Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
February 23, 2018

How to Talk to Little Kids about G-d / Parashat Tetzaveh – February 22, 2018 / 7 Adar 5778

I’m a rabbi. While I feel that my faith in G-d is strong, I don’t always know what to say about G-d and life’s mysteries.

Like many of you, I’m also a parent. I want my boys – and all Jewish children – to have a full Jewish education. Judaism should speak to everyone’s head, hands, and heart. Indeed, this is part of our Religious School’s vision statement.

The head should know: the stories and laws of our Torah; how to read Hebrew; the history of the people and State of Israel.

The hand should do: Mitzvot like lighting Hanukah candles and giving Tzedakah; acts of Chesed like feeding the hungry.

And the heart should feel: pride in being Jewish; a strong connection to Israel; faith in G-d.

So how should I and other parents talk to our kids about G-d if we’re not sure of all the answers? How should parents who doubt G-d’s existence approach this subject with their kids?

The weightiness of this challenge gives me pause. But the importance of this conversation pushes me forward.

I think about this sacred, timeless task now, as I’ve just completed reading “Becoming a Jewish Parent” by Daniel Gordis. Though he’s primarily known as a prolific commentator on issues concerning Israel, he’s also an American-born rabbi whose first books speak about Judaism writ large.

Here is, in my eyes, the book’s best takeaway:
“G-d-talk is important. G-d-talk isn’t a matter of ‘teaching’ our children anything in particular. Rather, G-d-talk is about making our children comfortable with the word ‘G-d’ as part of their regular vocabulary…Is our job at such moments to give our kids information, or is it to build a safe, secure, nurturing sense of the world, one in which they can begin to make Jewish life a core part of who they are? When we talk about G-d, we’re not ‘information providers.’ Rather, we’re ‘world builders,’ the people who are most responsible for the outlook on life our children will develop and carry with them for a lifetime (60, 67).”

G-d is real. To convey that to my children, G-d must be part of our conversations. If I hope my sons talk about G-d, I’ve got to bring it up first. Here’s an example: As I walked with my 4 year old to shul on Friday night, I told him that we go there to pray to G-d. Our prayers are our conversations with G-d, when we ask G-d for some things and thank G-d for other things. I asked my son, “What do you want to ask from G-d? For what do you say, ‘Thank you, G-d’?” My son answered me, “I thank G-d for all the sharks. And I wish G-d made more sharks.”

You see that my son’s world is colored by sharks. They’re in his books, on his TV shows, on his shirts, on his water bottle. He probably dreams about them too. And that’s fine because he’s four. I’m thrilled by his comment because he’s speaking about G-d as a real part of his real world. A small part, but a real part. This is a start. Every parent can plant this seed, not just theologians.

I know not every parent has faith in G-d, for different, understandable reasons. I know that these parents are as ethical and loving as I hope my wife and I are. But I think these parents too should make G-d part of their children’s vocabularies and let them decide for themselves if and how they see G-d as part of their worlds. When G-d-talk is absent, the possibility of faith is largely closed off. But when children speak of G-d, that possibility exists. When a parent doesn’t believe in G-d, why must their child follow suit?

For even if you don’t believe in G-d, we the Jews believe in G-d. Think of the Shema: “Listen, Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.” Think of the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the L-rd your G-d Who brought you out of Egypt.” Both affirm that G-d is real. Both are cornerstones of Jewish education. Not just to be memorized or understood, but believed. And that’s only possible when G-d is part of children’s vocabulary. And that’s only possible when we talk about G-d in a real way. (Like every other subject, conversations about nuances and challenges are appropriate and important, but only when the child is ready).

What would happen if the bulk of the Jewish people stopped believing in G-d or praying to G-d? Sadly, we would lose a core part of our identity and become frighteningly vulnerable. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor – Remember – , as we remember how our enemy Amalek nearly wiped us out after we departed from Egypt. Do you recall the moment when the Israelites were suddenly so weak that the Amalekites pounced? Exodus 17 tells us that Amalek came to battle immediately after the Israelites fought with Moses and wondered aloud, “Is G-d in our midst or not?” (Ex. 17:7). The moment the Israelites lost faith in G-d, they nearly lost everything.

We read about Amalek before Purim, for Haman was a descendent. Megillat Esther – it has been widely noted – is a book of the Bible that never mentions G-d. But is G-d entirely absent or merely working behind the scenes? At first glance it appears that G-d is nowhere to be found. But on second thought, there sure are a lot of “coincidences” that arranged themselves just so.

Like reading the Megillah, it’s possible to navigate our world believing that G-d is absent. But the Jewish tradition teaches otherwise. It unabashedly teaches that G-d is here, G-d is near. As the prayer Adon Olam concludes, “I place my spirit in G-d’s hand when I sleep and when I wake. And along with my spirit, my body. G-d is with me; I shall not be afraid.”

Jewish parents are Jewish educators. If we want to build a world in which G-d is a real presence, we’ve got to talk about G-d and make G-d part of our kids’ vocabulary. It’s not easy, but it’s crucial. Words build worlds. Indeed, that’s why the Torah in Genesis says G-d spoke and the world came into being. G-d’s words created our heads, hands, and heart. Our words open them up.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alex Freedman

February 20, 2018

Who Owns the Shoah? Parashat Terumah – February 16, 2018 / 1 Adar 5778

A Hungarian member of our synagogue who survived the Holocaust, chose to memorialize his family and loved ones who did not share his fortunate fate. He sought to erect a monument to their memory in his hometown of Budapest that read:

“In memory of the Jews killed by the Nazis in Budapest during the Holocaust.”

The Hungarian government objected to the verbiage of the monument. They recommended the following:

“In memory of the Hungarians killed by the Nazis in Budapest during World War II.”

My rhetorical question to you the reader, to the survivor and to the Hungarian official is: What is the difference between these two statements above?

Before I continue any further, allow me to state that I would never intend to dishonor the Holocaust, to shame survivors or to denigrate the memory of the 6 million who were killed. If any word I write in the next paragraphs come across disrespectfully, I am expressing myself incorrectly and I sincerely apologize.

I do, however, want to challenge us to ask some tough questions and to begin to explore if we can look at the Holocaust through a lens we have not before. Not a lens that changes facts or figures, God forbid. Rather a lens that can empathize with other victims who were not Jewish. A lens that sees the Jewish victims as not only the loss of individual people or a religion, but also the loss of a country’s population.

I pose this question now in light of the recent Polish law seeking to censor those who claim Poles were complicit in the Nazi killing machine, known as the Shoah. This law would in essence make it illegal throughout Poland to proclaim publically – in a classroom, in a public arena or square, or even in the press – that the Poles were responsible or even complicit in the Holocaust.

I believe this new law stems from a few places.

There were six death camps during the Holocaust. Death camps were solely meant to systematically exterminate Jews, and quickly. They were called Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Birkenau. All of these camps were built on Polish soil, most decidedly by Nazi design.

Since the fall of communism in the late 80’s, Jews have made mass pilgrimages, almost like a hajj, to Poland to pay respects at the world’s largest Jewish cemeteries. The country has taken on a sense of holy-sadness in our quest to honor the memory of those who perished, to recall the vibrancy of Jewish life that was lost and to take an oath of sorts through testimony, Never Again.
During these Marches of the Living – and the hundreds of variations of this trip – visitors are overwrought with emotion, remnants of unfathomable torture, and deep geographical confusion.

Allow me to explain through analogy.

I studied and later worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, the academic center of the Conservative Movement. Its campus also housed many other arteries of the Movement like Ramah Camps and the Rabbinical Assembly, though they had no direct connection with JTS outside of the space they shared. When someone had meetings or dealings at one of those arteries, they would often confuse the connection with JTS, all because of location and lack of clarity on organizational roles. I call this ‘institutional confusion.’

Many with poor historical knowledge commonly call these death camps, “Polish Death Camps” merely because they were in Poland. But the creation and implementation of the final solution that aimed to rid the world of Jews was devised and carried out exclusively by the Nazis. These facts matter.

The new Polish law does not look to erase history, but rather to clarify it.  It does not seek to exonerate the partners in the six years of evil, like many from the Ukraine who were complicit in crimes against humanity. It also does not seek to excuse the years of anti-Semitism that existed in Poland before, during and after the war. One can look at the events of in Katowice, Jedwabne or Kielce to prove this point beyond any doubt. But, anti-Semitism cannot be blanket-ly equated to the systematic and calculated atrocities of the Holocaust. That level of conflation is treasonous. Additionally, there are rows of trees planted in Yad Vashem to honor the many Polish people who risked their own lives to hide and save Jewish people during the war. Many were righteous souls.

The flip side of this law creates a reason for us to worry. Perhaps educators on all levels and places might now hesitate to teach about the Holocaust. It also might inhibit politicians of reminding people of our past which changes our future. And, most frighteningly, it might provide cover for other countries to re-write history that encourages the distortion of pertinent facts about the Holocaust. It could lead to the slippery slope of vindicating all peoples for the fate of the Jews during and after the war. When that happens, we have created a ripe environment for another Holocaust to occur.

The Polish President, Krzysztof Lapinski, proclaimed to his citizens: “6 million Poles died during World War II. 3 million of those Poles were Jews.”  His statistics are accurate. 3 million other Jews from around Eastern Europe totaled the infamous number of 6 million that we know. (Please read his full statement, http://www.president.pl/en/news/art,669,president-decides-to-sign-anti-defamation-bill.html,  especially if you plan on writing something nasty or divisive in the comments section).

Lapinski was suggesting that those killed were Poles who were Jewish. He was taking ownership, in a proud way, of the citizenship of the victims. They did, after all, hold Polish passports. They paid taxes to Poland. Many Polish Jews even fought in the Polish Army. Why would we only recognize them as Jews and not Poles too? Lapinski wants to know. In essence, this is the question the Hungarian leadership was asking about the monument to have been erected in memory of the Jewish victims of Budapest. Were they not Jewish Hungarians? were there not only Jews?

The first time I visited Poland was shortly after the release of the acclaimed movie, Schindler’s List. In the 1990’S, the Schindler factory was still up and running in Krakow, though not owned by Schindler and no longer making pots and pans. A touch more than 20 years later, the factory was turned into a museum.

Interestingly, the museum offers practically no homage to Oskar Schindler and his heroism. Only his office remains as it was with an art installation of the names of all of those people he saved. The balance of the museum, more than 10 times the size of that one space dedicated to Schindler, is a museum to life in Krakow before the war and the obliteration of life and the irreparable destruction that happened by the hands of the Nazis during and after the war. The museum where the factory is did not focus on Polish Jewry. It focused on Poles of Krakow, many of whom were Jews.

That small nuance is the pivot point in the narrative of many Polish citizens today. It has morphed from a sense of shame and silence that blood was soaked into their soil, to a sense of victimhood for Poles, many of whom were Jewish.

Visit Auschwitz today, the place where the haunting Arbeit Macht Frei sign looms over the entryway, and you will see scores of Christian Poles come to light candles, lay wreaths and shed tears in memory of their loved ones who died there. Most of these people were not Jewish. They were killed for political beliefs, sexual orientation, rank in society or other reasons. Less than 5 kilometers away is Birkenau that is larger than the eye can see. Birkenau is a graveyard for 1.3 Million Jews who were imprisoned and then killed, simply for the faith they were born into. For those mourning their family in Auschwitz and those in Birkenau, whose tears are saltier? The numbers of loss are not the same, of course. But, can we quantify one’s pain versus another?

I have had countless Israelis challenge me on my views of our shared homeland of Israel, (some saying I am too to the right and others saying I am too to the left). They regularly pull a trump card on me during these conversations, something to the effect of, ‘my kid is on the front lines every day, so I have more of a say than you do on this matter.’

That fact is irrefutable. But, does my living in the Diaspora squelch my opinion on Israel? Is my check worthy but my opinion not? Of course, my child is not on the front lines. I dread a different knock on the door than parents with kids in the Israeli army. But, I still dread their knock on the door for them and for me. Israel is theirs, but not only theirs.

Perhaps it is the same with the Holocaust. It is our saddest chapter, but the tears and anger and history do not belong solely to the Jews. They belong to all of humanity.
This new Polish law leaves us with much to be worried about. Jewish history in Europe is thick with chapters of hate and punishment that did not end well for us. We should be vigilant and have our antennae up. At the same time, we should be empathetic. Our shoulders should make space for one another to lean on for resting our head and to weep, like Jacob did with Esau. A moment when division turns to unification. We can all strive for more moments like that today.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

February 1, 2018

Parashat Beshalach – January 25th, 2018 | 9 Sh’vat 5778

There’s a funny Israeli commercial that shows Moses and the Israelites lost in the desert. Then behold! A miracle! A great ball of fire descends earthward, and when the ashes disappear, Moses cradles a Manna-like gift from G-d: it’s a GPS with an arrow pointing to the Promised Land.

Humor aside, the video raises a serious question. If the path from Egypt to Israel was straightforward, why did they opt for the long road through the Sinai Desert instead of the direct path?

The Parsha tells us that G-d sent them on the long path “because [the shorter path] was near…Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt” (Ex. 13:17). In other words, if the Israelites were so quick to reach Israel, they might be as quick to leave Israel. In the short term, this took longer. But in the long term, it was a worthwhile investment of time.

This connects to one of my favorite stories in the Talmud (Eruvin 53b). Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananyah was traveling and met a child at an intersection. He asked the kid for directions to the city. The boy answered, “This way is short but long, while that way is long but short.” The rabbi started on the ‘short but long’ way but hit a dead end with gardens and orchards. Forced to turn around, he asked the boy, “Didn’t you tell me this was the short way?” The boy answered, “Didn’t I say it was also long?”

This story teaches us that sometimes shortcuts end up taking longer. And that sometimes the long path is better. One example – ironic because it deals with roads – is that the nearest DMV location is so backed up with lines that it’s faster if you shlep out to a farther one that’s less crowded. That’s why I went to Oakland instead of Lodi when I moved to New Jersey.

But this advice is sage when it comes to life journeys as well.

One of the best decisions I ever made was taking a gap year after high school. I spent the year in Israel on a program called Nativ, the Conservative Movement’s gap year program. When I got to college I was a year older than everyone…but also a year more mature. I was more sure of who I was and what I wanted to study. I made better use of my time in college because of that year in Israel. The longer path was better for me.

I think the Torah and the Talmud are reminding us of something we know in our heads but is difficult to do with our hands: focus on the long term instead of the short term. For the Israelites, they had to make sure the Exodus was permanent, not temporary. For the rabbi in the Talmud, he learned that shortcuts often present obstacles. For my college self, I learned that living independently in Israel wasn’t just fun but a foundation for my future.

Maybe that’s why people have two eyes: one to focus on today, the other for the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alex Freedman

(You can watch the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzQwAny3kLA)

January 22, 2018

Parashat Bo – January 18, 2018 / 2 Sh’vat 5778

This past week, Dori, our kids and I travelled to Houston, Texas to help rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Harvey. We chose this weekend to coincide with contributing service in the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, of blessed memory. Our group was part of an organization called the Kleen Up Krewe, originated in New Jersey and spearheaded by Stuart Himmelfarb, David Goodman and Larry Weiss. To date, these amazing people have been on 22 missions to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Biloxi, Houston and other cities to help these communities with rebuilding after natural disasters, all on their own time and at their own expense.

When in Houston, we had the honor of working on a home that was 6 feet under-water during Hurricane Harvey. We partnered with SBP http://www.sbp.org on our rebuilding efforts. Our local JFNNJ donated significant funds to help families who had hurricane damage send kids to Jewish camp. Working on this home was physically exhausting yet, emotionally invigorating. We were even fortunate to meet the home owner, hear his story of survival and give depth to the holy work we involved ourselves with. It all felt like holy work.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a friend of Dr. King used to say, that when he marched with Dr. King, Heschel said he felt he was praying with his feet. That is how we felt this week.

Our Temple plan for this coming year is that a group of our Temple Emanu-El members will join forces with the Kleen Up Krewe and be a part of this holy work.

The news has cycled to different news stories and other focuses. The challenges and struggles of Houston, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and more communities are still real. Every small part helps.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

January 16, 2018

Moses and Water – January 11, 2018 / 24 Tevet 5778 – Parashat VaEra

We met Moses last week in Parashat Shmot, and we follow him through the end of the Torah. As the leader of the Israelites, we read about him all year long, sans the Book of Genesis. This time, let’s pay attention to a literary motif that frames his life at pivotal moments literally from his beginning to end: water.

Water frames Moses’ life at seven pivotal moments:

1. Moses is born and placed in a wicker basket to float on the Nile River because Pharaoh declared that Israelite boys were to be drowned.

2. Moses runs away from Egypt to Midian, where he goes to a well and intercedes to protect strangers.
3. Moses returns to Egypt, confronts Pharaoh, and activates the Ten Plagues, which commence with turning the Nile River into blood.

4. Moses liberates the Israelites by splitting the Red Sea.

5. Moses leads the Israelites to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, where he went 40 days without eating or drinking water; the Torah is later compared to water as both provide essential nourishment.

6. Moses, angered by the Israelites’ complaints for lack of water, hits the rock twice instead of speaking to it to procure water.

7. Moses ascends Mt. Nebo before dying, where he is able to see the Promised Land in its splendor; sadly he cannot cross over the metaphoric finish line, the Jordan River.

Consider all the different things water did for Moses: it protected him; validated his commitment to social justice; cemented his authority as a leader to Pharaoh and the Israelites; liberated his people physically from Egypt and spiritually at Sinai; caused his downfall as a leader; and marked his failure to enter Canaan.

Water was there at every crucial moment.

Water has reflective properties. When we look into a pond we see through the water, while we also see our reflection. Perhaps the Torah places water here to prompt us to reflect on Moses as a character. When we examine him at these different moments, we find that he grows over time and matures as a leader. For example, the man who tells G-d “I am not a man of words” is the same man who speaks the entire Book of Deuteronomy! (Exodus 4:10).

But one thing never changed until near the end. Moses always reflected the will of G-d. His mission wasn’t ever about himself, but his people and his G-d.

Like a mirror, water reflects an image back at us.

When you take Moses’ Hebrew name and refract it, as if it’s held over water, Mem Shin Hay becomes Hay Shin Mem. משה becomes השם. Moses and G-d are two halves of a whole. One was an extension of the Other, so much so this was encoded into his name.

Like Moses, each of us grows and matures over time. As water does for Moses, certain touchpoints for us can highlight this. Maybe it’s celebrating birthdays or returning to a favorite vacation spot. Perhaps it’s Jewish holidays that offer us a chance to reflect and check in. It’s important to look in the mirror and say “Last year I was there, but this year I’m here.”

As we embark on this regular self-reflection – and 2018 provides another good opportunity – let Moses inspire us to make our own missions for the year ahead not just about ourselves, but our people and G-d too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alex Freedman