Thursday, May 31, 2018

Sharing our blessings amid sorrow and joy - Las Cruces Bulletin Column on June 1, 2018

      I am probably not the only clergy person who enjoys being present at landmark celebrations in people’s lives.    

      There are some who say that clergy may be among happiest people because of this unique opportunity that frequently arises in both smaller and larger congregations. 

      At celebrations of birth, the beginning of religious education, coming of age (Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition), and at weddings, I recite, in Hebrew and English, the passage from the book of Numbers known at the “Priestly blessing”:

 “May the Eternal One bless you and keep you. May the Eternal One cause the light of the divine face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Eternal One lift the divine face towards you and grant you peace.” 

   One young woman at Temple Beth-El recently recited this very passage as part of her reading from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) during her service.   In the middle of the service, I, in turn, spoke those words to pass on to her the blessing of our heritage. 

      On May 6, I pronounced those same words for my daughter-in-law, Juli, just after she had been ordained as a rabbi during a service at Congregation Emanu-El in New York City, culminating her five years as a student at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).   

     The day before Juli’s ordination service, Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of HUC-JIR, suddenly and tragically died in the crash of a plane he was piloting along with an instructor.   Rabbi Panken had been set to officiate at the ordination of each new cantor (trained musical clergy) and rabbi.    Another faculty member was chosen to offer individual charges to each ordinee. 

    That turn of events required everyone present to take a different view of those moments of blessing.   School alumni who were present to participate in the processional for the ceremony comforted faculty, students, college staff and each other.  Before and during the service, the message was conveyed that, even after the death of a beloved teacher, mentor, leader, and friend, it was still a day of celebration on which it was appropriate to feel pride and joy. 

    Rabbi Panken wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.  The blessing that he gave to his colleagues, students, and members of audiences and congregations who heard him speak, was his commitment and enthusiasm as he communicated timely lessons embodied in the ancient texts that were his speciality.    

     His legacy was very much evident at ordination, as was his enduring presence in the way in which he touched the lives of so many in attendance. 

     The blessing from the book of Numbers reminds us that it is both our privilege and our responsibility to transmit to our peers and to the next generation significant gifts from the essence of who we are.     

      The person who utters those words serves as a conduit through which the one who is blessed receives gifts of affirmation, security, confidence, kindness, patience, acceptance, peace and well-being that can endure well beyond that poignant moment. 

     May we remember that there are always ways in which we can give one another blessings that can accompany us along our life’s path.  






Friday, May 18, 2018

Blessing for Religious School Students - May 18, 2018

Eternal God, 
Source of wisdom, 
Giver of knowledge, 
Who enlightens our eyes And deepens our hearts with learning and insights, 
Bless these children, 
The children of our community, 
As they continue upon their path of exploration of our tradition 
And heritage. 
Guide them to understand that the lessons learned here 
Through conversations and celebrations, 
From stories and songs, 
Through personal curiosity and communal action 
Will accompany them not only in the days and weeks to come 
But throughout their lives. 
Help them realize that while the future depends on them, 
They do not have to bear that weight of responsibility alone. 
Remind them that the relationships they create with classmates and teachers 
Will enable them to forge connections with new study partners 
Based on the Jewish foundation of gaining new understandings face-to-face and 
Grant their parents and other family members 
The persistence and commitment to support them on their journey 
As they discover how all that they have learned within these walls 
Will be a beacon that will guide them to perform acts of goodness and kindness 
 That will bring greater justice and peace to the human family. 
Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, 
Who grants a measure of divine wisdom to those who revere 
The holiness in this world of ours. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Invocation - New Mexico State University Afternoon Graduation - May 12, 2018

Eternal One,
God our Creator,
Sustainer of us all,
Gracious giver of knowledge, 
Be present with these students  
As they celebrate this milestone
Developing new skills,
Building confidence,
Creating a foundation for growth
And creating a community of mutual support
With peers and classmates
With family members and friends
That will accompany them along their future path. 
May their learning direct them to further exploration
Of their chosen field
So that they can share their special gifts
With a world that needs their enthusiasm,
Ingenuity, and spirit. 
Help them understand that challenges along the way
Can teach them new lessons 
About themselves
about their abilities 
And about how what they have learned here
Will continue to make them strong in any and every situation. 
Bless them with optimism and humility 
And a sense that expertise does not necessarily mean  
knowing all the answers 
But knowing where to find them. 
May their search for the right community, the right position, 
The right work 
Bring them towards their goals
And fill them with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction
And even happiness. 
And may they remember what administrators, faculty and staff
Have made possible for them at this university
Providing them with possibilities for themselves they may have never imagined.  
Source of life, M’kor Chayim,
Grant blessing to all who are here today and bring us all, together, to a future filled with with light and hope.

Friday, May 11, 2018

“Proclaiming Liberties” - D’var Torah - Parashat Behar/Bechukotai - May 11, 2018

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof!”

That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? 

Given that this phrase from Leviticus Chapter 25, from our Torah reading tonight, is on the Liberty Bell, I hereby apologize for the pun. 

But it does sound good and serves as a foundation for who we are as a nation. 

The question is, whose liberty?  And what freedoms?

In the original section, the word D’ROR is used for liberty.  In this passage, U’K’RATEM DROR referred to declaring a release for the people from debts, returning lands to original owners, and allowing slaves and indentured servants to go free.   

     Rabbi John Rayner once pointed out that D’ROR also means a swallow.   He cited a comment by the medieval bible commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra about the connection of a swallow to freedom.  Ibn Ezra explained that a D’ROR is a small bird which sings when it is free, but will not eat or sing if it is held captive.   

  I like that Ibn Ezra connected the bird’s song to freedom.   We want people to feel enough contentment in their lives to be able to express themselves freely in the community in which they live.     

    The Jubilee every fifty years had as its intention to make people breathe easier about their lives, to put them on a more secure and stable footing, and to allow them to sing a song of freedom, if at all possible. 

    I suppose we don’t have a specific freedom of song guaranteed to us in the United States, but we do have freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  Sometimes those freedoms may bump up against each other in ways that our nation’s founders may not have expected.  

    That happened when House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan recently asked for the resignation of House Chaplain Patrick Conroy.  There were accusations that he was not fulfilling his pastoral duties with the House members, but many representatives disputed that claim.   

     It may have boiled down to the content of a prayer offered by Father Conroy during the deliberations last fall on the tax bill.   This is the paragraph that may have raised the ire of some members of the House: “May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle....May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans."   

     One representative commented, after the initial firing of Chaplain Conroy, that “invoking fairness if you’re a chaplain is apparently a firing offense.”    

    Conroy’s prayer finds some of its roots in this week’s portion, where the Torah called for balance so that Israelite society would not evolve into a community with sharp socioeconomic divisions, with a wide gulf between “haves” and “have-nots.”   This portion also reminds us that the land and our possessions may belong to us for a time, but that everything, ultimately, belongs to the One who created us and our world.   

     Speaker Ryan ultimately reinstated Father Conroy, who seems to offer thoughtful prayers that call on representatives to remember citizens of all means, backgrounds and walks of life in their important work.  

    I have delivered invocations in such settings throughout my rabbinate.  My message has often been similar to Father Conroy’s.  Remember whom you represent and serve; be mindful that we are all part of a greater community of humanity; and do all you can to extend support, opportunity, security, and even kindness to everyone.  

   This year, May 3 was the National Day of Prayer, which generally brings together leaders and adherents of the more conservative sector of the American faith community.   I attended two local events last year just to watch.   The prayers that were offered were all particularly Christian.  

    As I was flying to New York on the National day of prayer last Thursday, I decided to write my own words that expressed my sentiments for our national and worldwide human community.   Here is my meditation for us, for our nation, and for the world: 

Eternal God,

Creator and Sustainer of all humanity

Every day is a day to pour out our hearts to you

To express our hopes for well-being and strength. 

You are our Witness to our most unified moments and a Presence that stands with us at those times. 

You are our Conscience when our words and actions cause hurt and insult and foment division and hatred. 

You are a Liberator for those who seek to escape oppression. 

You are a Provider when you give us the abilities to help each other through the challenges we face daily. 

You are a Healer when we are mired in illness and grief. 

You are a Peacemaker when conflict seems to rule the day.

You are a Teacher who shows us how to live and to love one another as ourselves. 

May we be Your eyes, ears, hands and heart that can bring Your Oneness to every single soul

Not only in our nation

But throughout the world. 

Be our shelter

Give us blessing

In every moment. 

And I would add tonight:  May we be free, Eternal God, to sing our song, to pray our prayer, to express our hopes for fairness, for equality, and for liberty for many years to come.  

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Annual Meeting Message - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM.- May 10, 2018

  This is the day that the Eternal One has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! ZEH HAYOM ASAH ADONAI - NAGILAH V’NIS’M’CHAH VO. 

    Every day should be such a day as declared in Psalm 118, but we fall into our routines.  We may see some of our activities, our time spent with family, and our presence in the community, as special.    Still, days that “God has made” may be, for most people, few and far between, 

      14 years ago today was my mother’s funeral.  A few weeks later, that verse from Psalm 118 became the basis for a song that I created to remember my mother at the urging of Debbie Friedman herself.   I applied that phrase to my mom’s life because I felt that she treated every day just that way. 

     In our family, and in the world of Reform Judaism, this past Sunday promised to be a day that God had made, as Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City was holding its ordination ceremony for rabbis and cantors at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue.  I was all set to march with the students and alumni in the processional, to sit with Rhonda, Adam, and Juli’s parents, Steve and Nancie Schnur, and to ascend the bimah with Juli to give her a blessing after she was formally ordained by HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Aaron Panken.  

    It should have gone just that way, didn’t. 

    We had been with Adam, Juli and Josh on Saturday afternoon and evening. Earlier that day, I had attended the chapel service at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where Juli will be an assistant rabbi come July 1.  I went to the service so I could recite Kaddish for my mother on the day before the 14th anniversary of her death. 

     After we returned to our hotel room Saturday evening,  I called Juli’s parents, and Nancie Schnur asked me if I had heard what happened.   She told me that Rabbi Panken, an experienced airplane pilot, had been flying that morning with an instructor in a single engine plane.   The plane had crashed, and while the instructor survived, the EMTs were not able to save Rabbi Panken.   At that point, we were able to find a few reports online about the tragic accident.     

    One post on my rabbis’ conference Facebook members group on Saturday evening, wondering if we had heard about a terrible turn of events, became an online ongoing communal expression of shock, sadness and poignant remembrance.   This was the day before ordination, some said.  What will the service be like?, they wondered.   

     Rhonda and I wondered that, too.   Adam spoke with Rhonda and I called Juli a bit later.  A rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles texted me to tell me to give Juli a hug for her.   

     We arrived at Temple Emanuel on Sunday, not knowing what to expect.   The staff was there, and some of my rabbinic colleagues were arriving.   The HUC-JIR faculty had taken the students into a private room to speak with them, to comfort them, and to enable them to express their grief, as it was the first time they had all come together after hearing the sad news.   The rabbi who was supposed to ordain them would not be able to finish the task he had begun as their leader and mentor.   Rabbi Norman Cohen, a scholar, author, former provost of HUC-JIR, and one-time acting president of the college, was chosen to ordain the students as they came up before the ark,  one-by-one, during the service.   Alumni who had come to march in the processional were comforting students, staff, and faculty, as well as each other.   Students gathered for pre-service photographs and still smiled, knowing that special moments and the culmination of their studies awaited them, as well as the beginning of their journey as rabbis and cantors.   The sadness in the air in the downstairs social hall accompanied us to some extent as we moved upstairs and processed into the sanctuary.   Faculty and others who spoke at the service made sure that the students knew that while it was appropriate for them to feel grief for the death of their teacher and leader, and gratitude for what he gave them in his service to the college, it was also fitting for them to experience joy on this milestone day.   Once the ordination part of the service began, there was a gradual change in mood in the Temple Emanuel sanctuary.   The students went before the ark to receive their individual blessings from Rabbi Cohen.   When it was Juli’s turn, she and I ascended the bimah together.    Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave Juli a hug, having known Juli and her family for many years as his congregants at Westchester Reform Temple.  Rabbi Cohen ordained Juli, and then invited me to come up before the ark to offer my private words of blessing and encouragement to Juli.   After that special moment, we descended the bimah, where Adam and Josh were waiting for us in the aisle towards the front of the Sanctuary. 

     The service continued with a sense of accomplishment and simchah not only for the students, but also for all of the family members and friends present to celebrate the moment.    The assembled congregation had come together in the spirit of Mazal tov, and, on that day, there was an added touch of ZECHER TZADIK LIVRACHAH, may the memory of a righteous teacher who had died the day before be for blessing, and may his legacy continue. 

      Juli wrote on her facebook page on Sunday: “Today I experienced how strong community can be.  Today I was ordained a rabbi.”  

      14 years ago, after my mother had died,  I witnessed her community in Kansas City and my community in my own congregation offer comfort, support and solace in great measure, to the point where I was able to celebrate my mother’s life on the day of her funeral and afterwards. 

      This past Sunday,  family members, rabbis, cantors, friends, HUC-JIR staff and faculty, and rabbinic and cantorial students about to be ordained lifted each other up more than enough to be able to feel joy even while harboring grief at the loss of a teacher, rabbi, colleague and friend. 

      And isn’t that what community is about?   Aren’t we supposed to be present for each other at times of joy and achievement, as well as at moments of sadness and challenge?     

     If a sudden and unexpected death does anything, it makes us realize what is important in life and in the relationships we create as part of a congregational community.   It’s about the creative ideas that we fashion together and then bring to fruition.    What is important is not that we always agree, but that our disagreements find a pathway to resolution and to making us and our congregation better than we were before.   What is important is that we stand by each other, realizing that we are part of the same team, where any divisions we may perceive melt away when we consider how well we come together at times of triumph and accomplishment, and how we are sincerely present for one another at times of sorrow.    What is important is that we successfully commit to standing by and with each other during a four-hour period each year at the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, fulfilling the Jewish value of welcoming guests, being as hospitable as Abraham and Sarah, and feeding them as well!   What is important is that members of all ages at Temple Beth-El can find ways to practice the seven habits of happy people cited on the website  express your heart by cultivating  relationships; perform acts of kindness for other people; keep moving; find your flow, an activity in your skill set that gives you enjoyment; discover meaning and your purpose and place in life; discover and use your strengths; and treasure gratitude, mindfulness and hope.

    Most of you gathered here tonight know that we try to provide opportunities to practice these habits of happy people.  Those avenues of pursuit and experience materialize when we join together to make them happen.  That means that we need to frequently be HERE, as one congregation, as one community.     

    As your rabbi, that’s all I ask.   Rhonda and I were with a community of people on Sunday who had never been together before, and will never be together again in the same place for the same purpose.  Somehow, we were all able to forge our way onto the same page, in a spirit of holy presence, cooperation, and, for many, love.     

     I know we can do that, too. 

     Through the leadership of our board, led by Ellen Torres as Temple president; through committees that have been active and contributed quality to our Temple life reflected in learning, camaraderie, and giving; through the sparkle in the eyes of our children in Religious School and in BETY/BEMY; through Sisterhood and Mensch Club programs; and through your presence here for worship and other events and programs, most any day at Temple Beth-El can be a day that God has made, a day on which we can rejoice and be glad. 

      At this point in the continuing history of Temple Beth-El, I hope that we will continue to be partners in fellowship, in creativity, in friendship, and in engendering wisdom, joy and hope among us now and in the months and years to come.   May our efforts make that vision come to fruition on every single day of our time on this earth that God has made just for us. 



Invocation - Temple Beth-El Las Cruces NM Annual Meeting - May 10, 2018

Eternal God, 

Ancient One, 

Present One,

Who accompanies us along our life’s path, 

Be with us as we mark another year of 

Sustaining Jewish life at Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces. 

Open our eyes to see our successes reflected in the smiles

And closeness of members of all ages. 

Open our ears to listen to each other’s needs, ideas, concerns, 

And expressions of connection that reflect the ties that bind us together. 

Open our hearts to the possibility of finding purpose and meaning

In our study, in our worship, in our work that we accomplish side-by-side,

In our service to our neighbors in our city, 

And in relationships that could move towards fellowship and even friendship. 

May we, as part of the greater Jewish world, 

Preserve the heritage and tradition that has been passed down to us, 

And may we enhance its content and values so that what we transmit

To the next generation

Will bear the stamp of our commitment, our experience and our wisdom. 

May you, God of our years, continue to firmly establish and bless the work of hands

With every task undertaken in this space and community

Dedicated to the service of You, our Creator, our Teacher, our Hope. 


Thursday, May 3, 2018

A prayer for every nation

I know that the National Day of Prayer events are happening around the country today.

I have usually not been included in these gatherings. 
But I still pray.  

Here is my Prayer for today.

Eternal God,
Creator and Sustainer of all humanity
Every day is a day to pour out our hearts to you
To express our hopes 
For well-being, strength and hope. 
You are our Witness to our most unified moments and a Presence that stand with us at those times. 
You are our Conscience when our words and actions cause hurt and insult and foment division and hatred. 
You are a Liberator for those who seek to escape oppression
You are a Provider when you give us the abilities to help each other through the challenges we face daily. 
You are a Healer when we are mired in illness and grief. 
You are a Peacemaker when conflict seems to rule the day.
You are a Teacher who shows us how to live and to love one another as ourselves. 
May we be Your eyes, ears, hands and hearts that can bring Your Oneness to every single soul
Not only in our nation
But throughout the world. 
Be our shelter
Give us blessing
In every moment.