Monthly Archives: January 2018
The Old Boys Club: Mens’ Club Shabbat and Shabbat Shira 2018
It was my first week on the job. As the list of yartzeits were called off, I did a double take. Hyman Schulman? THE Hyman Schulman? Well in fact it wasn’t THE Hyman Shulman, spelled S H U L M A N.
I glanced through the Center yearbook and did a double take again. Charles Moskovitz? THE Charles Moskowitz is a member here? No, not THE charles moskowitz, who spelled his name with a W” and who was born in the 1880s.
You see, I was looking for a connection- to family; to my brothers. Long before I worked alongside my sister-in law, I worked alongside two of my brothers, Brother Jesse Olitzky and Brother Howard Tilman. Brother Charles Moskowitz, along with Hyman Shulman and the rest of the “Immortal 11” founded Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity 115 years ago on the campus of New York University.
AEPI started as a fraternity based in Jewish values, as many of its early members were barred from joining other fraternal orders. Today, alumni total over 100,000. As a sophomore and junior, I held the position of Master, or President of the Alpha chapter at NYU. Some of my closest friends from college stem from this experience, and while we all attended different universities, the four clergy who share this brotherhood share both pride and fond memories of being a lifelong brother of AEPI. But the fraternity, as you may imagine, was not always all about the comroderary, fellowship, and call to improve our community. I entered as the second pledge class following a “reformation” of the chapter following a probationary period. National would God forbid cut ties all-together with its Alpha chapter. Our pledge period had what I’d call “hazing light” under tight scrutiny. Within a few years of graduating, the chapter had disbanded once again due to a number of issues and restarted once again. For while the vision of the Immortal 11 may have focused on togetherness and brotherhood, the modern chapters have been dealing with a pressing issue since the age of Animal house- “boys will be boys.” Even in our own pledge class, I remember the sense of acceptance because we thought to ourselves “well, compared to what we could have done…”
I’ve seen the acceptance of this world of the “old boys club” in other places. It’s taken over a decade to slowly change the culture of my own Cantors Assembly, where conventions used to be marred by inappropriate language or behavior. The back room, where colleagues share in a cigar, a drink, and conduct unfit for a person of the cloth, exists for many organizations. There are typically two reactions to this- You can be shocked, or not surprised all.
I say this in recognition of the sentencing this week of Dr. Larry Nassar. As Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins writes:
“It’s only the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports, and maybe in the history of this country. USA Gymnastics not only allowed serial pedophile Larry Nassar unsupervised access to the scores of girls in its charge over 30 years, it required them to submit to him and his utterly unjustifiable (vaginal) examinations. There was no saying, ‘I don’t like this doctor, I want my own.’ The organizations systematically deprived them of any right to say no, to ask for alternate treatment. It makes Hollywood rapes look principled.”
Charles Pierce of Sports Illustrated contends:
Burn it all down. That is the calm and reasoned conclusion to which I have come as one horror story after another unspooled in the courtroom. Nobody employed in the upper echelons at USA Gymnastics, or at the United States Olympic Committee, or at Michigan State University should still have a job. If accessorial or conspiracy charges plausibly can be lodged against those people, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those people should come out of civil courts wearing barrels. Their descendants should be answering motions in the 22nd Century.”
These fraternal orders have abused a power that should’ve been used for good. The relationships that could have improved this world are used to exploit not just those on the margins, but those taking center stage. In the Jewish world we’ve seen this abuse not just from the abusers themselves, but the communal space that allowed the inappropriate acts to continue. I’m not talking about Hollywood. I’m talking about the world of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the world that knew of his misconduct with underage girls and yet allowed it to continue under the guise of “its part of the times.” The same excuse would be made for those in leadership positions in our national youth movements in the 80s and 90s. “It was part of the times.” The dangerous excuses that have dangerous consequences.
So where is the model for leadership amidst the blindness and complacency?
Over the past few years, we have looked at Shirat Hayam through the scope of musi and of theatre, but the Song of the Sea, and song in general, has a power to strengthen us as a call to action. Through song, we have the strength to push on, to make our case known.
The Shorashim (roots) of song illustrate this power. Nigun- Nun, Gimel Nun translates to melody, but it is also the word for shield, or defense (Magein).
Rena means joyous song, but it is also a shout for joy, a wake up call. Zemer means “to prune.” Moses’ famous line “Ozi V’zimrat Ya” can be translated as either “God is my strength and song,” OR “God is my strength and my cutting force.’” Song is a cutting, loud and defiant call as our defense against the silence and dismissive language.
We can’t understand the magnitude of the moment without being witness to what happened in Egypt. So where were we before this jubilant song?
The 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 -1746) writes
“This is the advice of the wicked Pharaoh, who said: “Let heavier work be laud upon the men and let them keep it and not pay attention to false words” (Exodus 5:9). He intended not only to leave them no spirit whatsoever, so that they might not think or plan against him, but he attempted to deny them any opportunity for reflection through the constant and incessant burden of labor.”
In Egypt, we were denied the option of living without fear, of having the space to reflect. Freedom, at the other end of the sea, is the ability to sing our song, to shout our words, to reflect and praise. THIS is the message. To remember the exodus from egypt, the journey. The miracle that we could finally shout from the mountaintops in praise of being in that moment following the parting of the sea, when Pharaoh and all that he represented was behind us. This is the reminder for this shabbat and every shabbat in fact, zecher litziyat mitzraim, to appreciate what we have.
But our Shabbat is not just for the appreciation of our ability to relax and contemplate the world. In remembering the journey out of egypt, we have a constant reminder that we too must shout as witness to what is right in the world, and what is wrong; to find the enslavements of those around us and treat them as our own. No more dismissals.
This song, this wake up call, the putting of Pharaoh and his Egyptian fraternity on notice, was orchestrated by a team of leaders.
The Prophet Micah 6:4 states,
“ In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
The three siblings are intertwined, but Moses and Aaron share a unique brotherhood given the political power both would acquire. Moses’ and Aaron’s uncomplicated reunion signals a vastly different relationship than the brothers of the book of Genesis. There is no sadness for what could have been; no long embrace. Rather, they are constant communicators, their relationship harmonious.
As for Miriam,
Exodus 15:20-21 states,
(20) And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. (21) And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, for He is highly exalted: The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.
Her line שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽה’ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ parallels the earlier verse אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽה’ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃, where I sing to God about the handiwork God has done to place horse and rider in the sea. Now, through Miriam’s words, we all sing to God for the horse and his rider are in the sea. This isn’t the celebration of the Egpytian deaths. Think about that image- horse and rider; elevated, in power. Hone in on that image- in which the Egyptians thought that we were lower, treated us as lower beings.
With a timbrel in her hand, Miriam elevated all of us, as she stood and bore witness that moment. With a timbrel in her hand, the message was loud, portable and palpable. We are not lower, we will call you out for what you did. Even from a young age, Miriam beared witness to the world around her. Exodus 2:4: And his sister stood from a distance to know what would happen to him.
In the Talmud, Sota 11, we learn that Miriam and another character from our story, Puah, are one and the same. “Puah” refers to “cooing” and rocking a baby, perhaps a reference to her nuturing of young Israelites. But Shemot Rabah, the midrash of our Exodus story, cites another meaning of Puah as she was insolent (hofi’ah panim) toward Pharaoh and looked down her nose at him. This was Miriam standing up to Pharaoh by saying “no.” She looked down her nose at him long before she did the same at the horse and rider at the Sea of Reeds. She was a whistleblower protecting the most vulnerable Israelites, its children.
Through this narrative, we end up with a positive model for leadership fueled by brotherhood of all things. In Moses and Aaron we learn that in a society of questionable brotherhoods, groups of men can build healthy relationships, turning the old boys clubs on their head.
Most importantly, we end up with a prime example of being elevated by the women around us. Miriam stands up, calls out what is wrong, and the community and the rest of the leadership acknowledge the sacred words she proclaims as Miriam Hanivia, Miriam the prophet.
So let us be like our male leaders, Moses and Aaron, like the organization we honor this morning, our Men’s club, that uses their relationships to build bridges while also building sukkot, who brings men of all ages together to enhance their own lives as well as that of their own families; who on the national level teaches and engages our men in a series of workshops entitled “Hearing men’s voices”; a group that prepares its members to help facilitiate shiva minyanim during a family’s most trying hours; a group that is open to being real and raw, spiritual and religious, and above all else, the farthest from the old boys club.
Let us be like our timbral bearing leader, Miriam the prophet, who called a spade a spade and shouted that change was upon us. And when it isn’t our turn to be like her, allow those prophets amongst us to share their stories so that we ourselves will be elevated. May their stories enable us all to find holiness in the communities we are a part of, to repair and reclaim that which is broken, to not only act like but BE the brothers and sisters that we can and should be.
All Aboard the Musical Express
Printed in the January 2018 Jacksonville Jewish Center Centerpieces
Music transports us. We hear a musical “lick” and it takes us back to a place and time or removes us from our present reality and brings us to a dream world. We see this when a certain tune is played for a young child learning their first nursery rhymes or when someone suffering from dementia hears a standard from their youth.
Last November, the Jacksonville Symphony’s Chamber Orchestra performed Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110, the composer’s biographical reaction to the regime change in his country, containing such specific imagery as his own initials, prison songs, and police in the dead of night. It’s a dreary piece as you can imagine. However, the conductor framed its motifs prior to the orchestral performance. We heard snippets as she explained why these “musical licks” would repeat themselves throughout the piece. In doing so, the audience experience was enhanced and each of us could be transported knowing the composers sensibilities whenever we heard those parts. It reminded me that it doesn’t need to be something from our youth to take us places.
We recently added in a few new melodies to our Shabbat in the Round Friday night experience. A Bat Mitzvah student had returned from a ruach filled summer at Camp Ramah Darom, asking if she could incorporate a new melody she had learned over the summer. After singing a few bars, I recognized the melody as something I had listened to on YouTube, this generation’s transmitter of music.
Playing the video for our instrumentalists, the melody quickly became a band favorite, with shades of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero.” For anyone who knows our band members, you can understand why a Dylanesque melody would be a big hit. Singing the melody brought Dylan and davening together as one.
This past December, I was asked to lead services over Shabbat as part of the United Synagogue’s Biennial Convention in Atlanta, GA. This was a powerful experience to have a few hundred in attendance who are all committed to a vibrant Jewish future for the Conservative movement. We had the pleasure of hearing rising stars in the Jewish music world, one of which is Joey Weisenberg. I’ve spoken about Joey and his book “Building Singing Communities” but it was great to learn from him again. Joey painted a beautiful tapestry of his family’s story in this country, with ancestry that predates the Civil War. He described how he came to write the melody “Yamin U’smol”, the text taken from one of the final paragraphs of Lecha Dodi. As he talked through his inspiration, I kept thinking of Ashokan Farewell, the theme from Ken Burn’s Civil War series. He entitled the melody “Lincoln’s Niggun” because there’s a second layer to why this was associated with a specific paragraph of the Friday night liturgy. When President Lincoln would walk through a crowd of soldiers, they would assemble in two parallel lines, one on the right and one on the left, or Yamin U’smol in hebrew.
One melody. The composer is transported to the place and time of his family’s origin. The instrumentalist is transported as if he is hearing the sounds of his favorite artist. The song leader is transported to a magical summer experience filled with spirit and new friendships. For those listening, it may take you to an entirely different place. We all have the potential to be transported. I hope you’ll take the journey with us for all of our musical offerings in the months ahead.
The Simplicities of Shabbat
Printed in the FALL 2017 Jacksonville Jewish Center Centerpieces
‘Twas the night before Pesach, with the oven on self clean
Turned on after saying “Shavua Tov’ to the Shabbat Queen
When it locked and blew a fuse without quite a care,
That our seder couldn’t go on without it’s repair.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While I envisioned a meal of maror and unleavened bread
61. Roger Maris’ home run record and the number of days it took to get our oven replaced. Thanks to a home warranty, after hours of time on the phone listening to Kenny G’s greatest hits and after more than a dozen home visits, I recited the Shehechiyanu blessing over our new oven a week after the festival of Shavuot. Through stove top cooking, the opening of a new kosher eatery, and help from family and friends, we made it through two months without missing a beat. Not surprisingly, since its repair, we haven’t used the oven as much as we used to.
We all have similar accessories in our lives that we might deem irreplaceable. What would we do without our electric toothbrush? Or our Alexa? Or, heaven forbid, our cellphone? Would we survive? After a few weeks of our oven ordeal, I could only smile at that the fact that life can go on without some things. Does it make life harder? It makes life different. You adapt and you appreciate other parts of your life. Maybe living under different circumstances can condition us to live a more fruitful tomorrow.
Being outside our normative practice allows us the room to relax and reflect. It’s the true essence of “Shabbat,” a sanctuary in time and space. It can vary from taking away the electronics, to attending a musically inspiring Friday night service. It can be a moment to catch up on a book, or play a board game, or get the ultimate shabbos shluf (nap).The holiest day of the year is Shabbat, not because of fixed liturgy or the added restrictions we place on ourselves. It is holy because it is different from our norm. For some it is a respite from the outside. For others it’s a challenge that can motivate the brain and stir the heart.
For all the email and calendar reminders we drill into our schedules, I hope that in the year ahead we all find that there are things we can live without. In turn, we can take those aspects of our lives that we may have gone without and reacquaint ourselves with them. We may find that we have added extra meaning not only to those sabbatical moments of serenity, but to the rest of our daily lives. For in essence, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we should aspire to make all of our days a sanctuary in time, for we dream of a period “when all will be shabbat.”