Power.” Our Hillel Choir at the University of Illinois was already singing her music by in the spring of 1974 through Debbie’s many Chicago connections. She visited the campus of the University of Illinois for a weekend in the spring of 1975, songleading at the weekly Shabbat dinner I attended at a dorm across campus, participating in a Friday night service and working with our choir (she taught us her new song “Laugh at All My Dreams”). I also remember that, during her Saturday night Bet CafĂ©, Debbie encouraged me to sing an original song I had shared earlier that day.
I enjoy many opportunities to see Debbie in concert in my home community of Kansas City, at the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), conferences of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and at Reform Judaism’s biennial conventions. It wasn’t until the fall of 1989 that I realized Debbie had me on her wide-ranging map of personal connections. After a meeting of the Commission on Synagogue Music, I went up to Debbie to introduce myself and she responded quickly, “Larry, you don’t have to introduce yourself to me!” She had a way of remembering people that made each person feel special, an important part of her world. At the biennial convention in San Francisco in 1993, during Debbie’s concert on the last night, I remember standing with my mom, singing the Mi Shebeirach, soon after my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. The place, but, especially, Debbie and the song, made that moment memorable (and my mom did end up going to several more biennials).
There were special moments at CAJE conventions – singing in the CAJE Chorale was especially enjoyable. Debbie kept us laughing at rehearsals while taking a large group to a point of being performance-ready. At CAJE in 1990 in Columbus, Ohio, Peter Yarrow made a special appearance not only at a major evening program, but also at a kumsitz/sing-along late one night. I was among many people standing in the dorm lounge, enjoying every minute of this songfest. The next morning, Debbie saw me and said, “Larry, I really enjoyed watching you last night during the kumsitz – you were so enthralled!”
A number of years later, Rhonda and I went to a healing service in Kansas City in which Debbie participated. Our son, Adam (now a Berklee College of Music trained R&B singer working at the Union for Reform Judaism) didn’t believe that we knew Debbie personally. Rhonda and I greeted Debbie after the service and told her what Adam had said. On the back of the service booklet, Debbie wrote, “Dear Adam: Not only do I know your ABBA (Dad) but I also know your DOD (Uncle)!”
Hava Nashira, the songleading workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby camp, has brought together and sustained a community of creative and spirited people who share and have been inspired by Debbie’ guidance and leadership. Her presentation of music included her usual humor that had us laughing almost uncontrollably at times, as well as her special touch of singing her Mi Shebeirach for us before we would sing it together. There are two personal moments that come to mind to me from Hava Nashira. In 2004, just after my mom had died, I was still wearing my k’riah ribbon. I attended the event because, I thought, my mom would have wanted me to go. In a songwriting workshop (with teaching shared by Debbie, Craig Taubman and Jeff Klepper), Debbie sent us out of the room to come up with an idea for a song. Before I left, she pointed to my ribbon and said, “Larry, you need to write about that.” I thought, “Thank you, Debbie, how am I going to do that?” Debbie had, of course, set me on the right path. I wrote a list of words that characterized my mom’s life and set to music the Hebrew of the line from Psalm 118, “This is the day that the Eternal has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The chorus/refrain was done; the rest of the song came six weeks later. The next year, I took part in leading a Hava Nashira song session with members of my “homeroom” group, during which I chose to teach a new original song. According to our advisor and mentor, Craig Taubman, our songleading session did not go well at all. Still, as I stood by the beverage station at dinner, Debbie came up to me and said, “Larry, did you write that song you sang today in the song session at lunch?” I said, “Yes, I did.” She said, “Well, I really liked it!” I know many of my colleagues who had the chance to enjoy moments like that as well! Several people have mentioned the time during the Shabbat Morning service at Hava Nashira in 1999 when the lights and power came back on after being out overnight as we were singing Debbie’s “Yotzeir Or” (the One who creates light). Oh, the power of song!
I have been asked which of Debbie’s songs is my favorite. I have many, but there is one that has always captivated me. I first heard “Shelter of Peace,” from Debbie’s “World of Your Dreams” album, at the CAJE convention in 1992. I was overwhelmed by the song, not just because it was a very touching lullaby, but because it was God’s lullaby to us. I realized that it was probably linked to the Hashkiveinu evening prayer and wanted to sing it immediately upon my return home to Topeka. I called Sounds Write Productions, and spoke with Randee Friedman. She told me that the song was, in fact, based on the Hashkiveinu prayer, and that she was willing to fax me the sheet music. I have been singing it ever since, and that is the song that I added to our January 7 service at a time when many people were praying for Debbie’s health.
Debbie didn’t just have a way with words…and music. I was always impressed how she interpreted prayers and biblical and rabbinic texts into a singable and poignant English lyric, with Hebrew included or even interwoven into the words of the song. And there were songs that were only one language that were also very, very powerful. “This is the Day” was the opening song for Adam’s Bar Mitzvah. We also sang Debbie’s “Modim” that day, a setting that Adam and I have sung together during worship several times over the years. I was glad that Adam had the opportunity to join me in singing in Debbie’s CAJE Chorale in 2000, to experience everything that I had seen – her creativity, her humor, her ability to lead us to create a unified sound and get the best harmonies out of our many voices, while saying, almost without fail, “I wish you could all be up here to you sing!”
I was writing a song based on Psalms 111, 112, and 113 for our local Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday commemoration as I heard the news about Debbie’s hospitalization. The song is complete and will soon be posted on my reverbnation site ( I realize that some of the lyrics reflect many of Debbie’s songs taken from Psalms and other text. “A Light is Shining” is a tribute to Debbie’s light that she shared with us: to sing, to create and to bring our faith and spirit to life in lyrics, melody, and personal enthusiasm and presence. May her memory be for blessing, and may her many songs continue to inspire us in the years to come.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Light in their dwellings - January 7, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!
During the plague of darkness in Egypt, the Israelites “enjoyed light in all their dwellings,” while the Egyptians found themselves in thick blackness “that could be touched.”
It may be difficult to imagine such a darkness. The Etz Hayim commentary suggests that this must not have been the type of darkness that could be defined as the “relative absence of light.” The Torah stated that the Egyptians “could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he/she was.”
This mysterious darkness was immobilizing and debilitating in ways that seem physical but could be, primarily, spiritual or psychological. With such an interpretation, we could say that darkness has descended on a community when people are unable to recognize each other as fellow human beings, perhaps due to conflict, accumulated animosity or even hatred.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thought of hatred and love in terms of darkness and light. In one of his well –known sermons at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, he asserted: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
King’s notion of casting light on a place where there is only darkness relates to the Torah’s tale of the Egyptian refusal to grant the Israelites freedom. As Pharaoh was immobilized and unable to see the good that would come from liberating the slaves in his own heart and for his people, so were the people also caught in a place where they could not recognize the humanity of the Israelites among them. That was the darkness that engulfed them, and there was no guarantee that even granting the Israelites their freedom would dispel that darkness.
We know well that the plague of such darkness persists in many corners of the earth and in the human heart. The words of Psalm 112, as translated by Pamela Greenberg, offer us insight into how goodness and godliness can lift us to a higher place: “For the goodhearted, light shines even in the dark: you are full of grace, compassion and justice.” The “you” can be God or the spark of God in each of us. May we continue to nurture that light within us.
Rabbi Larry