Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Remembering Grandma

This is a virtually unedited transcript of my remarks about my grandmother at her funeral this past Monday. Grandma Alice was an extraordinary woman. All who knew her were blessed by her insight and love:

Standing before you I see the people that knew and loved my grandmother, as well as the people that know and love the people that loved my grandmother. Together they expand those circles of love, the love that was was expressed so powerfully from Alice Paulin.  

My grandmother and I had much in common.  She shared with me the drive to be advocates of our traditions, teachers, readers, students of history, coin collectors, explorers, seekers, and sometimes creatures of habit.  We shared conversations at all hours of the night and were not afraid to be grumpy in the morning--cured by a good cup of coffee (or 10 in her case.)  She was my role model for procrastination and her piles of books and papers are a clear reminder that I really need to reorganize my office.  Grandma Alice also showed me the value of choosing a life partner who cares for you, respects you and pushes you and challenges you to be your best.  Grandpa Ben was one of the kindest, warmest people I ever knew.  He also liked a far neater house than Grandma--and would regularly toss out anything that he didn’t think was essential--which while occasionally frustrating--turned out to be essential living with Grandma.  While Rebecca refuses to do that in our house, she has helped me go to sleep at a reasonable hour and keep the house at a level of organized child centered chaos.  I love you Becca.

Grandma Alice represented New York.  Growing up in Atlanta, every vacation was coming back here.  Visits with Grandma meant going to shows, finding new places to eat or looking for the best hole in the wall with amazing pizza.  Before the internet we found it somewhere near Times Square--twice--and then never found it again.  We occasionally got lost, but using paper maps and the Manhattan grid, we always got where we wanted to go.  Exploring was half the adventure.

As I got older, Rachel and I even came up ourselves a couple times and had many opportunities to use public transit, play tourist in the city and truly feel like New Yorkers.  For years, Grandma had us walking like New Yorkers, rushing from Ellis Island to the top of the World Trade Center, South Street Seaport and all across Manhattan.  When I was at JTS, I would take the A train from one end to the other to spend a Sunday afternoon with her.  

Walking a bit more slowly now, we’d carefully make our way to the shopping center and pick up bagels or go to the Italian Place.  Now by this time, she couldn’t see or hear particularly well, so she might look at the menu with a magnifying glass and reading glasses, but more likely I would read it to her.  My better half reminded me that she would have me read the entire menu--just in case--and then we would inevitably get eggplant parmigian heros--unless we were really hungry and then we would get the plate.  Of course, we could have split the hero, but we would always get two and then have leftovers.  As the years went by, I’d try to get her to Waldbaums, too, just to make sure she didn’t have to carry groceries by herself, but she didn’t like to “waste my time” with shopping.  Thankfully, Mary helped her with that the rest of the time.

Grandma Alice loved her family, her daughters.  She was fiercely protective--a mama bear--and somewhat stubborn.  She liked things her way--but then--don’t we all?  She was always independent and she taught that to her family.  Once you were part of her family it was forever.  Her love for Rebecca was incredible.  I’m not supposed to say this, but I will anyway.  Not long after I started dating Becca, Grandma said, “I like her so much better than the other ones”.  While first whispered to me, as we stayed together (and got married), she told this to my mom, Rebecca and probably everyone else here.  Grandma definitely had her opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them.  

Grandma loved learning and teaching.  Long before they were popular, she had and taught computers.  I remember playing educational games on her computers as a very young child--when it was incredibly rare for anyone to have a computer--much less a grandma!  Her energy and enthusiasm for learning was contagious.  She loved to read and had books everywhere.  As she got older the print got bigger and then became books on tape, but she always wanted to know more about the world.  Her joy of learning was within the family, as well.  In the last few weeks, I’ve learned about the Paulin and Honigsman families, but Grandma had done much genealogical work on them and the Roth sides, too.  Using the precursors to, she created an extensive family tree, investigating ship records and census documents-cursing the fire that destroyed the 1890 census--maybe one day we’ll figure out how to find all the documents she did!

Last week and this week, our Torah reading speaks of the furnishings of the mishkan, the Temple while we wandered in the wilderness.  These parshiot would not have interested Grandma Alice, yet she would have been fascinated about the Urim and Thumim--the stones/breastplate/??? that helped the High Priest communicate with the Holy One--in fact I think I spoke to her about a paper I wrote in rabbinical school about them.  She would have been curious about the history of interpretation of this method of Divine communication.  How exactly did those stones work? Were they stones or the breastplate itself? Was it like a Magic 8 Ball or a more precise method of prophecy?

Yet to me, what is most powerful in our reading last Shabbat was the pure gold menorah, shining brightly, and eventually to be lit eternally.  Grandma Alice had a heart of pure gold.  With Grandpa Ben, she inspired us all.  She lit our flames, she lit us up.  She pushed us to be independent, to read, the ask questions, to fight for our rights, to be considerate of others.  She taught us to raise children who are not just polite, but can explore the world independently, who can build their own sanctuaries.  She will be missed.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Jewish values in a challenging time

What are our values?
What do we care about?
Our history and texts teach us that there are multiple paths to annunciate and demonstrate what we care about.  We can write, speak, march, do, listen, care, spend money.  Some say actions are louder than words, while others focus on the power of the pen (or keyboard).

In our morning prayers, we do not just bless the Holy One for the gift of Torah, but rather say:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la’asok b’divrei torah.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of Space and Time, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to be occupied with words of Torah.

The word “la’asok” is key here.  Translations vary from study, to be occupied with, to practice, to engage with.  Regardless of how we translate the word, it is one that demands action.  It is an active word imagining us wrestling, fighting with, engaging with the texts.

Our texts debate which is more important--action or study, with strong arguments on each side.  One of the most popular of those debates in the Talmud ends with the command that we study--for it leads to action.  (See for example:

For me study is a gift.  It is time to consider our past, present and future.  It is a way to see the conversations that are relevant today have been with us for generations.  The Torah teaches repeatedly about caring for the stranger, widow and orphan--those who need a little more help.  The Talmud teaches about the importance of freeing slaves and redeeming captives--knowing that the world is not perfect and we can be both oppressor and victim.  Our identities are not static, but ever changing.  Our choices make all the difference.

This week has made me very antsy.  Hearing reports of cemeteries desecrated, of JCCs and Jewish centers and schools having bomb threats, I wonder how I can most actively contribute.  Donations are wonderful, but how can we prevent future attacks?  How can I be a voice for calm and reason when I, myself, am frustrated?

So I have made phone calls to my elected officials.  I have thanked my local police officers. I lock my doors and set the alarm, yet I also make sure that I remain active in community events. I have recommitted myself to study.  I pray that my study will lead me to further action.  What will you do next?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Beshallach and Blizzards

This week in history our ancestors made it to the sea, crossing over and rejoicing in song.  Yet the moments before that crossing were rather tense. Even with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, even being led by the Holy One, our people were unsure of their path.  When Pharaoh’s chariots (what might seem to us like the shock and awe of tanks and drones) arrived, they were terrified, even saying in Ex 14:11Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” (

Tomorrow, there may be a little snow in our area.  Stopping at the grocery store this morning--we really were out of bread and milk--I saw many very stressed looking people.  Were they worried over a few inches of snow?  Being stuck home with antsy children?  Afraid of the lost income of another missed day of work?  Why do people get so concerned over normal winter weather?

We have experienced a very mild winter.  Call it global warming/climate change or just changing trends, the last few years we have seen abnormally warm weather and relatively little snow.  Yet when the snow comes--it is a panic!  We are not crossing the sea.  We need no miracle.  We just need a little bit of preparation and flexibility.  Maybe we also need a little faith.

14:13 But Moses said to the people, "Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!"

Kol Yisrael construction photo: Rabbi Weintraub 
Now I don’t expect Gd will be battling against a blizzard tomorrow, but the plows certainly will!  What Moses really said is that we must take a step back, to see that while we can only exist in a single moment in time, there is so much more to our existence.  We must see beyond what seems like a threat to the opportunity and the promise.  For our ancestors, it was Israel.  For us, it may be spring.  

However, this summer you can join me in Israel:
Kotel Photo: Rabbi Weintraub during previous CAI congregational Israel trip

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Yom Kippur: Choose good, the world will help you out

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Yom Kippur Yizkor

“If you choose good, the world is more than willing to help you out,” said a character on a silly sitcom this August.

TV marketers have discovered that people my age are rather nostalgic, although to be fair, I’m not sure that is entirely related to my demographic!  When I was a child, ABC had a long running show called Boy Meets World, about a rather awkward kid (Cory), his best friend (Shawn), eventual girlfriend and then wife (Topanga) growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Disney recently restarted the show as Girl Meets World, centering it around the life of Cory and Topanga’s daughter and her group of friends.  While the show is mostly saccharinely sweet and frequently inane, it has such positive values, discusses important issues in simple ways, and thus keeps me watching.

A few weeks ago they had an episode about a classroom debate--the nature of humanity--are people inherently good or evil.  The idealistic and upbeat main character was forced to confront the evil in the world, in the daily news, and in life.  When she discovers her little brother had cleaned up a small section of beach, she responded uncharacteristically darkly--”why would you do that? What good did you do?”  Her mom reminded her children of the classic story of the little boy and the starfish:
The little boy at the beach grabbing the poor sand-stranded starfish and hurling them back into the sea. The old man who asks the boy, “Do you really think you’re making any difference?” The boy, bright-eyed and righteous, who holds aloft one of his rescued starfish, delivers the line, “It makes a difference to this one!”, and throws it into the water.

Don’t worry, by the end of the episode, the protagonist, through the help of her friends, rediscovered her overwhelmingly good nature and positive spirits.  If only all of our conflicts could be resolved in 23 minutes!  Thinking more about the story within the story, the story of the starfish, I discovered that even a little throw-away uplifting story has its critics.  They argue that the little boy should try to figure out WHY the starfish are dying on the beach--or even if the starfish have agency to make their own decisions and the kid is stopping their life choices--the internet can be a dark place!  On an educator blog, I found a rewritten version--the drowning baby version--which when it was published two years ago was far less offensive than in the light of the refugee crises we see in Europe and the thousands that have drowned in the Mediterranean.

The kid’s grown up now, and he’s reading a book beside a gently gurgling river. Suddenly a drowning baby floats by. True to his nature, the Samaritan jumps in and saves the child. But pretty soon, another drowning baby floats past. He saves that one too. And the next. And the next. And the next.
A few hours later, his chest heaving, his arms exhausted, a cold dread settles over the man. He has realized the inevitable: There will come a time when I’m too tired to save even one more drowning child. That’s the point at which he looks upstream and sees someone throwing the babies in.
This version of the story asks us to get to the root of the problem.  Not just how do we solve the immediate needs--which are no less urgent--but how do we ensure that we discover the big picture--to see if we can do something to stop the problem from the start.  The challenges arise when we are not able to do change the instigating factor, when we know the problem, but are stuck with piecemeal solutions.
Looking around the world right now, Aleppo, the city which produced and kept for millenia the Aleppo Codex, a very early Jewish Bible manuscript, is under siege.  The evil Assad fights to restore it to Syrian control with Russian assistance, yet “good” rebels and ISIS fight, as well.  There is no good solution--yet the fighting in Syria has displaced millions of people, killed hundreds of thousands, and leaves many struggling to escape and find refuge anywhere but there.  We know the problem, Assad’s corrupt government kept stability through oppression.  It was the devil we knew--but it cannot retain the entire country.  We can arm rebels, create no-fly zones, but until there is some peace, the flow of blood and refugees will continue.  What can we do here?  I have no more answers than I did last night.  After the service, this afternoon, join me and Rabbi Freedman to discuss Jewish texts on refugees, on welcoming the stranger--and hear stories of our own people who found their way to these shores--allowing us to be here today!
Returning to my silly sitcom, Corey, the dad and teacher on the new show, said “How you treat the world affects how the world teaches you” and later “If you choose good, the world is more than willing to help you out.”
Last night I spoke about what we value, what reminds us to do good, our responsibility in this world.  But what are we?  Who are we?  What is our life?  These questions are asked in the daily liturgy and emphasized at Neilah this evening.

רִבּוֹן כָּל הָעוֹלָמִים, לֹא עַל צִדְקוֹתֵֽינוּ אֲנַֽחְנוּ מַפִּילִים תַּחֲנוּנֵֽינוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ, כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶֽיךָ הָרַבִּים.

מָה אֲנַֽחְנוּ, מֶה חַיֵּֽינוּ, מֶה חַסְדֵּֽנוּ, מַה צִּדְקוֹתֵֽינוּ, מַה יְּשׁוּעָתֵֽנוּ, מַה כֹּחֵֽנוּ, מַה גְּבוּרָתֵֽנוּ. מַה נֹּאמַר לְפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, הֲלֹא כָּל הַגִּבּוֹרִים כְּאַֽיִן לְפָנֶֽיךָ, וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלֹא הָיוּ, וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע, וּנְבוֹנִים כִּבְלִי הַשְׂכֵּל. כִּי רֹב מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם תֹּֽהוּ, וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶֽבֶל לְפָנֶֽיךָ, וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָֽיִן, כִּי הַכֹּל הָֽבֶל.
Sovereign of all worlds! Not because of our righteous acts do we lay our supplications before thee, but because of thine abundant mercies.
What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What our righteousness?
What our helpfulness? What our strength? What our might? What shall we say before thee, O Lord our God and God of our fathers? Are not all the mighty men as nought before thee, the men of renown as though they had not been, the wise as if without knowledge, and the men of understanding as if without discernment? For most of their works are void, and the days of their lives are vanity before thee, and the pre-eminence of man over the beast is nought, for all is vanity.
אֲבָל אֲנַֽחְנוּ עַמְּךָ, בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ, בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם אֹהַבְךָ שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּֽעְתָּ לּוֹ בְּהַר הַמּוֹרִיָּה, זֶֽרַע יִצְחָק יְחִידוֹ, שֶׁנֶּעֱקַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ, עֲדַת יַעֲקֹב בִּנְךָ בְּכוֹרֶֽךָ, שֶׁמֵּאַהֲבָתְךָ שֶׁאָהַֽבְתָּ אוֹתוֹ, וּמִשִּׂמְחָתְךָ שֶׁשָּׂמַֽחְתָּ בּוֹ, קָרָֽאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל וִישֻׁרוּן. לְפִיכָךְ אֲנַֽחְנוּ חַיָּבִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ, וּלְשַׁבֵּחֲךָ, וּלְפָאֶרְךָ, וּלְבָרֵךְ וּלְקַדֵּשׁ וְלָתֵת שֶֽׁבַח וְהוֹדָיָה לִשְׁמֶֽךָ. אַשְׁרֵֽינוּ, מַה טּוֹב חֶלְקֵֽנוּ, וּמַה נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵֽנוּ, וּמַה יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵֽנוּ. אַשְׁרֵֽינוּ, שֶׁאֲנַֽחְנוּ מַשְׁכִּימִים וּמַעֲרִיבִים, עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר,
Nevertheless we are thy people, the children of thy covenant, the children of Abraham, thy friend, to whom thou didst swear on Mount Moriah; the seed of Isaac, his only son, who was bound upon the altar the congregation of Jacob, thy first barn son, whose name thou didst call Israel and Jeshurun by reason of the love wherewith thou didst love him, and the joy wherewith thou didst rejoice in him.
It is, therefore, our duty to thank, praise and glorify thee, to bless, to sanctify and to offer praise and thanksgiving unto thy name. Happy are we! how goodly is our portion, and how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful our heritage! Happy are we who, early and late, morning and evening, twice every day,
וְאוֹמְרִים פַּעֲמַֽיִם בְּכָל יוֹם
שְׁמַע ׀ יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ ׀ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, יְיָ ׀ אֶחָד
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.

This prayer takes us down to the depths and brings us up again.  It says we are NOTHING before the Holy One, but says we are EVERYTHING.  From this Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa goes follows teaches a lesson I remind myself of regularly:
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the world created."
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes

The challenge with the pockets is knowing which one we need to look into!  It is the challenge of the starfish and of the babies.  We can do our part or we can be overwhelmed with the futility of the world.  If we think too highly or lowly of ourselves we become completely ineffectual.  Yet if we can somehow find the balance, the happy medium, we can raise our community to incredible heights.

This past year I have sat in on some phone calls with the United Synagogue’s Inclusion Initiative--sponsored by the Ruderman Foundation.  The focus is on the inclusion of people with disabilities--but of radically rethinking what we mean by inclusion.  It is not just fixing the handicap ramp or making sure anyone can have an aliyah, that anyone can get on the bimah--although those are essential steps.  Rather, it is a reminder that we need to make sure people are truly welcomed, their voices heard.

As I have participated in some of these conversations, I have thought about inclusion in the community in general.  We have so much work to do--with interfaith families, with people with less visible disabilities, with people with children, with those without children, with empty nesters, older folks and even those magical young families.  Inclusion should not just be for a special group, but an understanding that ALL can be a part of our community.  Do we want our community to be one with low barriers or high ones?  

Mah anachnu? Mah hayenu?
Who are we? What is our life?

Our liturgy teaches us of the sacred relationships that we form through our traditions.  Yes, we have clear expectations through the mitzvot.  Yet we are not always ready for those expectations.  They seem dated or not for us.  So many of us or our children are simply not involved in our Jewish lives anymore.  This is a failure of the American Jewish establishment, of synagogues, of rabbis and teachers.  We have failed to teach the joy, the inspiration, the sacred mystery that is faith and Judaism.
On a certain level, we all know that “If you choose good, the world is more than willing to help you out,” said that character.  Great good can be done by atheists and Christians and secular individuals.  And yet, I invite you to discover the sacred in that great mystery that is your OWN tradition.

Last week, a beloved board member lost his mother.  He sat shiva here and during the minyan, this room was as full as it is today.  We are willing to come out to support our friends, but are we willing to support the community as a whole?  Without each other, without all of you, none of this is possible!  Our tradition reminds us of the importance of coming together at those moments.  We have rituals for EVERY major life cycle.  Why?  What is so special about those moments?

They are the moments that stick with us.  The holidays, the life cycles, Shabbat, they bring us together.  When we are together, we laugh and we cry, we celebrate and we mourn.  They are moments of STRONG emotion.  And the guilt when we cannot make it work--well that’s a piece of the package.

In the weeks to come, I want you to do good.  I want you to hear for the response from God and/or the Universe.  I want you to do the right thing because it is the right thing, but I also want you to do it because it is the JEWISH way.

Without a political overtone, one of the responsibilities of citizenship is voting--whether in our synagogue elections or the national and local ones.  If you live in NY, the deadline for voter registration is this Friday, October 14.  Remind your children, your grandchildren or even yourself.  We all have opinions about the election and we all can agree that it is an important one!
Mah anachunu?  What are we?  We are servants of God.  We are part of a sacred community.  We are the ones who look after one another, who support one another, and know that the world can be better--if only we do our part.  Come dance with us for Simchat Torah!  Light the Hanukkah candles with us this winter.  Learn Torah together with me or anyone else!  Be proud to be Jewish and share that joy with all who know you!  “If you choose good, the world is more than willing to help you out.”

Kol Nidre 5777: Counting our blessings

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation Agudas Israel

Four years ago yesterday, I was telling my wife that if she could have held our daughter inside just one more day, H could be born on 10/11/12.  My love did not find it nearly as amusing as I did.  Yet, numbers, gematria, have a long history in the Jewish world.  Today I think about another anniversary.  Fifteen years ago, on September 11, our world changed.  Occurring just six days before Rosh Hashanah, the terrorist attacks sent rabbis scrambling, forced to rewrite their holiday sermons, forced to confront the reality of evil in a world where it had seemed vanquished.  

The horrors of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the violence and Bosnia genocide there was just six years before; the Rwandan genocide was just a decade before.  In some ways, it felt a more innocent time.  CNN had been around for twenty years but Foxnews had not even seen a decade.  You could go to an airline gate with barely an ID check, hang around an airport and watch the planes take off, or even chat with a pilot during the flight.  You didn’t have to take your shoes off and you could carry a soda or water from your car all the way to the airplane. Heck, you could show up 10 minutes before the flight and probably still make your plane.

While the lesson that evil still exists was the one that resonated with most people, there was another side, too.  The Red Cross had to stop accepting blood, because their banks were all full.  People spent weeks and months working “the pile” trying to save anyway left and then later to make sure that families could have as proper a burial as they could.  

What have we learned in the last fifteen years?  

This year we flew to Atlanta on September 11.  I have to say, I was a little concerned.  It was actually one of the most uneventful and fastest security experiences we had at Newark.  My wife even got precheck and was able to leave her shoes on!  With the privilege of modern air travel we were able to welcome our newest niece into our family.  What a mitzvah to celebrate the birth of a new child.  There is nothing more optimistic in the world that looking into the potential of a newborn.  Seeing the tiny fingers and toes, we cannot help but take a breath and give thanks for all that is good in this world.  

It seems like we all need more reminders to give thanks, although there is much more work to be done.  Looking around the world, there are so many places with seemingly endless strife and unrelenting conflict.  The war in Syria is getting worse and worse.  In Afghanistan, we have faced the same challenges the Russians had decades ago and the British had a century before.  Russia is getting more and more totalitarian--and don’t even get me started on this election.  

Yet the big question I have is why are we so afraid?  
Our economy is much better than it has been.  Gas prices are lower than they have been in years.  Grocery costs are down.  Electronics are cheaper, too.  Car technology has improved tremendously.  Healthcare is still a mess, but more people have insurance--it might be more expensive but it covers more conditions--especially in New York.  After quite a runaround, my love got new hearing aids, mostly covered by our insurance company!  Consumer confidence is up to some of its highest levels, yet there is a feeling of unease.  For a little while we worried about police being killed, but those numbers are still down by a third from the early 80s and have continued to drop.  As long as you weren’t murdered in the spike of killings in a handful of cities this year, overall violence and violent crime is way, way down.  Unlike Australia, we still have a problem with school shootings, but overall, we are very lucky to be alive right now.  For many Americans, this year finally, finally saw some real wage growth.  Are we trying to return America to some ahistorical moment of greatness or steadily build a future that has opportunities for ALL.

As Jews, we can always find things to worry about--our children, our Jewish future.  We definitely have a lot of work to do.  Synagogue memberships are down across virtually all denominational lines.  Yes there are hot spots of growth, growing cities where more are connected, and ultra-Orthodox groups where extremely large families are the norm, but affiliation is down across EVERY religion.  Catholics and Protestants are also mourning the growth of the nones--unfortunately we are not alone.

So many are “spiritual but not religious”.  They don’t believe in organized religion, but they are searching. I like to remind people that Judaism is a “disorganized” religion, but a little humor doesn’t solve every problem--it helps--and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, might even help get you into heaven.  But seriously, why don’t the spiritual searchers not find us?  What can we do to make our community more engaged, our services more exciting?  Websites and books promise to deliver the secrets to get millennials and other young people more involved.  I’ll tell you a secret.  There are no secrets.  
The answer is simple, but slow.  We must love what we do.  We must feel that it is important.  If we see our faith, our Jewish practices as unimportant, so will those around us.  If we want others to take us seriously, we have to take it seriously, too!  If we love our shul, we will tell our friends and family.  In some ways being a part of a community is like being in a relationship.  If it is exciting we tell all of our friends.  They might occasionally get nauseated at how often we talk about it, but our passion is contagious.  Yes, we need to advertise and try new things.  Rabbi Freedman and I put out a radio ad this high holiday season.  I made a new website for that promotion and am working on a new website for the shul--there is a draft out that you might have seen!  In the last few years, we have been successful here.  Overall numbers grow and shrink--we can increase new members but cannot eliminate death or moving away.  

The question I like to ask myself is what numbers do we use to measure success?  We live in the age of numbers, of big data, but what does data tell us about a congregation?  It may tell us if the budget balances or the number of people that come to particular program.  But does it tell us whose life was changed by coming to a service?  Does it tell us the member who felt overwhelmed with grief and then overwhelmed with love when we filled their home or this shul to sit shiva with them?  Does it tell us of the college student who received a call or text or letter from us and was inspired to participate in Hillel?  I don’t think I’m trying to preserve the rabbinate as a profession, but I define success by inspiration rather than numbers--souls rather than dollars.

Looking at our history--we must think the same way.  We have always been a minority of a minority.  From generation to generation we struggled to survive, to hold our faith and our place in so many societies.  From the Destruction of the Temple and Rome’s eradication of Israel, we did not have a permanent home until almost the present.  We were dependent upon the hospitality of host nations--that were not always enthusiastic to have us.  In 1948 we turned a dream into a reality, the State of Israel.  Like our own reality, it is imperfect.  It must learn about the separation of synagogue and state, how to better welcome refugees, how to create opportunities for all its citizens and what a lasting peace will look like.  At the same time, it has made the desert bloom, produced more NASDAQ companies than almost anywhere else, invented parts of every modern technology and created its own Silicon Valley.  Next June, join me for the trip of a lifetime, connecting your past to our shared present, your history to our Jewish future.  Flyers are in the hallway and I hope that you will take your entire family and join mine--if my parent’s come, my little ones will come, too!  (I know that it an incentive for a few of you on the fence.)

Judaism is not just about history, but the present.  We use our history and our Torah to teach the most important of values.  Tomorrow afternoon, Rabbi Freedman and I will be using texts from HIAS to discuss the struggles of refugees around the world.  From their website:
Founded in 1881 originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS has touched the life of nearly every Jewish family in America and now welcomes all who have fled persecution.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention became the basis for U.S. asylum law, giving HIAS the basis for all future work to assist refugees no matter where they were.
  • 1956 - HIAS assisted Jews fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary and evacuated the Jewish community of Egypt after their expulsion during the Sinai Campaign.
  • 1959 - HIAS set up operations in Miami to rescue the Jews fleeing Cuba’s revolution.
  • 1960s - HIAS rescued Jews from Algeria and Libya and arranged with Morocco's King Hassan for the evacuation of his country's huge Jewish community.
  • 1968 - HIAS came to the aid of Czechoslovakia's Jews after the suppression of "Prague Spring" and to Poland's Jews after pogroms racked that country.
  • 1975 - Following the fall of Saigon, the State Department requested HIAS’ assistance with the resettlement of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. That year, HIAS found new homes for 3,600 in 150 communities in 38 states.  While not the first time HIAS had assisted in the resettlement of non-Jews, the organization’s assistance with this large-scale refugee crisis garnered a special thank you from President Gerald Ford. HIAS continued to assist refugees from Southeast Asia through 1979.
  • 1977 - HIAS helped evacuate the Jews of Ethiopia, which culminated in several dramatic airlifts to Israel.
  • 1979 - The overthrow of the Shah precipitated a slow but steady trickle of Jews escaping the oppressive theocracy of Iran. HIAS helped hundreds of Iranian Jews with close family living in the U.S. resettle here.
  • Hias helped with Jews from the former USSR.
Starting in the 2000s, HIAS expanded our resettlement work to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees, meaning we became involved in the aftermath of conflicts from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the successor states to the former Soviet Union. We began to work in countries where refugees fled to identify those in immediate danger to bring them to safety. We realized that there were many refugees who would not be resettled and that it was important for us to help.
Today that means working with Syrian refugees--a conflict that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands and created millions who cannot return home.  As Jews, we know what that is like.  In the coming weeks, we will have more opportunities to discuss this.  I would like us to sign on to HIAS welcoming congregations list and perhaps even adopt a family.  More to come as information is available.
Tonight we have crossed back and forth across Jewish history, from past to present, looking closely and more distantly at numbers.  Tonight is the one night a year when we wear a tallit, so I want to close with some numbers about the Tallit’s fringes:
While there are several different numerical interpretations of the tzitzit, the one I like best is the Gematria value of the word "Tzitzit" itself--(tzadi-yod-tzitzit-yod-taf) is 600. Since each corner has eight strands and five knots, making 13, looking at any corner reminds us of the number 613.  With 613 commandments/mitzvot, holding any corner is the same as holding the entire Torah, holding all of our tradition, showing us a physical connection to our past and present.  Discussing the tzitzit, the Torah says, "You should see them and remember all God's commandments and do them." (from the last paragraph of the shema).

However we count our fringes, let them be a reminder to us of our connection to our heritage, to God’s commands, and to the possibility of changing the world for the better.  We are not alone, God is with us, and we should work to inspire one another and those around us to living with that holiness.

Rosh Hashanah Day 2: What does Kindness have to do with Jewish life

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation Agudas Israel
October 4, 2016
Where does kindness fit into a Jewish life?

A few weeks ago I was driving my daughter to camp.  As we were travelling down 9W, we passed a man with a sign on the corner asking for work or food.  Suddenly she is shouting at me.
H: Why is he standing there?
P: Because he is hungry and is looking for someone to give him food or money or work.
H: Can we give him some of our money?
P: That's very nice of you. On my way back from taking you to camp, I'll stop at Dunkin Donuts and get him a sandwich or donut and a drink. What do you think? Should I get a sandwich, donut or both?
H: Donut!
P: I think I'll get both. I'm not sure a donut by itself is a healthy breakfast.
And that's how I met George.
I wish I could tell you that George is now gainfully employed or no longer on that corner, but I have only seen him and said hi to him once more.

One of the most repeated verses in our Torah is a command to care for those less fortunate, in Biblical language, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Thinking about this lesson, makes me consider the lessons we try to teach our families, the legacies we create.

For many, an ethical will is a powerful tool, giving them an opportunity to write about their values, to think about their values, to share their values.  On November 1, I will invite you to join me for that moving activity.  Yet, what do we do on a daily basis to teach our loved ones our values?  What lessons do we wish our children, our grandchildren, our students and friends to know?  What is the legacy we wish to teach?

Central to that legacy, is to be a good person, a mentsch, maybe even a tzaddik, a righteous person.  We strive to be the best selves that we can, to use every resource we have to live our best lives.  And yet, I fear that too often we accidentally teach the lesson that the “one with the most toys wins”?  (Says the one desiring the new iphone and enjoying his new previous generation apple watch!)  Like all of us, I know that I have work to do!

This morning we read one of the most traumatic parenting stories of the Torah: The Akedah, Abraham binding his son on the altar, even lifting the knife to sacrifice his son, with only the angels repeated call, “Abraham, Abraham” stopping him and bringing him back from the brink.  In our history, in times of martyrdom, and anti-Jewish violence, there are even tales that rewrite the story, claiming Isaac WAS sacrificed and then resurrected.  However we read it, it is a central piece of the Jewish and Abrahamic tradition--that Abraham showed his faith in God--in his own symbolic Father--and was willing to sacrifice his child for the greater good.  We might imagine that few of us would make the same choice, yet we all do every single year.  We know that our country needs protection, a military.  We know that serving can lead to sacrifice, but those sacrifices ensure our freedom and every year there are new volunteers.  Personally, I attempt to express my appreciation for those who have served, while knowing thanks alone is inadequate.  

We want to teach our children that there are some ideals for which we would be willing to give up our lives for. How do we determine what those ideals are?

From the Jewish perspective, we have a tremendous gift, we have the history, the traditions, the blessings of our faith.  Yesterday I mentioned the questions we are asked in heaven--the idea that actions have consequences!  Judaism has numerous sacred texts.  From the Torah to the Talmud, to rabbinic writings in every generation, we are part of a chain of tradition to Sinai and beyond.  We read the stories of our ancestors over and over again.  We hafoch ba v hafoch ba, turn them over and over and discover new meanings and lessons for every generation.  Yet for so many today, Judaism seems a distant memory.  Of course, if you are in this room, on this sacred day, you feel a pull, yet what is the daily connection?  

My challenge to you is take one day and see how you spend your time.  What do you spend the most time on?  What the least?  What do you REALLY prioritize?  Do your goals and desires match how you actually use your time?

Once we know how we really spend our time, then we can make the changes that we would like.  We know the spaces in our day, the places where we have flexibility.  Looking at my own day, I know facebook is a useful tool to communicate with you, yet it can easily become a black hole of lost productivity.  The iPhone I use to text you and email can create a false sense of connection and break my attention from the ones in front of me, the faces of God that you are, that my wife and children are.  For that I publicly apologize,  I know that I have made progress, but there is still work to do!

The miracle of Jewish life is that it can fit into all those little spaces.  We can do ten minutes of Torah instead of ten minutes of our iphones.  We can pray for three minutes instead of another three minutes of facebook.  The very devices that can be our sources of distraction can also be sources of inspiration and connection.  There is more Torah on the internet than existed before.  One can easily argue that there are more people studying Torah today than there were in the shtetls!  

Every morning, when we give ourselves the chance of blessing our study of Torah,  we can read the following passage in our Siddur:
“There are the deeds that yield immediate fruit (benefit) and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of loving kindness; attending the house of study in a timely way morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping a needy bride; attending to the dead; investigating (the meaning of) prayer; making shalom between one person and another (and between a husband and wife,  some add).  The most basic of these deeds which has an inclusive nature is the study of Torah.” based on Shabbat 127a

Each of these encourages us to treat others well, to ensure they are fed and clothed, but they also have an introspective reminder as well, to give ourselves time to be spiritually nourished.  We may find moments of tranquility in our yoga or meditation, our time in the mountains or at the beach, looking at great art or reading inspiring works of fiction and fact, yet as Jews, we have all this and more.  We have the gift of community, of Torah and its deep reminders of the value of our time.

Thinking about the gift of time, I think about how we use ours.  Most of the time, we are generally decent people.  We give what we can to charity, to the synagogue.  We are nice to most people.  We try to respect one another, yet sometimes we forget the most important gift we have--time.  For many, Shabbat can be the most classic reminder of this sacred gift.  Giving ourselves even a taste of Shabbat, a Shabbat dinner or an hour at synagogue reminds us that the world is always turning, but we do not have to be.  In popular culture, I think of the music of Harry Chapin, who in 1974 put his wife, Sandy’s poem, to music:
the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home, Dad
I don't know when, but we'll get together then
You know we'll have a good time then

As the lyrics return to you, you may remember the story of a father too busy to play with son.  The son ages, comes home from college, doesn’t have time for his dad and then eventually dad, now grandpa wants to see his grandchildren and his son has no time for him.  Basically it is every parent’s nightmare in one song with a catchy tune.

The song’s closing line:
“And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me./ My boy was just like me.”

Yet what the song teaches so clearly, is that while our children and grandchildren may listen to us--especially when we would prefer they don’t!--what they really learn from is the choices we make--how we use our time.

The choices we make are always on view.  It’s not just what we share on facebook.  How we spend our time is seen by those we love and those we know.  Intuitively we know children are always watching, always listening, yet we forget over and over again (until they tell Aunt Jeannie, that Mom said she’s a bad driver!).  It is a simple lesson that needs frequent repetition--live the life we want to teach.  If we want to teach that something is important, we have to live like it is! The way we spend our time often demonstrates our values. If I really wanted to go to the gym, I’d stop whining about it and I’d actually go!

I recently skimmed through a book whose title I can’t entirely repeat here: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.  
“What pain do you want to sustain?” The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.

If we can teach our children how to deal when things don’t go right, when they fail, when we fail, then they can discover their and our true characters--hopefully it is one filled with kindness, with respect, with love!

The lessons I have shared this morning seem intuitive.  They seem obvious, yet they are the lessons that need the most reinforcement.  Even the sunniest of people sometimes need a reminder to pause, think and be kind before responding.  Even the most charitable among us must remember why we give.  Even the most cynical among us can learn to see the gifts of faith.  Even the busiest among us know that time is a gift.  

Today I have asked perhaps too many questions.  I have mused on priorities and the centrality of Judaism to our lives.  I have considered what it means to be a Jewish parent and how we determine what is a principle worth dying for.  While these Days of Awe may seem time-limited, our tradition teaches us that every single day is an opportunity to reflect and consider. Pirkei Avot 2:11 says “Rabbi Eliezer would say: The honor of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own, and do not be easy to anger. Repent one day before your death”.  If you remember nothing else from my words today: We always have another day to change our ways--even unto our last day!