Category Archives: Sermons

Remarks from Pride Shabbat

Pride ShabbatThere are moments that we etch into our collective memory. For myself, those moments include the Challenger explosion, the assasination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the morning of 9/11. While moments like these may be followed by moments of bravery, of community coming together, the moments themselves are initially moments of collective pain and sorrow. 

There are also moments of collective memory having overcome adversity, adversity often sowed from tears, adversity following generations of struggle. These moments begin not in pain but in pure unadulterated joy. 4 years ago, I stood on a crowded street in historic Charleston, South Carolina, waiting to attend the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Pinckney had been brutally murdered a few days earlier along with 8 others who had gathered to worship and to study, to join in fellowship. 

A joyous cheer broke out in the crowd. A crowd of mourners broke out in shouts of joy. The Supreme Court had just ruled that the fundemental right to marry is guarunteed to same-sex couples. Marriage equality throughout our country. People of every walk of life- every age, every ethnicity, every gender, every religion, every sexual orientation, in line to pay their respects to a respected and beloved minister and leader, screamed for joy.  I was proud to be a part of such a moment. I am proud of what we can do when we acknowledge the beauty of all humanity, when we recognize that Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. I was proud in that moment of collective joy. I am once again proud today.

On this Shabbat, we celebrate love. We celebrate diversity. We celebrate the dream, the hope for a more inclusive and embracing community. This Pride Shabbat, literally SHabbat Ha-gei-a-va, is our collective embrace of all: pride in all individuals, pride in our community for making today a reality.

The fact that we mark today with the vibrant colors of the rainbow, here in the sanctuary of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, is truly a celebration. There was a time, not that long ago, when anyone who had what may have been coined an alternative lifestyle had to find an alternative place, an alternative community. We’ve come a long way on our journey towards inclusivity, but we have a long way to go. 13 years ago, as the Conservative Movement passed a ruling to allow ordination of Gay and Lesbian rabbis and cantors, our congregation was still making the giant leap towards fully egalitarian worship. When our city debated the passing of a fully expanded Human Rights Ordinance, our 3 clergy were the first handful of faith leaders to sign on in support. At at time when Pride parades battle with intersectionality, when members of the LGBTQ Jewish community feel like they have to fight off a rise in anti-semitism, I hope that today is affirmation that we can be a haven, a home..a place and community where one’s Judaism and one’s sexuality do not have to be at odds with one another.  Leading up to this moment, perception and reality have been greatly unaligned. Yet, I am proud of where we are going. I am proud that when you google “Pride Shabbat” that the Jacksonville Jewish Center pops up as the #2 response. I am proud to be here with members of the LGBTQ community, with allies, friends and family. And I am proud to be here this morning, to have this platform and share this bima with our member Frieda Saraga, who through her own journey, has made it her life’s passion to embrace all. We are blessed by her presence, her commitment to push for growth in our own congregation and for all of Jacksonville. 
For access to our Pride supplement click here.

Reflections from Uganda Part 1

10773845920_IMG_9628.JPGThe following were my remarks for our congregation’s Shabbat celebration of the 100th anniversary of our Boy Scout Troup 14.  (Thanks to Cantor Jack Chomsky and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D. for their background info/wording)

For a few minutes, I want to take us back 100 years to a far different place than Jacksonville Florida. It’s 1919. Religious conversion is a key component to the British colonization of Africa. Tribal chief and military leader Semei Kakungulu, who had founded the town of Mbale, Uganda, was evangelized by Anglican Church missionaries. He hoped to use his connections with the British so that he might be recognized as ruler of Uganda’s eastern region. When the British didn’t give Kakungulu what he desired, he returned to Mbale and rejected the Anglican church. He joined a group known as the Malakites who took a literal reading of the bible- Saturday was the Sabbath, they would eat no pork; eventually breaking from the group to follow an even stricter reading of the text, all while studying the Luganda translation of the Hebrew bible. In 1919, he and his followers embraced circumcision. Kakungulu created a Sabbath liturgy that included reading selections from the Hebrew bible in Luganda, chanting selections from the Song of Moses, the penultimate section of the Hebrew bible. The community, known as the Abayudaya, persisted for some years with little contact with the outside Jewish world, at first not even aware that there WAS such a world.

In time, though, they crossed paths with a few Jews who were living or working in Africa and shifted their practice to resemble the outside world. A quantum leap in their connection to the Jewish world came in the 1960’s when an Israeli graduate student named Arye Oded learned about the community and established connections with it. He later became Israeli ambassador to a number of countries in Africa, including Uganda. Oded died two weeks ago at age 89, a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University.

When Idi Amin outlawed other religions during the 1970s, the Abayudaya community suffered as most of its population converted out of Judaism. Beginning in the 1980s, the community revitalized under the leadership of one family in particular, brothers JJ, Aaron, Seth and Gershom, who infused new music and energy into the community. There were more connections with the rest of the Jewish world, especially through the Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) Movements, and the international Jewish organizations Kulanu and B’chol Lashon.

In recent years the community has been led by one of those brothers, now RABBI Gershom Sizomu, who trained for the rabbinate at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Rabbi Sizomu not only leads his congregation and the organized Jewish community of Uganda, he is also a member of the Ugandan Parliament, serving as a minister in the opposition party. Rabbi Gershom, a true mensch, gives much of his state salary to provide for his community. His brother Aaron Kintu Moses runs the Hadassah Primary School. Another brother JJ is leader of another community in the village of Putti. Brother Seth Jonadab runs the Semei Kokungulu High School and played in most of the services we attended.  

Recently, the community has finally been recognized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, although there are those in Israel that questioned their Jewish identity because of their community’s conversion through Masorti/Conservative rabbis. And while most of the community do not speak about making aliyah, there are a number of individuals who have fought to obtain study VISAs in Israel.

Our Cantors Assembly mission began as two part solidarity and one part musicological: to record not only the music of the community, but to hear their story through personal interviews and recordings. We recorded these interviews under the framework of the Haggadah- a retelling of the journey from the slavery of Idi Amin to the modern freedoms they have to express their Judaism. This was a listening tour- a strange endeavour for cantors, similar to a silent retreat for rabbis. I also felt the need to follow what the series Star Trek referred to as the “prime directive”- to not disturb people in their element- to just listen and observe. Knowing full well that Rabbi Gershom and his family lived in the States for a few years, that visitors have brought in their own melodies, we had some idea that the music was already a hybrid of what came before western influence and the melodies that we hear each and every Shabbat here in the U.S.

As we prepared to board our 15 hr flight to Nairobi, each of us was interviewed about why we chose to come along for this journey. I spoke about this notion of about a miracle- how I was looking to figure out how this tiny group in the most remote of places is not just surviving but thriving. How 2500 Jews make a name for themselves amongst 40 million Ugandans. We think of ourselves as a minority at 2.5 percent in this country. Imagine being .00006% of the population.

Our time was spent meeting with many of the community leaders. I spent a few hours each day doing in depth interviews learning about the collective experience being Jewish in Uganda. We talked to the generation who had revitalized the community in the 1980s and the younger leaders who have a great thirst for knowledge. Uganda, and this community, are young. Very young. 77% of Uganda falls into the Generation Z range. Walking into services, the average age of the congregation may have hovered in the low 20s. For while the community is 100 years old, they have seen a rebirth in the last 10-15 years.

We found the answer to this miracle. We found it in the beaming joy of our hosts who wore large, beautiful, colorful kippot that community members had hand knitted.

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While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, we were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver who wore their kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip.  As a heads up, I brought back a number of kippot that will soon be on sale in the Center gift shop, proceeds going to support the Abayudaya.

We found the miracle in the depth of the questions and answers of the Abayudayan youth. We interviewed a few 20somethings who are starting a community in the capital of Kampala. We asked each of them what questions they had about Judaism. One of 20somethings thought for a brief second and asked, “Why isn’t Tisha B’av, a day in which we mourn the loss of our temple, a more prominent holiday in the Jewish world?” I could ask any 20something from our community what questions they have about Judaism, and I’m fairly certain Tisha B’av would not crack the top 100 questions.

Life is hard for the Jews of Uganda. The only area schools in the early 20th century were started by Catholics and Protestants. They required conversion for entry. This meant that those who chose to keep their Judaism public, that entire community, lagged some 20 years behind the rest of their neighbors. Today, some 90% of the population is unemployed, making ends meet by selling crafts or produce. A teenager attending one of our morning learning sessions was asked why he wasn’t in a rush to get to school- he mentioned that his family couldn’t afford the fees.

Many do not have access to drinkable water, often making long treks to the local unclean water tap. You’re lucky if you have two meals a day. Most do not have access to electricity. Yet we saw an example of the extraordinary work of the Tobin Health clinic when we met a youth who attended Kabbalat Shabbat who had just received an IV for Malaria treatment who was up and around after just 24 hours. We visited with amazing NGOs connected to the United States and Israel who are slowly bringing access to clean water and electricity to communities one by one- and you can see the palpable difference it makes- you see it in the schools- in improved test scores, in enabling girls to continue schooling because they have private and clean bathrooms.    

We found the miracle in the faith of the community. It didn’t matter if some of the synagogues lacked electricity. In one case, in the small village of Nalubembe, the synagogue, a brick structure with no roof, doesn’t survive from season to season. We asked what would it cost to build a synagogue- a brick building with a roof, no electricity: the equivalent of $2000. $2000 for a prayer space. In another synagogue in the village of Namatubma, as they await approval for a new clean water source, we asked the community’s spiritual leader, Shadrach, what his community needed most. Shadrach, for context, is studying to be a rabbi under the ALEPH program. He came to his role as leader when the elder of the community stood up one day and proclaimed that he was retiring- he looked to find a new leader who fit 3 criteria- someone who was engaged or married, over a certain age, and had a college degree. Shadrach was the only person in the community who checked all the boxes. So we asked him this question, what do they need?…and he replied “A Torah.” A community that does not have access to clean water, wants a Torah. Torah is water.   

We found the miracle in the joy of a group of singers in the village of Nasenyi, home of the chairman of the Abayudaya. We were greeted by such beautiful music and dancing wherever we went, but the face of one of these singers stayed with me (show picture). The featured singer of their “choir” began losing her voice as the group sang Psalm after Psalm in their native Luganda, but as I filmed and photographed, I’ve never seen a more passionate singer in my life- it was a full body experience, and her full smile brought all of us to tears.  


Most of our prayer experiences took place in the main village of Nabogoye Hill. Services were often co-led by Cantors and the local community. We heard familiar melodies, new melodies, and new languages. We listened to an entire congregation sing. Sing well. Sing in hebrew, in Luganda. We saw cultural differences, as most of the torah and many of the psalms were chanted in Luganda, shoes were removed outside the synagogue,


and women often chose to sit separately- however, this was a cultural difference, not a religious one, as each community is extremely egalitarian.  

We found the miracle come full circle during a special ceremony on Super Bowl Sunday. Following a World Wide Wrap Shaharit service, our delegation assembled by the village guest house. One of our colleagues,Jerry Berkowitz, a cantor serving a congregation in Manitowic, Wisconsin, had procured one of his congregation’s five torahs to be donated as a gift to future generations of Abayudaya.

Jerry stood under a chuppah as we processed towards the synagogue singing and dancing with the Torah. From the other direction, members of the community processed towards our group singing their own songs of welcome and celebration. As two separate colleagues said, “it was right out of the musical Music Man.” A seemingly random reference, I’ll be performing as Salesman #5 in the Martin J Gottlieb Day School production of  Music Man Jr during the first weekend of April.

As we came together, our voices joined in one song as we took the torah into the synagogue to be read. Rabbi Gershom chanted the penultimate chapter of the book of Devarim in Hebrew, the same chapter that Semei Kokungulu had memorized in his native Luganda (this had been memorized by the early Abayudaya as a song since the Torah says we are supposed to memorize it. Their minhag had been to recite it in Luganda by memory). The cantors shared an aliyah. Our hosts shared aliyot. It was a morning filled with expressions of pride, depth, faith, joy and passion.

And, as you might expect from a cantorial mission, they brought us the miracle of music. In between each aliyah, the Abayudayan congregations welcome the person taking the aliyah with a Halleluyah song.  Not only does it celebrate the individual having an aliyah, it reminds those in the pews that they are very much a part of the torah service, when often it can seem like a very frontal portion of our worship. Throughout our time in Nabogoye, our hosts prayed, prayed well. They were insightful and inspiring. I’ll be speaking more about their music next Friday night.           

All the Abayudaya are searching for is what any community or really any individual ever wants from others: acceptance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever questioned this group’s commitment to Jewish life and practice. As we taught them about Jewish practice and song, we learned ten fold on how to bring community to life. Abayudaya is Luganda for “Jew”. We are all Abayudaya. We all have the potential to bring these attributes into our own practice of Judaism. The torah portion during our visit was Mishpatim, a section in which we read the words, Naaseh V’nishma, “we will do and we will listen.” This is the story of the Abayudaya. They created unbelievable traditions and are ready to listen, thirsting for a greater understanding of Judaism. And, in turn, by listening and learning from this remarkable community, I hope that I and we can do Judaism as well as they do.  

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. 

A lesson of Sports and Torah: Making the ordinary extraordinary

We have a lot of sports metaphors in this week’s parsha. First and foremost we have the description of the Red Heifer, which happens to have been my high school mascot (going 20 years strong). We talk about animal sacrifice- one key animal is the GOAT, or for sports enthusiasts, the “Greatest of of All Time”; Moses “hitting the rock” sounds like either a curling play or something that happened in the WWE. Maybe the greatest sports pun of our torah portion is the story of those who have touched a dead body, aka those who have been “near death.” The torah states that these individuals are anointed with fresh water from a vessel” – Mayim chaim el kelly. This could be in reference to the “near death” experience the Buffalo Bills had 24 years ago, when second-string signal caller Frank Reich, subbing for an injured Jim Kelly, led The “Greatest Comeback in NFL History”, as the Buffalo Bills overcame a 32-point deficit, near death, to defeat the Houston Oilers in their 1993 playoff matchup.

So sports, therefore, become a natural connector to the stories of the bible. For some, sports have a more accessible set of liturgy- the rules of the games are fairly straightforward (and we know why they exist), We are mesmerized by the individual feats. We kvell in success and are filled with tzuris in times of great angst. Above all, we are moved by the storylines that trascend the Xs and Os of a game.

I grew up hearing  “Havlicek stealing the ball“, watching old footage of Flutie’s Hail Mary and Carlton Fisk willing the ball fair; seeing Bobby Ohr fly through the air. THat’s Boston for you. These were photographs on a wall that told a story of our people. But I didn’t live through them. I more vividly remember Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook’s Hail Mary connection propelling Colorado over Michigan, Joe Carter’s series clinching home run for the Toronto Blue Jays, Bryce Drew’s miracle shot versus Ole Miss, and Brett Hull’s controversial series clincher for the Dallas Stars. Removed from earlier great moments, The winning guarantee was not Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III decree but Mark Messier’s Stanley Cup finals pledge.

Each of these moments de-emphasize the journey, focusing on those final few seconds. How we perform in the clutch final two minutes is somehow more heroic than how we perform for the first 46. A horrific display of athletic talent can be redeemed through one magical moment that we lift up higher than the sum of the work. And vice versa, a glorious career may be clouded by not having won the big game.

This past Super Bowl, a tale of two halves, is a perfect example. A few weeks ago, my family visited Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios. While participating in the Frozen Sing-A-Long, one of the actors made an Atlanta Falcon’s joke, referencing “28-3”, the lead the Falcons had over the New England Patriots. For Patriots fans, the 28-3 stat line references the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, not how poorly they played for most of the game. For Falcons fans, it reflects a failure to close out the game rather than how they outperformed the Patriots in every way for the earlier parts of the game. How we do in the big moment seems to matter so much more.

Moses’ big moment comes in this torah portion. He’s almost at the finish line. After hearing the complaints of the Israelite people for yet another time, Moses proclaims

“Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (NUmbers 20:10-11)

The story focuses on disobeying God’s command to speak to the rock. But we’ve been here before. In Exodus 17, the people complain, and God instructs Moses to hit the rock; out came the water. Moses ignored God’s new decree because he knew what worked the first time. He took the shortcut. But something else changed between the two narratives. Moses rebukes the people- “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” reminds me of Russell Crowe’s line from the movie Gladiator:” Are you not entertained?”

Rashi and Ramban debate the sin of Moses. One says it was the act of striking the rock, the other saying it was this line, “Listen you rebels” Yet they are intertwined. The Kedushat Levi contends that it is a total lack of patience with the people that led Moses to sell them sort, rather than uplifting the people. He insists that ordinary people can and indeed must be raised to the highest rung.

For my own sensibilities, more than the clutch playoff performance, I am often moved by the mundane sports moment that suddenly becomes extraordinary. A preliminary race, a regular season game, takes on new meaning.

As the Baseball Hall of Fame puts it:

It was July 1, 1945 (72 years ago today) – less than eight weeks after Germany’s surrender ended the European war and a little more than two months until the end of the battle in the Pacific. Hank Greenberg, who entered the Army Air Corps four years earlier in May of 1941, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 1 of a Tigers vs. A’s doubleheader. It was his first game in the majors since his discharge two weeks prior, and Greenberg was already 0-for-3.

No one – not even the two-time American League MVP himself – knew for sure if a player could return from war and regain his previous form.

But with one swing – a blow that sailed into the left-field stands at Briggs Stadium and electrified the crowd of 47,729 fans – Greenberg answered the all the questions.

The heroes of baseball were on their way home.

An ordinary game, an ordinary moment, became extraordinary. Greenberg, not only as a baseball star, but a Jewish baseball star, returning from the atrocities of WWII to lift up an ordinary July 1 day.

Another favorite sports moment comes from Barcelona, 1992. Sprinter Derek Redmond blows out his hamstring in the semifinal heat of the 400meters. Grimacing from the pain, Redmond hobbles on one leg as he makes the turn around the track, determined to finish the race.  His father jumps his way through security to the track, helping his son finish the race with arms draped around one another. It becomes a symbol of determination, of the love a father has for a son, of perseverance through adversity.

A few years ago, a number of high school and collegiate videos went viral for showcasing an opponent helping out the other side. These are the examples of greatness when you least expect it. A simple act of sportsmanship, like carrying your opponent around the base path after they’ve torn their ACL, carrying your teammate across the finish line, we remember those moments long after you remember the rest of the stat sheet. These sports moments are a manifestation of the credo to have faith in people.

The ordinary becoming the extraordinary combats our highlighting of the failures when we expect greatness. But for every Lance Armstrong or Ben Johnson, there is a Derek Redmond to lift us up. For every person who shaves points and cuts corners, we have teammates who carry their fallen friend on their backs.

We are people of the book- Am Hasefer. The book, the torah, is a collection of laws, of does and don’ts. But it is also a parable, a collection of stories. Even this week’s torah portion, Chukat, taken from the root “Khok” (meaning law), we are driven to the narrative rather than the list of instructions. And so if we are truly a people of the book, we are also bound by the stories we read, the insights gleaned. We learn from Moses not only from his great leadership, but from the times when he comes up short. We learn that Moses is punished not only for his lack of faith in God’s instruction, but more importantly, his lack of faith in his people. We glorify the greatest feats, but we must remind ourselves that the ordinary can become extraordinary through faith in another. In believing in one another, our moments on this earth become more memorable; our marks more indelible than we could have ever imagined.


Hazzan Holzer’s Top 10 Biblical Sports Comparisons

  1. Mr. October  = Kohein Gadol, The high priest (High Holidays, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah)
  2. Kerri Strug (she scored a perfect 10) = Minyan of a routine
  3. Miracle on Ice = defeating the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds
  4. Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run = teaches that you can really learn all of Jewish thought and practice “on one foot”
  5. Tebow’s “The Promise”  = Ruth’s “The Promise” to Naomi
  6. Buster Douglass vs. Mike Tyson = David vs. Goliath
  7. Broadway Joe’s Super Bowl III guarantee = God’s decree that Abraham’s decendants will be as numerous as the stars
  8. UCONN women’s basketball 111 game winning streak  = “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights”
  9. Bill Buckner = the scapegoat (or the sacrificial lamb)
  10. Former Jaguars GM Gene Smith = one of the 10 scouts who described the land as being filled with giants while we were grasshoppers

We are all strange(rs)

Excerpts from sermon delivered June 17, 2017

Each of us is tasked to scout into the “Promised land” for all who make up our tribe. How we perceive of what we are seeing and the impactful words we use to describe these moments, shape our reality moving forward.

The scouts of Shelach Lecha were seeking out, exploring something new. They were in search of a way to access this new frontier. But they got scared. The 10 Spies weren’t lying- they reported an accurate depiction of the land, but they saw themselves as grasshoppers, the text states

“and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13;33)

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught

‘You are certainly permitted to say that you feel like a grasshopper in your own eyes. But what right do you have to imagine how you appear to someone else? To them, you might have appeared as angels.”

Imagine you invite a friend to synagogue for the very first time. Or maybe someone visiting for a world religion class.  If you had to pick one ritual experience that you might consider a “weird moment in judaism” to be their first exposure to Jewish communal practice, what would that be?

I distinctly remember a morning in high school when our interfaith encounter partners from a local catholic high school attended our chol hamoed succot service at school. Phylacteries, prayer shawls, chanting back and forth as we processed around in a circle with our lulavim and etrogim. The entire time I felt like the grasshopper, but afterwards I discovered that our visitors were fascinated by our rituals, and deeply respected our commitment to our faith. “But what right do we have to imagine how we appear to someone else? To them, we might have appeared as angels.”    

In accepting his Tony for Best Actor in Musical, proud Camp Ramah alumnus Ben Platt stated the following as the music played him off stage:

 “Don’t waste any time trying to be anyone but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”

Don’t waste any time trying to be anyone but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.

We hear something might be “different” or “strange” and we interpret as dangerous or in the wrong. But what if what is different, what is challenging, what is strange, empowers us as individuals and community.

When we journey through the unknown, when we see something different, we should remind ourselves that we all connect to the world in different ways. We all have different points of access. It’s important to acknowledge that fact. We are stronger when don’t label ourselves or others. We are stronger when all have access.  We are strong because, admit it, we are all a little strange. As we remind ourselves throughout our sacred texts, for we were “strangers” in the land of Egypt. Doubling down, our text this week states:

For the generations to come, whenever a stranger or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the stranger residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the stranger shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.’” (Numbers 15:14-16)

It is who we are. Let it strengthen each of us for generations to come.

Between the Bookends

Since the time of the prophet Ezra some 2,500 yrs ago, the Jewish people have been furnished with a musical liturgy rich in oral tradition. Within this tradition, two groups emerged- the fixed (nusah) of our prayers as well as the molded trope systems, known as cantillation, which define the way we chant biblical verse.

When the Masorites codified the cantillation systems a thousand years ago, the symbols and names to identify a musical phrase were intended to be easy and straightforward- Sof Pasuk meant “end of the verse”; Etnachta from the root lanuach, to rest, the name given to the trope found in the middle of a verse, a place to pause both thematically and musically.  Whether we are reading torah or haftarah or megillah, these cantillation marks act the same way. The trope symbols are as much musical notation as they are punctuation, accentuation and interpretation of the words they pair up with.

The trope “Zarka” appears almost 700 times throughout Tanakh.  In most of our cantillation systems, Zarka, taken from the Aramaic word meaning “scattering”, moves note by note in an identical “scattering” motion.

[audio ]

Keep that melody in mind for a moment.

Parallel to the development of our sacred cantillation system is our synagogue-chanting mode, the nusah, defined by distinct musical scales combined with the use of traditional phrases within a given scale.  There are only so many scales in use within traditional Ashkenazic worship, and so we look to the musical phrases to lead us to where we are in the religious calendar. To hear  the melody for High Holiday Maariv– we know it is the High Holiday season.  We don’t think “oh yes that’s a major scale.” We identify with a certain season, a sentimental connection to a time of year. To hear “Shabbat minha” it is suddenly Shabbat afternoon. Our festival davening, filled with numerous musical motifs, is defined, in essence, by 4 notes. These are the four notes that complete most phrases within festival nusah. Our opening and closing phrases share the same simplified nusah. Take the last paragraph of the Kedusha prayer, in which we transition to our festival nusah:  “Ldor Vador” to open, and “Hakadosh” to end our paragraph.

Each paragraph of our Festival liturgy is often bookended by the same few notes.

[audio ]

The scattering Zarka. What does it mean to have our fixed liturgy begin and end with the same musical phrase?

17th Century Rabbi Samuel Archivolti articulated the connection between music and text:

“There are two categories of song. The first category is a melody, which is composed to fit the words in consideration of their ideas. For by melodic changes we are able to distinguish between pause and continuation, a fast tempo and a slow one, between joy and sadness, astonishment and fear, and so forth. And this is the most excellent type of melody in music, for not only does it consider the ear’s pleasure, but also strives to give spirit and soul to the words that are sung. This type of song was used by the Levites (in the Temple), for it is the only way they could have arranged their music, and it is the type fit to be written for songs in our sacred language.”

So we return to the simplicity of our opening and closing Zarka.  “Ldor Vador“- from generation to generation,

HaKadosh” – the one who is holy.

The musical motifs that define our nusah, the set ways of our liturgical lives, were once described to me by Cantor Simon Spiro as “Slalom Posts”- as a slalom skier descends the mountain, the objective is to go from post to post. What he does in between swiping each post is entirely up to him. This musical freedom is the journey we can take between Ldor Vador (generation to generation) and Hakadosh(holiness)- how do we as individuals and as community bring “Generation to Generation” to “holiness”? It is up to us to treat generations before with holiness just as much as generations to come! Our task is to fill that space between the opening and closing of our lives with holy music.

This task is brought to light through melodic intervals that define this holiday.

Today we continue to celebrate Chol Hamoed– the period in between the very much defined bookends of this holiday- On one end, we have our seders and the recitation of the Tal prayer. On the other, the Yizkor memorial service, reminding us not only about our redemption from slavery to freedom but of the necessity to remember all those loved ones who have journeyed with us.

Chol Hamoed– often mistranslated as “intermediate days”, is rather the mixing of two worlds- the holy and the every day. For as the name implies, Chol is the ordinary and profane, while Moed is an appointed time or place of meeting.

One way to experience these middle days is as a  twice a year event- to taste a little of the holiness of yom tov in the aura of the weekday. Or we can extend this metaphor to the ways in which we live throughout the year- making holiness the norm of practice. We mark the Yom Tov bookends in big ways, acting holy when we are surrounded by pomp and circumstance, by ritual, by community and those we love. These liminal moments are part of our collective Jewish and family calendar. What is even more difficult is living a life of Chol Hamoed– adding sanctity to the mundane every day motions.; adding “Moed”, set time during our ordinary day to appreciate the joy in our lives, to sojourn in a special space with the divine.

Zarka: trope, and by extension Nusah, are able to transport us to the space between. A paragraph like Ldor Vador that recite multiple times a day has new meaning when we add the festival flavor to it. The nusah uncovers this idea of “bookends”- that we begin and end in a similar fashion, but what we do in the middle is what matters most. May we take the journey between the fixed points of release and return, and fill it with the coloratura of action and interaction, of holy being and holy doing, of loving others and loving ourselves. As we continue to travel from slavery to freedom, may we find each ordinary day to be that much more extraordinary.

Embracing All: Parshat Tazria

As a parent of a young child, I can easily get swept up in the competitive comparing and contrasting of kid’s- what percentile for height and weight? what developmental stage are you at? Is she walking? Is she talking? Is she multiplying and performing long division yet? I know I am naïve, but I hope that these milestone moments do not become breeding ground for unnecessary rivalry, with failure never being an option. For while we all are created in image of God, a seemingly perfect image, we all have had issues as we travel through life. Some we can overcome, others we just hope we can keep in check. I hope that whatever challenges come our daughter’s way, she will not battle them alone.

As I think of her early milestones, I think of my own childhood. I was a late talker. A very late talker. I was just about four when the talking finally began. At 3, my parents took me to a neurologist, who diagnosed me with oro-motor dyspraxia, a delay of the muscles around the mouth. He also said that I probably missed stages of sound formation due to a number of ear infections as a baby. Subsequently, I spent most of my elementary school years working with a speech therapist, finally conquering my “r” sounds when I could pronounce my therapist’s name, Mrs. Sotiropolis. This delay was coupled with a later diagnosed auditory processing issue, where the ideas were moving so fast in my head that they got jumbled coming out. This disconnect between my receptive and expressive language skills was aided through specialists who strategized ways to narrow the gap. I was already the introvert, the late one to talking. It took a while to lose the self-consciousness not knowing what words would get jumbled, not knowing how I’d be perceived by others.

5,000 years ago, Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Moses, the reluctant leader of the Jewish people, suffered from a speech impediment as well. God saw through his disability to appreciate his ability to lead and his passion and loyalty to God and community.  Today, Would Moses be given a leadership role in our communities? Would he be granted acceptance in the first place?

In thinking of our own community, what is our gateway to full membership and engagement? Is it your wallet? Is it your ability to read Hebrew and follow a service? Is it your capacity to sit respectively for a 3 hour service? Or is it merely the desire to actively engage in a prayer community, in educational and social opportunities within a group framework?

Our text from this week’s torah portion focuses on those let in and those let out of community. If we take the text quite literally, it paints a darker picture of our ancestors and how they perceived the other. Tazria, states the following in Leviticus 13:45-46:

And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

The Rabbis link slander (lashon hara) with tzaraat, this peculiar skin infection. Earlier in our storyline, God afflicts Miriam with tzaraat as punishment for challenging Moses’ authority. The Rabbis try to interpret this difficult section under the rubric of lashon hara because it’s hard to grapple with notion that the ancient Israelites had a fear of the unknown, a fear of the other.  Even worse, how could they shamefully embarrass someone, making them scream out, “I’m unclean” to the masses?  How could the Israelites masses make those inflicted take their journey alone?  While Talmud teaches that the community is called upon to offer support and prayer during this period of illness, the text unabashedly refers to the person as “hatzarua”, roughly translating to “the one who has leprosy.” Not someone afflicted with a disease, but rather someone who is defined ONLY by the disease they suffer from.

We have all heard the labeling of individuals with disabilities, the hurtful remarks transmitted by pity, fear, ignorance and disrespect.  This commentary continues to poison our community spaces that are meant for all. Steps are being made throughout the Jewish community, however, to ensure meaningful experiences for all.

This comes in two stages. Stage 1 is our Jewish obligation to literally not allow a stumbling block before those who are blind, establishing avenues that lead toward an inclusive physical space for all those in need. Stage 2 is our moral obligation as decent human beings: changing the attitude and creating gateways to community through social acceptance and appreciation.

Step 1: Access to Worship, Breaking down physical barriers to inclusion

In our building, we’ve installed ramps and walkways. We’ve provided large print siddurim and assisted hearing systems. We’re lowering counters and installing handicapped entrances to bathrooms. We are creating elevator access for our schools. Within our schools, we’ve started to help children with special needs in with a modified curriculum while trying to be as inclusive as possible. At our local JFCS we’ve hired our first inclusion specialist to work with the different arms of the Jacksonville Jewish community.

On the national level, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium partners with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Council for the Jewish Disabled, Union for Reform Judaism United Jewish Communities, and the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies to provide a unified resources as well as a unified approach to inclusion.

The Ruderman Foundation’s Global Innovators in Inclusion Competition is looking to support fully inclusive programs that ensure everyone can participate together, without stigma or imposed limitations.

These accomplishments, in our school, shul and community, should be CELEBRATED. When we complete a project such as our elevator construction, this is a holy moment ensuring no physical barriers to any child receiving an education here. This is indeed sacred work. But these milestones are only Step 1.

Step 2: Remove barriers of attitude and communication to enable all people to participate fully in worship, learning and social activities. Without this, it doesn’t matter many special programs or enhancements we make.

  1.    Initiate outreach to people with disabilities to identify and serve their needs.
  2.    Advocate and inform our community of the needs as people move through the life cycle of the synagogue.
  3.    Changing the rhetoric. Sensitivity to language used. Eliminating certain words from our vocabulary.

We all experience being left out or put down. We all have been left out of the inner circle at one point or another. How do we respond? What is our action point so others feel included? The following are action items we may incorporate into our community.

Action Items (taken from a myriad of online resources):

  1.    Continuing our work in the schools: Children may engage in hands-on, multi-sensory Jewish education that builds on social skills enhancement and enables them to feel proud of their Jewish identity. This model can flow between schools and shul. We can ALL benefit from a multi-sensory prayer experience.
  2.    Create an area on the application form for High Holiday Tickets, membership and other congregational programs for people with disabilities to indicate what assistance they require to participate.
  3.    Create a Special Needs Fund to help with costs of improved access to the building, prayer books for those with visual disabilities, a better sound system and other accommodations.
  4.    Write a statement of welcome and inclusion that is added to all congregational membership materials. An example:

i.     They are friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, volunteers, and teammates.  They are people with developmental disabilities.  The Jacksonville Jewish Center encourages everyone to get to know someone with a developmental disability and you’ll find out he or she has a lot to offer to our community.  Recognize ability, not the disability and picture their potential.

  1.    Include the universal symbols of accessibility in all publicity and marketing for our congregation (ie: the icons for wheelchair access, assistive listening devices, etc.)
  2.    Create a program or open forum that will allow congregants to discuss any attitudinal barriers to inclusion that may exist in your congregation. Explore why those attitudes exist and develop a list of strategies to address and eliminate them from our congregational community.
  3.    Push our chesed committee to go a step further, asking members to assist family members of the congregants with special needs with grocery shopping and other errands on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Also ask congregants to provide rides to and from the synagogue for programs and Shabbat services for congregants with special needs.

As the tagline importantly states, “People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people.” One out of every five individuals has a disability, yet we can and should focus on the ways in which our communities may be enriched through their participation.

Serving as a Rosh Edah, Rosh Tefillah and Music staff at Camp Ramah in New England, I saw the direct impact that inclusion brings not only to those who have developmental disabilities, but to the campers and staff that directly engaged in meaningful moments that include all. It is not a burden of our time or resources. Involving everyone as valued citizens of the circle encapsulates the potential depth that community can offer.

In altering the attitudinal landscape, inclusion becomes the game-changer that can define our community. Inclusion is a gift.  The tzaraat, this troubling Tazria narrative, is turned on its head. Our fears and inhibitions of the unknown are left outside the circle, the cold and insensitive acts are left to be proclaimed, “Unclean Unclean.”

We are much more than a Not-for profit organization. As my former co-counselor and charitable startup founder Adam Braun pens it, we are a “for purpose” organization. Our purpose should be obvious.  Although 84 percent of people with a disability report that religious faith is important to them, less than half attend a religious service at least once a month.  There is a spiritual need yet to be realized.

The Arc, a community based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, highlighted today, March 29 on their calendar in a grassroots initiative to raise awareness about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  What is the act? Simply make plans to go out somewhere in public today. That’s all. Just plan a day out and about enjoying the things you like to do. And, in the process help raise awareness and generate some conversation during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

Just to socialize, that’s all. It seems fairly straightforward, but what this teaches is that the communal needs are not being met, that the stigmas and preconceived notions still exist.

Our purpose is to meet those needs; to include those who have the spirit and desire to be part of a greater community; to exclude the preconceived bigotry. May we support and learn from one another. May we all grow to learn that it is more than just being aware. It is more than merely being sensitive and accepting of others. It is about embracing all in our community, and in doing so, embracing ourselves.


Shabbat Shalom


Awareness in Exile: Taking an exodus to bring you closer to home

Clergy have the most interesting lives. Last Saturday night, with no college football game of note, I watched what I’d call a fascinating three hour “documentary.” Five thousand people singing and dancing. Over a hundred choral members leading a congregation in soulful harmony. Inventive prayer services. Bibliodramas, dramatic sermons, rock stars and rock star clergy teaching and preaching the bible to the masses in a relevant and deep manner. This wasn’t a mega-church. It was the URJ (Union or Reform Judaism) Biennial Convention in San Diego, CA.

The alternative service WAS the service. On Friday night, the entire clergy team from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA led the 5k crowd in a musical Kabbalat Shabbat Service. My best takeaway was a one line zinger from Senior Rabbi Joel Sisenwine: “The goal is not to get through the service but for the service to get through us.” It doesn’t matter if it is a 1 hour service or a 4 hour experience: if a service flows, it can flow through us, allowing us to imagine a time when on Shabbat, the period where time is supposed to stand still, we can enjoy the moment rather than peak at our watch to see if the bell has rung high noon.

There were a lot of great takeaways from seeing how services were conducted. One difficult aspect of the pulpit world is that it rarely affords you the opportunity to visit shuls with “best practices.” As clergy, we may hear of what Rabbi X or Cantor Z did in their shul, but until we experience it live (or virtually), it is hard to see it’s truest strengths. As a student, I was able to travel to different communities, to see what was out there in other pews. Even as congregants, we may remain in one service never seeing what other communities are doing- not because we want to trade in our team colors, but because we want to improve our community.

We don’t know what to work on, as a prayer community, until we see what we might be missing. We don’t know what to improve for we are blinded by complacency and the stagnant and even degenerative norm. It is as if we are “unaware” of the potential of our community.

Rabbi Art Green, in channeling the great Hassidic masters in his most recent work, asks the following question about this week’s torah portion, “Where was the Torah cast down at the time? It fell into the “shell” of Egypt. That is awareness in exile, for the Torah represents awareness. And this is why Israel had to go down into Egypt. To raise up fallen Torah…”

We use this term “light of Torah” because there are times in our lives when darkness can run rampant and other times when our eyes have become so accustomed to the light that we devalue its importance.

In our torah Portion, Shemot, we have 3 examples of individuals or groups acting complacently, as awareness in exile takes form:

Example 1: When Moses encounters an Israelite slave in harm’s way, he looks “Ko Vacho”- this way and that way, not because he was necessarily looking to see if anyone would catch what he was doing, but because there were people there who did not come to this Israelite’s aid. Blinded was the responsibility and need for action.

Examples 2 and 3 go hand in hand. Our opening section of Parshat Shemot states, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”

What does this mean “A new king arose over Egypt.” The Talmudic sages Rab and Samuel battled it out to determine whether this was a new king, literally, or if the king had just forgotten all that Joseph had done for him. One could go even further to suggest that it was only through the memory of Joseph’s worthwhile contributions that kept Egyptian hatred below the surface. In any case, both Egypt and her leader were no longer “aware” of Joseph.

The same lack of awareness can be submitted in the case for the Israelites themselves. Would they fall into slavery if they had remembered the hard work of Joseph, the committed partnership he had created within the Egyptian political system? Israel forgot Joseph as much as Egypt! The community separated itself from Joseph, as Moses had been born separated from the community. It would take both Moses and the Israelite nation a generation to realize the phrase: Al tifrosh min Hatzibor– Do not separate from the community. We assume this means that in order to NOT separate from our community, we must live in a bubble, when in fact we realize we can serve our community better by keeping our eyes open to the outside. It is easy to be complacent, it is much harder to remain alert and aware of the different tools we can use to better ourselves and our community.

How can we avoid “awareness in exile”? It’s an active conversation within our community- shabbat regulars, lay leaders, and professional staff talking about what we are missing. We assume that everything the needs of our core.

We must be aware of the myriad of individuals our community serves. We must be aware of the fact that no two individuals come to worship here for the same reason. We must be aware that while Shabbat is a day of rest, we must push ourselves spiritually and emotionally. We must be aware of the idea of stepping out of our normal routine in order to grow as community.

Take an exodus from your own needs for a second. Explore what makes you come to services. Why are you here? Maybe it’s for social reasons, maybe its because a life cycle event brought you closer to community, maybe its the cantor! We all come for different reasons. May we find awareness of ourselves and our community, so that we can answer the greater questions: Why is that seat next to you empty? Where is your friend who used to come? You know why you come today, but what will get you here tomorrow?

Parshat Korach: Talking About The Man in The Mirror

photo (8)

Yesterday, our daughter Rena turned 3 months old. Every day is a new sound, a new sensation. Rena continues to dictate our schedule.  She enjoys interacting with others much more than the tummy time we force her through each day. Her favorite pastime, other than starring deep into her daddy’s eyes, is starring playfully into her mirror. Every time she looks it is as if she is finding herself for the first time. Whatever she may be thinking, and whether or not she realizes that it is herself on the other side of the mirror, she is playfully mesmerized as she looks back and forth.

Somewhat ironically, we use mirrors to reflect not only our outside appearance, but speak to our inner selves, to reassure ourselves that our mind, body AND spirit are engaged.


Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken, is the Saturday Night Live Tony Robbins inspired self help guru who once got Michael Jordan through battles with self confidence.  His catch phrase, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dogone it, people like me” was one of the first mantra’s I ever heard.

If only Korah had the good fortune to meet Stuart Smalley. Korah exuded confidence, but his mission lacked a few key ingredients to success.

Our torah portion follows Korah’s mutiny from the gathering and later consuming of 250 men  to the plaguing of his 14,000 supporters.   To understand why Korah failed in his coup de tat, we have to travel back for clearer context.

In last week’s torah portion, our “scouts” were sent out to survey the land of Israel. As history would have it, we now refer to many of these scouts as “spies.” As a punishment for their distrust or lack of faith in the divine power, the people of Israel are told that their generation would not enter the land.

Contextually, the Israelites have every right to be upset- they have been walking around in circles, given the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Our last torah reading prior to Parashat Korah gives us the commandment of “tzitzit,” the fringes of the prayer shawl. Tzitzit, symbolize the bringing together of the four corners of the world. It is meant to be an act of community building.

Now the stage has been set. We arrive at  Korah’s challenge, a single sentence hurled at Moshe and Aharon by 250 leaders:

“It has been enough leadership for you [Moses and Aaron]; all the people in the witness community are holy with the Lord in their midst. Why must you set yourselves up to be on a higher plane than the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3)

We are ALL holy. What a powerful statement.  Korah used this “one liner” to rile up the people, but did he truly feel that everyone is holy or just that he should be held in higher esteem? The text states,“Vayikach Korach,” and Korah took. He attempts to take by force, to capture, to seize. Korah, does not embrace, he does not squeeze, he does not hold close. I agree with Korah’s half-hearted statement that we are all holy creatures, but I’d also like to think that holiness is not a privilege, it’s an obligation. We learn that Korah was a Rebel without a cause.  He could’ve seen the laws of tzitzit as an avenue leading towards a sharing community. He could look in the mirror and truly find holiness in everyone, not just himself.

What can WE do as holy vessels to look at ourselves, to question why we do things, question who are we surrounded by?

A few weeks ago, I had that look in the mirror. I attended my 9th Cantors Assembly convention. It was great to catch up with colleagues and classmates, and the late night promenade concerts are always a highlight. This year I attended 4 day workshop entitled, “Song leader Boot Camp” led by Jewish Rock musician Rick Recht. Most of our workshop hours involved body movement, asking questions, and reciting mantras. Very little time was devoted to singing. How ironic that at the conclusion of our convention, The Cantors Assembly unveiled a new motto for its marketing campaign: “singing is just the beginning.” It put’s the cantor beyond the pulpit, beyond the classroom. Then people might respond, “Cantor, you can do that?” Yes I can!

As an individual, it’s hard to undergo a  radical transformation, a rebranding of ones self. It is hard to change, to grow, to ask tough questions, when you are comfortable.  It’s tough to run through a workshop where you break down every form of how you might teach, how you might take over a space, and start a new with fresh ideas. It is a battle against the still existant perception that a cantor is there to sing, to be a minister for music and nothing else. It is also hard to try to change it up when you’ve created a certain persona, a certain style of cantorate in your pulpit position in a loving community. Why send in for a recall if it ain’t broken? Our group of 30 or so embarked on a 4 day journey to achieve what Recht called “Star State” :Super-charging yourself to make a quick and radical change in your physical and psychological state so you can deliver at peak levels.  How could I as a leader walk into a room and exude confidence and engage others in a meaningful way.

We took the Psychological approach:

Radically change your psychology by changing your FOCUS.

• Change your FOCUS by concentrating on your Sense of Purpose.

• What is my PURPOSE?

To Teach

To Learn

To Inspire

To Create Community

To teach Judaism

We asked tough questions:

Why am I SO fortunate to have this opportunity to lead?

What is this group expecting? What am I expecting?

To strengthen our leadership skills, we were encouraged to

Get focused

Get modest

Get humble

Get ready to learn

Get ready to observe

Be Genuine!

Be Authentic!

BE Myself!

To build rapport, foster respect and share with my community.

We recited Mantras so many times that we began to believe they were true and take on the responsibilities that came with them:

I am here to learn

I am here to teach

I am here to celebrate

I am blessed to have this community

Exceed expectations

Set a new standard

I am a leader

I am a leader

I am a leader

We saw the power of tone: “I am a leader, I AM a leader.”… Successful mantras don’t give a false sense of accomplishment.  Rather, they force us to push ourselves, to be that leader, to be present in the moment. These are all Mottos to live by-. None are rocket science.  But it is important to embrace them every day.

We moved our bodies and talked about the forms of Non-verbal communication and how to utilize the space you have:

55%-95% percent of your effective communication comes from your physical communication

38% our tone of voice

7% the actual words we use

Tone and body language.

There are techniques that I hope to utilize in the future to be a better leader, to build a stronger community. I hope to be in a true STAR state the person who makes OTHERS the stars, who transfers energy, kavod, respect, and honor to others. All before I even open my mouth to sing.

What was Korah’s tone and body language?  We can only speculate. Maybe Korah could’ve used Star State, making others the star. We all, like Korah, have the inclination to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, to fight the status quo ONLY if our best interests are in mind.  The Korach in each of us is only that more dangerous because we fail to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves important questions. Each day we recite the words “Yihiyu L’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi lifanech”- May the words of my mouth AND the meditations of my heart. Our intention is just as important as our action.I hope you find that you don’t need the High Holidays to have a moment of introspection, a moment to look in the mirror, to remember that you are holy, and it is with that holiness that have the obligation and capacity to inspire, to learn, to teach, to grow, and to create a loving community.

Parshat Shoftim: the story, the whole story and nothing but the whole story

“He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

These are the famous words of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice. Shylock had experienced discrimination at the hands of Antonio. He asks why can’t he be allowed to exact revenge in response to his own maltreatment? In a matter of moments, we jump from sympathizing with the victim Shylock to finding no excuses for an individual who wants to behave as poorly as his aggressor.  Senseless bigotry is the kickstarter to a back and forth barrage of hateful words and actions. The origin of this cycle, discriminating because of race or creed, is nothing new to us.  We might associate this discrimination with decades ago or miles away, but we unfortunately are not immune to these events within the Jewish world.

Travel from Shakespeare’s 16th century tragic comedy to the non-comedic tragedy of this past week.   Downtown Jerusalem’s Zion Square hosted a convention of sorts. Dozens of Jewish youth convened together to attack 3 Palestinian youths, shouting “Death to the Arabs” along with other racial slurs. One of those attacked, 17 yr old Jamal Julani, fell on the floor, and his attackers continued to beat him until he lost consciousness. The mob turned on Jewish first responders. Some in the angry crowd did not understand why the medics were shocked by what they found. As one eyewitness put it:

“When one of the Palestinian youths fell to the floor, the [Jewish] youths continued to hit him in the head, he lost consciousness, his eyes rolled, his angled head twitched, and then those who were kicking him fled and the rest gathered in a circle around, with some still shouting with hate in their eyes.” Haaretz quoted the main suspect — a 15-year-old boy — as saying of one of the alleged victims: “For all I care, let him die. He’s an Arab. He cursed my mother. He can die.” Were these youth egging on their attackers? Maybe. That’s no justification for the actions and remarks that ensued.

Jamal Julani’s wounds may physically heal, but these actions reveal a growing epidemic. I’m appalled at this story. In my mind, I say to myself in not so pleasant terms, “Seriously?”

Pointless, senseless, and immoral acts of violence and hatred. Somewhere along the line someone was given the green light- that this opinion, these actions are not only valid and acceptable, but preferable! We must watch our tongues: Not only for how we speak to our loved ones but in what words we use to describe those outside our circles. When we speak ill of those on the periphery, those who are marginalized, those on the other side of the fence, we breed hatred and bigotry.  We foster an unending cycle that clouds our sense of right and wrong.


The way we speak to and about each other is not only a lesson for those in pre or elementary school.  Today, we turn the television stations to find politicians spewing hateful speech against one another. Even those who refrain from derogatory speech find ways to manipulate words to delegitimize the other.  We see the political “savviness” of selecting sound bites that destroy your opponent’s credibility.  Topics twisted and turned. We make issues such as “rape” as political platforms rather than cries for help to protect against indecency and injustice.

When the story is manipulated, when we only hear or learn part of the story, this inhibits our ability to find the truth. This turns on the green light to bigotry. Who are we to be judge jury and executioner when we can’t see the whole picture?

It is important to read all the lines and everything in between them. This is no new concept. It’s a way to read both situation and text for as long as we know of. When reading our ancient texts we must pay special attention to details. It’s our responsibility to investigate why every word, every syllable, every trope, is in a specific location.


In our Torah portion this week, we are given an outline for our judicial and political system. We are given details for a king, priests, Levites, and prophets. We are given detailed instructions to appoint magistrates and officials to help keep us in check. We are given more laws to help regulate our society.  Each of these laws is a sound bite. We may naturally pick and choose the words to quote; find the words that help prove our point.  We may think we are dealing with a laundry list of laws, a hodgepodge of unorganized regulations. If we only listen to one section, one paraphrasing, we might miss the original context. We might miss the meaning.

I’ll give an example:


Verse 20:13-14 “And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.”

Mass Murder. Spoils of war. Sounds like a brutal society. Sounds like a good platform for war, a great sound bite for religious fanatics on any side. So then where’s the humanity in a time of war? With context, the text describes the Israelite kindness even in wartime. War is a last resort. Israel must offer peace to every city attacked. They must conduct themselves with reason and mercy.  Is this humanity according to modern standards? Maybe not. But in seeing the whole story, we can see war as the very last resort.   Israel is no longer the aggressor.

Later on in our parsha, we encounter Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge, for those who may have unintentionally killed another person.  These cities were intended to ban those who desire “blood revenge.”

Today, we speak of war as if it is exclusively a matter of physical altercation.  As we see every day, there are wars of words. There are those who are still “out for blood” both literally and figuratively. Are we part of the mob out for “blood?”

As we begin this season of repentance and reflection, it is also the season of name-calling, the season of beat-downs- both political and physical in nature, the season of taking a sound bite and reframing it for political gain or to justify the unjustifiable. This is an ugly time on the calendar, but this season arrives with an opportunity that most will undoubtedly pass up on- to listen up.  To read the entire text, turn on both channels, to listen to what’s being said. For the opportunists, the Bullies and bigots will only stand down only if others are standing up, using every peaceful and respectful option possible, to repair our relationships with our adversaries, to repair this system of attack vs. attack, to repair our world.

Our Torah reading states, Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof– “true justice you shall pursue.”  We say tzedek, “justice”, two times, for there is always more than one side to anything. Justice has more than one side.  Above all, we must see the value of human life, of responsible behavior, of peaceful interaction. We must hear the story, the whole story, and nothing but the whole story. It is only then, that we can live in a just and right world filled with openness and respect.


Shabbat Shalom