Monthly Archives: May 2014

Jerusalem Day- and a Glimmer of Hope

I have written previously in this blog and in other media about my admiration for Pope Francis.  It is not my place to comment either on Catholic theology or to expect that church doctrine will follow the priorities or positions I hold which I believe are reflective of Jewish values but I do believe that how the Pope presents religion in general and the values he chooses to espouse are critically important to the world in general.

I believe that this pope has identified and clearly expressed certain values which should be at the heart of all religions: less emphasis on amassing wealth and power and more emphasis on human interaction and concern for all. There are still, to be sure, trappings of the church and we may still have disagreements over certain positions taken by the church and the pope, but Pope Francis’ humility and concern should inspire us all.

Pope Francis’ trip to Israel and the West Bank this week raised a lot of eyebrows and concern to both Israelis and Palestinians. But many were significantly impressed. I, quite frankly, was moved by his recognition of the Palestinian people and their struggles and touched by his kindness and compassion to holocaust survivors and to the families of victims of terror. His quiet and gentle manner provided a much needed opportunity for a deep breath as the conflict continues without, apparently, hope for resolution.

But, it was his invitation to President Abbas and President Peres to come to the Vatican for prayer that touched me most deeply. That offer was accepted and I am optimistic that such a moment will take place. I do not believe that prayer will solve this crisis. It will take much more than quiet meditation to bring peace, security and justice to Israelis and Palestinians. But, it is important to note as Heschel wrote “that prayer may not save us but prayer may make us worthy to be saved”.

Perhaps the moment of prayer is just what our leaders need to remind them of what is at stake here. The author Yossi Klein Halevi is quoted in today’s New York Times as saying that: “what we’re missing around the negotiating table are chaplains…I’d like to replace some of the diplomats with genuine religious leaders, people who understand that this conflict is primarily about intangibles and not a line on a map”. The injection of a spiritual element to attempts to solve a political crisis is risky especially if it turns out to be nothing more than a photo opportunity. But, if there is any religious leader in the world today who could inspire a renewed effort at negotiations, I think it is Pope Francis and I admire him greatly for taking this step.

Today is Jerusalem Day, a day of celebration in many ways. It is a day when Jews were able to return to the Western Wall and to the Old City of Jerusalem and the border which ran through the city for 19 years was dismantled. It is a day of celebrating what has been called the “reunification” of Jerusalem.

I have written extensively in this blog of my love for the city of Jerusalem which I have been visited on 13 occasions and truly was privileged to call my home for an entire academic year. Jerusalem Day brings back many inspiring memories for me. But, as much as we celebrate the ability to return to holy sites closed to Jews for years and as much as we legitimately proclaim our people’s and our faith’s more than 2000 year old love affair with Jerusalem, it is difficult to celebrate Jerusalem Day today with a full heart. The city is not “unified”. As long as Palestinians are evicted from the homes in deference to Jewish settlers; as long as Palestinian neighborhoods are neglected while Jewish neighborhoods flourish and as long as the voices of racism and bigotry and violence are heard on both sides of the conflict, Jerusalem will not be the city of our dreams.

Whether the simple gesture offered by Pope Francis bears fruit or not, it is worth a try and I will pray along with him and those gathered around him for peace and coexistence in the holy city.


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My Favorite Bar Mitzvah Present: A Magazine Subscription

This Shabbat, I will be celebrating the 46th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. It will be hard to top the 45th as I wrote about in this blog last year. You can read that story (and I hope you will) at

But, when I look back at my Bar Mitzvah itself, there are three presents which stick out in my mind. First, the gold watch my parents gave me which I still have. Second, the autographed Red Sox baseball which still sits on my desk. And, third, the most inspired  present any 13 year old could receive in 1968: a 2 year subscription to MAD Magazine.

I can still remember the stunned sense of joy and appreciation I felt when I opened the letter from a  friend of my father’s to see that that was the present he had given me.

From the time I was in 5th grade until the early years of High School, I devoured MAD Magazine as did most of my friends. The satire ranged from somewhat funny to absolutely brilliant. The subject matters sometimes resonated with my adolescent mind and sometimes didn’t. But, it didn’t matter. Every bit of the magazine from “The Lighter Side of…” to the movie satires to “Spy vs. Spy” to the song parodies to what were called the “Drawn Out Dramas”, the miniature cartoons scattered around the margins which sometimes required magnifying glasses to read, MAD was the epitome of teenage humor.

I tend to think one of the secrets of the success of the magazine was that it was just over the edge enough to keep our interest but not so “dirty” that our parents would have been forced to throw it out. In fact, I distinctly remember being able to convince my father that in fact it was tremendously creative as he threatened to throw out an issue that he found offensive for some reason. That was fortunate because that was the issue that actually contained a record you could play on your record player at home, a song called: “It’s a Gas”.  (I’m not going to give you the link but you can find it on Youtube if you don’t remember it- just remember we were 13 at the time, but I have to confess it still makes me laugh hysterically.)

I didn’t realize how lasting the memories of MAD magazine were to me until a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an appropriate 60th birthday gift for my older brother. I was looking around in the bookstore  when I came upon a 50th anniversary collection of the best of MAD from the 60s. I bought it and read most of it before I sent it to him and realized that I remembered much of what was in the collection even though I hadn’t seen the magazine (except for a few I bought at a used bookstore a while back) for several decades. All I had to do was read the title of the feature and it all came back to me immediately. And, my brother had the same feeling when he opened it. Whether the material in MAD stood the test of time could be debated but it certainly stood the test of memory.

At the end of April, Al Felstein died. He  was editor of the magazine for some 30 years including the years I was an avid reader  There was an obituary about him in the New York Times. It was a rather long obituary and a lot of it was a celebration of MAD. The accolades were well deserved. He must have been a genius.

So, another piece of my youth is gone. But, it gave me a lot of great memories. MAD together with Rowan Martin’s Laugh In epitomized for me my growing sense of “maturity” (God help us) and appreciation of the higher forms of culture. If you remember MAD as I do, take  a minute to think about how it inspired you. I know it made me laugh but I also think that reading the humorous, creative twists of language, might even have helped me develop as a writer of sermons.

Whether or not that is true is immaterial or as Alfred E. Neuman would say; “What me worry?”

May the memory of Al Feldstein be for a blessing.


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Yom Ha’Atzmaut 5774

Today is  Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. As one who has dedicated many words, much time and much energy expressing deep concern over certain policies of the government of the State of Israel, it is important to express the  other piece of my feelings about Israel loudly and clearly and what better time than Yom Ha’atzmaut to say it.

The creation of the State of Israel is one of the greatest blessings in the history of our people. The Jewish people are immensely safer and richer since the State was founded and we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude and respect to all of those who have given of their energy, their passion, their resources and- in far too many cases- their lives to insure the growth and the security of Israel.

May this Yom Ha’atzmaut bring Israel peace and joy. May we see an end or at least an easing  of the internal divisions that divide the state. But,may we  also see Israel continuing to strive sincerely and passionately for a shared vision of peace through the region. May this year see a resolution to the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians with the hope for a settlement which will lead to justice and security for all. May Israel be able to focus on its own growth and strength while Palestinians also gain the blessings of self-determination.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, I have been thinking about one particular moment from one of my 13 trips to Israel. In 1999, I took a trip  that was truly among the most remarkable I have ever taken. It was an interfaith clergy tour in which Rabbis were asked to bring a non-Jewish clergy person with them in order to learn about the possibilities of taking more general Interfaith trips. It was a wonderful experience and in fact in 2000, we did take an Interfaith group from Ann Arbor under the auspices of the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County.

As our group of 25 sat at our final dinner, our guide asked us each to say a few words about what the trip had meant to us. I can still remember exactly what I said. I said that coming to Israel makes me feel young for two reasons.  First, I felt young because we did things on this trip as on most tours that I don’t normally do: climbing through caves, riding donkeys, singing songs on a tour bus, eating food that I know isn’t good for me and other such things. That is one way being in Israel made me feel young again.

But, that particular trip made me feel particularly young because it gave me a shot of youthful idealism that I so badly needed. For the week that our group had traveled together, Israel had been the place where we had bridged differences, learned from each other, prayed together, laughed together and cried together. That trip gave me hope, a fleeting vision of an idealistic time, one that made me feel young and optimistic again. While I believe I could have felt that sense of hope any place we might have traveled together, I felt that doing so in Israel made it that much more meaningful and that much more memorable.

That brings me to today. The aspect of Israel today that most concerns me (at least as I see it from a distance and I haven’t visited since 2009) is that reading the news from Israel doesn’t make me feel young, I don’t see the spirit, the proverbial gleam in the eye, the joy, the passion of what it means to have a dream and make the dream a reality.

Some of that is natural. Israel is a comparatively young country but it has had to grow up very fast in a difficult region and one can hardly expect the attitude of the country to be as  passionate and as idealistic as it once was. But, if I had one additional wish for Israel, it would be that Israel rediscover its youthful passion for the ideals and values on which it was formed. That I feel young when I go to Israel is not as important as it is for Israel to rediscover the joy of youth while still pursuing its mature, adult responsibilities.

May this year be a year of joy and peace and hope for all in Israel and the region.


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Not Quite a “Big Tent”

Yesterday, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected an application from J Street to join the organization.

One can only surmise that those who voted against the application presumed that J Street did not sufficiently represent “mainstream” Jewish opinions and that its opinions and actions are dangerous to Israel and to the Jewish people. It is only fair to note that there are various political voices represented on the Conference including those of  progressive organizations but this decision regarding J Street strikes me as a significant statement and a statement which concerns me deeply.

I want to leave aside for the moment any consideration of the issue of the views of J Street vs. those of any other Jewish organization which voices opinions on Israel. That is not my issue at this moment.

My issue is rather an issue of inclusion.

We are currently seeing efforts by all denominations within Judaism to be more inclusive: to be more respectful and more welcoming to people who would have been ostracized from communal Jewish life in the recent past. Whether it is outreach to interfaith families, LGBT individuals and families, those without financial means, those who have been estranged from Jewish life and have not had Jewish experiences in their lives, those in prison, those who suffer from addiction or those in countless other situations, we have realized as Jewish leaders that we must be open to all. We profess that all Jews who strive for Jewish life should be welcomed into communities and embraced in the name of Jewish tradition. This is the way it should be because all of us, at some point in our lives, find ourselves in a situation which might have been a basis for exclusion in the past. Our community is healthier when we all realize that all of us belong in the tent sitting next to each other, learning from each other and celebrating with each other.

It is in this context that the decision of the Conference of Presidents concerns me most deeply.

Suddenly, in this very symbolic gesture, a group of leaders has decided that those who profess a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” stance through J Street are not worthy of sitting at the table.

If you go to the website of J Street, you will find a list of hundreds of Rabbis and Cantors who are part of the “J Street Rabbinic Cabinet”, those Rabbis who support the positions of J Street or at the very least support the idea that wide ranging dialogue concerning Israel must take place in the Jewish Community.  I know many of these Rabbis and Cantors. They are proud to be known as Zionists, proud to take congregants on trips to Israel, proud to support the State and proud to teach and preach about Israel and its importance to all of us from the pulpit. I am proud to be one of those Rabbis.

But, the specific of the political opinion aside, can our Jewish community afford to make a statement that a particular viewpoint concerning Israel is sufficient grounds to consider a person as outside of the tent of the Jewish community? Are we prepared as a community to send a message to all of those Rabbis and Cantors and all of those who agree that they are “beyond the pale”?

I have talked with many people, including most importantly, many young people, who are concerned that they are not being listened to when they express concern for some of Israel’s policies. As those who know me know, I agree with many of those concerns. But even if we disagree, are we prepared to allow this discussion to be the wedge that drives people away from organized Jewish life in an era in which we are doing all we can to send the sincere message of inclusion to those who have been ostracized in the past?

Whatever one thinks about the pragmatic effect J Street has on the dialogue regarding Israel, I believe it is counter-productive and dangerous to exclude based on political viewpoints those who profess and live out a love and concern for the Jewish people.

The tent must continue to be enlarged.



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