Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the Election

November 9, 2016/ 8 Heshvan 5777

After the Election
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

For those who have been asking, what should I say to my children, how will you respond to the members of your congregation-our Canadian friends who ask how could this have happened, how is this possible, what will we do. This is my response:

My father was a proud American.  The son of immigrant parents who had come to America in the early part of the 20th century in search of a better life free of the persecutions and pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe, he raised us with the values of democracy.  He was a student of history, and later a teacher of history, who believed in the value of public education and the ideals that extend civil rights, freedoms and justice to every American. On Flag Day and the 4th of July, I have strong memories of him putting out our American flag in its holder on the front of our house, and being carried on his shoulders to watch the parades. He instilled in my sisters and me the importance of voting, of civic engagement, and in dialogue with those whom we might not agree with.  He taught us to believe in the values and ideals of American democracy and to stand up for the rights of those who did not have a voice. 

My mother is a proud American. Her grandparents were immigrants who also came seeking a better life, a place where they would enjoy freedom and as Jews, not fear for their lives because they were a minority, different, other.  She, like my father, believes in the value of public education and civic engagement and dialogue. My parents spent their careers teaching in the public education system and devoted their lives to helping children and families from all walks of life, ethnicities, cultures, religions, socio-economic status, political leanings, and beliefs.  And they raised me and my sisters in a community that shares those values.

This morning is a mix of emotions.  Many political commentators are writing opinions about what is broken in America, and how the political system delivered last night’s election results. I will leave it to them to analyze. We must realize that there is a part of America that is elated by last night’s election results.  We have to try and understand and make sense of what that means. Most Americans that I know, however, are worried, embarrassed, angry, hurt, and fearful.
As Jews we know all too well the lessons of history and what happens when hate and fear is allowed to prevail.  Last night we were expecting the shattering of a glass ceiling, to see the first woman in US history elected to the presidency. Today, November 9th , is the anniversary of another shattering of glass, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. 78 years ago in Nazi Germany and Austria after years of Hitler's campaign against Jewish citizens, crowds and soldiers burned synagogues and broke into Jewish houses and stores, attacking and murdering Jews.   German authorities looked on without intervening. The tide had turned.

Some of my friends’ children are asking their parents this morning “what will happen to my friends who came here from Mexico, who are Muslim immigrants, who have brown skin”? We are fearful of what will happen to the great strides that were made for the protection of LGBTQ Americans, for marriage equality, for the rights of women to make their own decisions about their bodies, for civil rights and religious freedoms.  

I understand that fear. That fear runs deep -  My mother always taught us that it was important to always have a valid passport.  I’d like to think it was because her mother, who came through the Great Depression as a child, enjoyed clipping articles from National Geographic and dreaming of the places she wanted to visit, something she was fortunate to enjoy in her later years.  I’d like to think that. But I know that it is about something deeper. It is not because we did not have a comfortable life, not because there was anything rationally known to fear. But “just in case.”   That is not to say that I think most liberal Americans should leave the country, even as I know that many liberal Americans were/are considering options to leave. Last night as we watched the election returns from our home in Canada, the immigration Canada website crashed from all of the traffic.   

To the contrary, I believe that we cannot allow fear and anxiety to guide us. To be sure, this election will have great effect on the world. But we must also remember that America is still a democracy.  It is a democracy that has at its center a system of checks and balances built into it.  We must work together to hold back the tide of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia.  We must recommit ourselves to protect those who are most marginalized and most at risk. We have to strive together to uphold decency, fairness, moderation, compromise and the rule of law. We have to work harder to encourage multiculturalism and diversity, to diversify and support our own networks of friends, to help those less fortunate, to speak up when we hear people speaking bigotry and untruths, and to be vigilant.

We must remind our children each and every day to treat others with respect, and to always speak up when someone is being disrespectful, to them or someone else, to be kind, and help people who need help.  Stand up for your beliefs and your rights while taking care to listen to those who disagree. We must continue to teach our children to stand up for what they believe in and to stand up for the rights that democracy promises us. We must make sure they know that we are always here to support and care for them, that our love surrounds them, and that they can use the power of their love and caring for good in this world. We must work even harder to bring light into the world.

Now more than ever we need the teachings of our prophetic tradition, reminding us: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) and “You have been told what is good, And what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice; to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  These same teachings were eloquently phrased in the inspiring words of Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Teshuvah - The Work of A Lifetime

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was the founder of the 19th-century Mussar movement in Lithuania. One evening, as he was walking home, he passed a shoe-repair shop and saw the shoemaker working very late by the light of a flickering candle. Rabbi Salanter asked him why he was still working so late into the evening. The cobbler responded: “As long as the candle burns, there is still time to make repairs.” Rabbi Salanter was stunned by the man’s reply. He repeated the words to himself, over and over: “As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs.” What it meant to Rabbi Salanter was that as long as the light of one’s neshama (the soul) still burns, there is still a chance to improve oneself, and to draw closer to the Creator.

Rabbi Salanter understood that there could be gaps between our knowledge and our behaviors. He created Mussar, a discipline of practices to transform one’s behavior that involved small changes over time. The Mussar masters promoted a path of very gradual change involving routine and regular step-by-step practice. Rabbi Salanter taught that change involves small steps, repeated regularly, since what changes quickly in one direction can just as easily change back again.

Although we may understand on an intellectual level the need to change, to do things differently, it is quite another thing to actually take steps towards that transformation. If you go to the doctor for a checkup and find out that your blood pressure is too high or that you need to lose weight, but you choose not to do anything about it, then the information has little impact on your life. If however, you choose to make small daily changes— taking a pill for high blood pressure, committing to take a short walk at lunchtime each day—then over time we make those small changes and our life is transformed. Walking this way requires patience, as Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz (1849-1919) noted: “The problem with people,” he said, “is that they want to change overnight—and have a good night’s sleep that night, too!

We all know that change does not happen overnight, much as we sometimes wish that we could make it magically happen. We aren’t going to step into a tele- phone booth like Superman (if there are any telephone booths left anymore!) and fly off to spin the world back in time and right the wrongs we have done, or fly off to save the world in record time. Real, lasting change happens not in a leap but through a series of small steps.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, (1824-1898), another master of Mussar, taught that we make changes to improve our relationships with God and with our loved ones “in simple things, small things, to come through them to the greatest heights.” He also taught, “It is the work of a lifetime, and that is why you were given a lifetime in which to do it.”

Everyone’s life has its challenges—some more difficult than others. It is through the experiences that we have in life and how we are able to deal with those challenges that we grow and change. As we look back over the last year, can we see the ways in which we have grown and changed? Growth is a fundamental part of life. Every- thing that is alive is growing. Trees, plants, birds, fish, and insects, are all growing or dying. And the same is true for us.

The Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) each year remind us of that possibility, our potential to change and grow as human beings. It is more important that we start some- where and not be concerned with it being the “right” place. It is more important that we take one small step and find right behind that step another small step to take and not be concerned with our progress on the journey being too slow. It is enough that we take the first steps on this journey of a lifetime. The spiritual challenge is in the moment. This year as we open our hearts and our souls on this journey of transformation, may these small steps move us forward in the coming year to transform our souls and our lives on this journey of a lifetime.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ayecha - Where Are You? The Shofar Sounds

“Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise, a noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The ram's horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you?” (Rabbi Alan Lew, "This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation")

Welcome to Elul.  The month of Elul ushers in the season of awakening, on our way to the new year that awaits, as we move through the cycle of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.  It is traditional to hear the sound of the shofar every morning in Elul, reminding us that we need to wake up and realize who we really are, and where we have been on our journey. The shofar calls us to come back, to return to God and to who God created us to be. The sound of the shofar calls us to wake up to how we are living and how we want to live, how we want to change. We are entering the new year. The shofar calls to us: "What am I doing in this moment of my life?"

Have you thought about how you would like to grow and change in the coming year? The sound of the shofar calls to us: You are more than your long list of errands to check off this week, you are more than the report that needs to get written, you are more than the shortcomings that you see in yourself for all that you have not done. Where are you? Who are you? Who have you been? Who would you like to be in the coming year?

Anat Hoffman sounds the shofar  on Rosh Hodesh Elul in Jerusalem

The shofar’s call reminds us to pay attention. As we go on this journey of life we are not alone. Others are walking in front of us, beside us and behind us. God’s presence is with us. We must give careful attention to what we do, what we say, what we think and how we respond to those whom we meet along the way. The blast of the shofar echoes within us.  What are we called to do? Who have we been created to be? Are we living each day with mindfulness, with purpose, with awareness?

When we hear the shofar’s call we awaken to the journey that we are all on, each and every day, that is most often buried beneath the layers of everything we think is important.  The shofar calls us back to our center and reminds us of what is of real importance: reconnecting with our souls, with who we are, with our family, our friends, our God.  This journey of return, this path of teshuvah is not a ten day process between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is not only a yearlong journey, but a lifelong journey of our souls. We need to look at ourselves each day and see who we are and where we are going.
We are all on a journey. Where that journey will take you in the next 60 days is up to you.

My family and I wish you and your loved ones a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, a year filled with joy and the sweetness of life.

May this year 5775 be for all of us a year of blessing, health, joy, and return.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why I Go To Camp

We are back home from another wonderful summer at GUCI. Camp is something I look forward to each summer. Maybe it’s because I’m just a kid at heart and it’s fun to spend two weeks living at camp with lots of enthusiastic kids and staff and other rabbis and cantors and educators. Maybe it’s because I like being able to sit outside in the grass and have deep conversations with campers about God and Torah and what it’s like to be Jewish in a small town and how camp is the place where they feel most connected.  Maybe it’s because for two weeks I get to eat camp food (which is great because I don’t have to shop for food, prepare it, or clean up afterwards - that in itself makes it great). Maybe it’s because I get to sing songs I love after every meal and enjoy seeing the whole camp come alive in the Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall) as they sing and dance and jump and do shticks. 
Singing in the Dining Hall
At camp, celebrating Shabbat is cool. Being Jewish is fun and interesting and learning Hebrew is easy.  Campers meet and become friends with kids from all over the region and some from much further away, like Israel.  Some kids come from large congregations, and some from temples where there are very few students in the entire religious school.  Our kids spend time with dedicated counselors -college students who remember their own days as campers and are here to give something back.  Camp is staffed with wonderful specialists in art, sports, aquatics, Hebrew, music, and dance, among other things.  Our kids learns to canoe, climb the Migdal (Alpine Tower), Israeli dance, and camp out - all in a Jewish atmosphere with friends they'll have for a lifetime.

Welcoming Everyone on the Shabbat Walk
I've been fortunate to spend most of my summers since ordination at one of our URJ camps. As part of the rabbinic faculty, I am privileged to be a part of a community that grows our youth.  When I learn Torah with a camper who is preparing for her bat mitzvah, or talk with the Avodahniks (12th graders who are the work crew at camp) about challenging issues, I see every day that camp builds a sense of excitement in our kids that tells them that Judaism is valuable and something to be proud of.  Each day a different camp group leads the Tefillah (prayer) at our beautiful outdoor Beit Tefillah, and they share their thoughts on what a beautiful spiritual place this is. At camp Jewish community comes alive in a way that we cannot duplicate in the few hours we spend together in our congregational educational programs. It is an investment in our children’s future, whose reward is a child who develops self-confidence and who comes away from camp with a love for Judaism.

Shabbat Singing
Jewish camping is one of the most exciting, enjoyable programs we can offer our children.  It offers them a chance to live in a Jewish atmosphere, learning about themselves and their Jewish identity as they gain independence and discover their own strengths.  After the first summer, they return to camp eager to be with good friends and continue the personal growth that they have experienced at camp.  Perhaps most importantly, children who attend Jewish camps tend to retain their Jewish identity and commitment in their adult lives.

L’hitraot - See you next summer!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My Heart Is In the East

I am writing as I sit outside under the trees at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI). Camp is a place that is in many ways sheltered from the rest of the world, it is a place of peace, where lifelong friendships are formed, and Jewish souls are nurtured. But this summer I as I sit under the trees, teach and learn, connect with colleagues and friends, sing songs and watch campers grow, I am deeply troubled.

Since arriving here, Israel has entered into a ground war in Gaza, to protect her citizens from the non-stop barrage of missile attacks from Hamas. Operation Protective Edge began just a few weeks before I came to camp, and in a short time it became clear that the Iron Dome system would not be enough to halt the attacks. Israel has agreed to multiple cease fires, Hamas refused to stop shooting. This forced Israel to consider sending troops into Gaza.  After completely withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, going back into Gaza for a ground operation was not a decision made lightly.  As Israel calls phones and drops leaflets to warn Gazans to take shelter, Hamas continues to urge its citizens to ignore the IDF’s warnings, to be human shields for the warfare, and continues to place armaments and rocket launchers in schools, hospitals, and mosques. The United Nations continues to condemn Israel for her actions, even as they admit to discovering rockets placed deliberately in school buildings, and then amazingly, handing over those same rockets to the Palestinian leadership.

Since entering Gaza, Israel has discovered 31 tunnels so far with more than 60 shafts leading to them.  These tunnels were built by Hamas using forced child labor.  More than 160 Palestinian children died constructing them. Israel us reporting that these tunnels are full of explosives, missiles and other weaponry. These tunnels were built as part of a long term large scale plan to launch a massive assault on Israeli civilians to take place just two months from now, on Rosh Hashanah. This surprise attack was planned to send 200 Hamas fighters through the tunnels under the border from Gaza into Israel, wearing Israeli army uniforms. Then the plan was to take control of kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israel civilians.

Antisemitic acts of violence and demonstrations are occurring with increasing frequency. These reports of violence and anti-Israel sentiment, which simply put is anti-Jewish sentiment, are frightening. There have been riots and anti-semitic mobs in Paris, Calgary, and Belfast and anti-Israel rioters and vandalism in Chicago, Connecticut and Boston.

Here at camp, on this past Shabbat, our Israeli counselors shared prayers for peace, and prayers for safety for their families and friends, and for those in the Israeli Defense Forces.  The Israeli counselors have shed more than a few tears and I can see worry on their faces, but for the most part, here at camp, we are immersed in providing all of the campers with a great environment for learning about themselves and their Jewish identity.

Our Israeli Shlichim Share Prayers for Peace
Friends and colleagues in Israel have been sharing their firsthand experiences, of traveling in Israel, running to bomb shelters, and going about their daily lives. I am proud of our NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) staff and the URJ, who were able to continue touring with our teen groups on our Israel trips this summer and keeping them safe. I am proud of my CCAR rabbinic colleagues flew to Israel on a quickly arranged mission of support. They are taking shelter in stairwells and bomb shelters as they visit the border towns adjacent to Gaza, and deliver care packages of toiletries, energy bars, and other items for lone soldiers. Aliyah flights to Israel have continued, and despite arriving in a war zone, not one family backed out of their plans to make aliyah.

It is a very troubling time. Many of us feel powerless to be able to do anything. Some of us feel conflicted about what is happening in Israel and what is happening in Gaza. It is certainly disturbing that so many children on both sides of the conflict are again living with fear. And there are people suffering.  If you want to do something, below are some ways to support Israel and those who are living with daily missile attacks:

Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform Judaism in Israel - IMPJ) through the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), 633 Third Ave. 7th floor NYC 10017. The WUPJ and IMPJ are doing great work to assist those impacted and to keep lines of communication open between Israelis and Arab communities in Israel.

Friends of the IDF - Friends of the IDF is in Israel supplying the IDF soldiers on the frontlines with snack packages, toiletry kits, and underwear.  

Silence the Sirens -  The URJ and Jewish Federations of North America are collecting funds to provide emergency aid and alleviate the pain and suffering of our Israeli brothers and sisters.

Yad Eliezer has distributed food and supplies to residents of Southern Israel living under a constant barrage of rockets with food and treats for families stuck at home in bomb shelters.

The Jaffa Institute, which looks after children across South Tel Aviv and Jaffa, have relocated 170 at-risk children from communities hit hardest from rockets - donations go to recreational activities, learning materials, food and treatment.

Natal is an organization that provides hotlines for people who are suffering anxiety and need to speak with someone - both for people in the North and the whole of Israel.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Rabbi’s Report to the Congregational Meeting

We learn in the Mishnah Pirke Avot (2:15–16) the words of Rabbi Tarfon, who lived in the 2nd century CE: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena. “You are not required to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.”

This is true of the work we do here at Temple Israel. Although running our synagogue is demanding and at times may seem overwhelming, we must never be discouraged. To all of the members of our Temple Israel family who take this advice to heart, please know that your work is vital and important and worthwhile. You are the caretakers of our Jewish community.

We are now, this week, beginning the book of BeMidbar, known in English as the book of Numbers. The Hebrew is best translated as, “in the wilderness.” For the last 32 days, we have been counting the Omer. Every day, on our 49-day journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai, brings us closer to receiving and understanding Torah. Being BeMidbar, “in the wilderness,” teaches us that the journey is a series of small but deliberate steps, always moving forward, always on the journey—together.

BeMidbar opens with a census, counting all the men of b’nei Yisrael over the age of 20—that is, all of the men who would be eligible to serve as part of an army—from all the tribes, except Levi. The number adds up to 603,550. Here at Temple Israel, in 2014, we count women and children too. But either way, the counting serves to remind the b’nei Yisrael, and us as b’nei Yisrael of Temple Israel, that every one of us counts and is needed for our Jewish community to thrive on this journey that we are on together.

Each person and family who have hosted oneg Shabbats, baked or cooked and decorated for holidays and life cycle events, worked in the cemetery, cleaned up, played a musical instrument, donated your time, donated money, and contributed in countless ways to the life of our synagogue, including those of you who have participated in multiple committee meetings that sometimes go until late in the evening, you already know this: sometimes we have to work late into the night, but it’s not without its rewards. Some great ideas have come out of those late-night meetings.

We are a small community, but there are many ways we can grow. There are always limiting factors, like money and volunteer hours. And we know that progress doesn’t always come so easily. Keeping a congregation going is always a challenging task. We may simultaneously feel inspired and tested, and we know that success doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes, we have to come back and try again and again.

But know that what makes this community and this place sacred is our connection to each other, our coming together to sanctify our lives and to offer praise and thanks together, our accompanying each other on the journeys of brit and baby naming, b’nei mitzvah, confirmation—-chuppah and parenthood—grief and mourning, learning and prayer, and relationships.

Do you remember Rabbi Tarfon, whom we started with? He also teaches in that same Mishnah: Hayom Katzar v’hamlachah m’rubah,
v’hapoalim atzelim v’hasachar harbeh u’vaal habayit dochek. “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, but the reward is great, and the master of the house is knocking [at your door].”

The truth about being part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, is that the work is long and the expressions of gratitude often are not. What keeps us doing this then, year after year? Because you believe your work is worthwhile. You don’t do it for the recognition. You do it, because you care. At the end of the day, at the end of the year, we have successes, sometimes we have mistakes, but what truly matters, what makes us a holy community in the service of God is that we are here to support each other in times of celebration and in times of sadness; that our children learn and feel a sense of accomplishment, and that the members of our Temple family know they matter and have an important place in our community.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Preparation for Passover Participation!

Passover is almost upon us! A holiday that we eagerly await and celebrate joyfully.  Passover, with its timeless story of the escape from freedom to slavery, the symbols of the Seder which delight all of the senses, and the excitement of joining together around the Seder table with family and friends to retell the ancient story is looked forward to with great anticipation. As adults, we know the deeper meaning of the holidays - the Passover story of freedom, and the importance of passing on our tradition to the next generation.

But with children, where do we begin?  As it says in the Pesach Haggadah: For the young one, who does not know enough to ask the question, you shall begin with the story, explaining it simply: “This is what God did for me, when I went forth out of Egypt.” The Haggadah’s message not only reminds us that we should begin where a child can understand, but that the celebration of the Jewish holidays is meant to be experiential.  After all, we are taught that “In every age, one must regard himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt”.  So, make your celebrations experiential and try to involve everyone present!

Children love stories and one of the best ways to get children involved in the celebrations of both Purim and Passover is by reading or telling them the story at an age-appropriate level.  Doing this in advance of the holiday will whet their appetites and prepare them for the events to come.  Children also love to play dress-up and act.  To get them involved in this year’s Passover Seder, have them act out the story as you read it from the Haggadah, or make paper bag puppets and act it out for them.

Children also love songs, especially simple ones with repeating choruses.  Try to interject singing  into your celebrations.  Try playing CD’s in the car or at home a few weeks ahead so they’ll be familiar.  If you don’t feel confident singing by yourself, bring CD’s or an iPhone loaded with mp3’s to your celebration and everyone can sing along.
Almost every Jewish holiday has special foods that accompany the celebration.  Involve your child in the preparations - have him help you shop for the ingredients.  Give her simple tasks to do in preparing the Seder plate for Passover.  As you mix the different elements for the charoset, ask your child what the foods smell and taste like.  Are they sweet? salty? sour? crunchy? soft? Children can also make special table decorations for each guest, which can be used every year for your celebration of the holidays. 

Need help with resources?

Passover recipes, customs and rituals, and how to put together a seder plate

An extensive collection of songs for Passover is available for free download at the Jewish Birth Network

Passover trivia? Try this quiz

Hag Sameach!  Happy Pesach!