Longfellow

James Longfellow Watson was a key–though underrated–defensive tackle in East Orange High School’s 1963 State Championship football team.
My enduring memory of him In that role is the game against one of the toughest teams on the schedule, Phillipsburg High from near the Pennsylvania state line. Jim seemed to live in the Phillipsburg backfield that day sacking the quarterback and stymying runs.

As a senior Jim took up ice hockey, and that’s when we became friends. EO was nobody’s hockey powerhouse. In fact we were perenially one of the leagues’ doormat teams.

But Watson was a gifted athlete and an imposing–6’4, 210 –physical presence.

Our high school yearbook noted, “Fuchs was joined on defense by newcomer Jim Watson who developed rapidly as the season progressed. The two often skated the entire game, a rarity in hockey.”

And we became friends. I called him by his middle name, Longfellow, and he referred to me as “Tuffy Fuchs.”

That winter of ’63 was the year the Beatles invaded America and changed popular music forever. It is hard to imagine this today but their mop haircuts were a complete novelty then.

One Saturday morning after hockey practice, Longfellow and I were hanging out in his basement. “OK, Tuffy,” he said, “close your eyes.”

Standing before me, when he told me to open them thirty seconds later, was this very tall, very Black young man wearing a hilarious Beatles wig. And then he started to laugh, one of the most infectious laughs I have ever encountered, and I started to laugh too. And it seemed like we laughed for an hour. 

I will always treasure the memory of that day, but not as much as I treasure the memory of our game against Montclair.

As I wrote, we were not a good hockey team, but due largely to great work in the goal by Jim Ross, and Watson’s improved play, we won our last three games.

But the one I will never forget was Montclair. Montclair and East Orange had a historic rivalry in football and that carried over to all sports. Earlier in the season Montclair defeated us handily at South Mountain arena, and there was no reason to think they would not do so again on the cold evening that we met at the outdoor rink in Branch Brook Park. 

Late in the second period, a light snow had begun to fall, and the scene is flash frozen in my mind. The score was 2-2, and The Montclair Goalie kicked out a hard shot by our star forward, Joe Mirabella. The rebound dribbled toward Watson as he skated in from the blue line. Skating full steam toward the puck, Watson hit a slap shot so hard that the Montclair goalie did not see the puck until he fished it out from the back of his net. 

3-2, EO! 

We desperately tried to hold onto our lead as the snow that made us feel like we were skating through mud continued to fall.

As the final period wound down Montclair was pressing when I intercepted a pass and scored on a breakaway to give us an insurance goal and a 4-2 victory. Watson and I had skated the entire game. When we embraced at the final horn, we were exhausted but overjoyed. 

We beat Montclair!

After graduation we lost touch. Last time we spoke he was accepting a football scholarship to the soon to be open and not long thereafter to close Parsons College in Iowa. His vision was to become, “Jim Lon Watson, all American Tight End from Parsons.”

After that to my regret, all I know about Jim is that he was listed among our classmates who had died when we planned our fiftieth reunion in 2014.

I wish we had kept in touch because I smile each time I think of the joys we shared.

Really?!

IMG_0692Guns don’t kill people! People kill people!

Really?!

How often have we heard these words? Too often for my taste!

Of course people kill people. But guns certainly make it a lot easier for them to do so!

Really!

Licensing and registration for every firearm would not abridge the rights of law-abiding citizens to bear arms. It would make it harder for criminals to do so. And would that not be a good thing?

The statistics boggle the mind. If you are reading this, then you have read them. But they still shock. You are 25 times more likely to be killed by a gun in thr USA than in any other first world country!

If you are Black the odds go up exponentially!

Really!

It is a national disgrace.

How dare we even talk about being a great country when we give such low priority to keeping our children alive and our streets safe!

We are like the idols the Psalmist decries: “Eyes they have but do not see. Ears they have but do not hear! (Psalms 115 and 135)

When will we learn?

What will it take?

Another Sandy Hook?

For the sake of our children and for the sake of our soul as a nation, let us act to curb gun violence now!

Really!

Sanibel Sunrise

 

A new friend I hope to see in SanibelIMG_9096“מצוה גוררת מצוה. One good deed leads to another,” is one of the best-known quotations from Pirke Avot (4:2), the Talmudic tractate of wise maxims and moral teachings of our Sages.

Its wisdom again touched my life recently when Rabbi Guershon Kwasniewski from Porto Alegre, Brazil contacted me. Guershon was applying for membership in the Central Conference of American Rabbis and wrote to ask if I would write a letter of recommendation on his behalf.

Few requests could give me greater joy, as Guershon is an amazing rabbi.

When I visited Porto Alegre, as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in 2012, Guershon’s wisdom, caring and skill impressed me in so many ways.  He is a wonderful spiritual leader, an amazing organizer of events, a gifted teacher and a powerfully positive presence in interfaith community.

The furthest thing on my mind when I finished my letter for Rabbi Kwasniewski was looking for a job.

But when I went to the CCAR web site to look up the address of CCAR’s Placement Director, Rabbi Alan Henkin, (soon to retire after rendering years of invaluable service to our conference and the person to whom Guershon requested I write), I noticed our list of available positions.

I was not looking for a job, but the notice about a “part-time seasonal” position at Temple Bat Yam in Sanibel Island, Florida caught my eye.

Bat Yam’s rabbi, Myra Soifer, a highly respected colleague, is among the first female rabbis ordained by the Reform movement. She has left her post to join the Peace Corps and will teach English in Rwanda!

Myra wrote glowingly of the community and its members. She added that the congregation meets in a building owned by a UCC church and they had a wonderful relationship with congregation and its pastor, Dr. John Danner.

It is a congregation comprised almost exclusively of retirees, most of whom spend the warm weather months elsewhere.

The position seemed right up my alley.

It runs from the Days of Awe through the Sanibel “season” in April. So I would have several months free. The congregation’s demographics mean no religious school, youth groups, B’nai Mitzvah students—save for any interested adults—or Confirmation Class.

The primary rabbinical responsibilities are teaching, speaking, leading worship, attending to pastoral needs of the congregation and representing the congregation in the community at large.

So, I uploaded my CV, which I had not looked at in six years, added just a few pertinent items, and asked Rabbi Henkin to send it to Sanibel.

A few days later I got an email that the search committee chair would like to Face Time with me. She did and I was most impressed by her.

After the interview she said she would like to schedule another Face Time with other members of the Search Committee.

After three more Face Time interviews with members of the committee, the congregation invited Vickie and me down for a weekend of interviews and presentations.

One of the vital appointments I asked the committee to include was a meeting with Dr. Danner, Pastor of the UCC Church in which the congregation “lives.” Within five minutes, I knew it would be a privilege to work with him.

When they offered me the position several days later, I enthusiastically accepted.

Of course when a rabbi—any rabbi—is offered a position, other colleagues are disappointed. I feel for them. I have certainly been there.

Still I rejoice at the opportunity Bat Yam has offered me. I pray that I will be a blessing to the community and that serving them will bring blessings to Vickie and me.

I marvel too that all of this unfolded because I was doing a favor for a colleague.

Indeed, “מצוה גוררת מצוה. One good deed leads to another.”

 

 

Bernard Werthan, Jr.

No one outside of my immediate family has had as great an impact on my life or been a greater inspiration to my thinking than Bernard Werthan, Jr.

Bernard was born to a family of means and could have lived a life of self-centered leisure. Instead, he chose a life of tireless service to others. He gave to his community and to individuals who needed help in too many ways to count.

He and Betty, his lifelong love, were an amazing team. She was his muse, his inspiration and his support. They were far greater together than even the considerable sum of their parts.

One of Bernard’s main charitable endeavors was OIC***.

One year, when Senator Albert Gore, Jr. had to cancel at the last minute, after he had accepted the invitation to speak at the OIC graduation, Bernard decided I was the one to take his place.

“You mean,” I asked incredulously, “they are expecting Al Gore, and they are going to get me?

“You can do it,” he said.

That was just one example of a time that Bernard had more confidence in me than I have in myself. I shall always be grateful for the trust he placed in me.

Bernard never stopped learning and stretching the extraordinary mind with which God blessed him. He was always on the lookout for ways to use his knowledge to serve others.

During my last visit to Nashville, Bernard said just before I left: “There are two books that you have to read. They put race relations in our country in a whole new light. I’ll have them sent to you.”

A few days later two volumes arrived: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. They sat unopened on my shelf for a year and a half.

Then the invitation came for me to be this year’s keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Day Commemoration and Scholarship Awards Ceremony in Albuquerque, NM.

It was as though Bernard had sent me Stevenson and Alexander’s books for just that occasion.

I read them, and it was just as Bernard had said, they put race relations in America—a subject with which I thought I was thoroughly familiar—in a whole new light. The insights those books contain added immeasurably to the quality of my speech.

For me and for so many others Bernard Werthan put not only race relations but also the very meaning and purpose of life in a whole new light.

His generosity, his wisdom, his caring and his compassion will be a blessing to me—as it will be to so many–as long as I shall live.

 

***The mission of Nashville Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) is to provide education, training, counseling and job placement services for citizens of the community who are disadvantaged economically, educationally, and socially.

Our vision is to guide people on a successful road to self-achievement: leading to self-reliance.  

Why Israel Is So Special

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

As Israel celebrates its 66th year of independence, my mind replays a scene that could easily happen again today.
It was November 1975. The United Nations had just passed a horrific resolution condemning Zionism–-the very idea that there should be a Jewish State–as racism. Shocked, I knocked on the doors of one Christian pastor in our city after another asking for support.
Some were sympathetic, but I shall never forget one pastor’s response. “Steve,” he said, “you’ve taught me a lot about Judaism, and I consider you a friend. But I have neither interest in nor sympathy for Zionism.”
Today, on the land that made up the Turkish Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, twenty-two Arab/Islamic peoples have realized their hopes for independent nationhood. Jews also lived in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. Why does the world begrudge one tiny sliver of land for Jewish national aspirations when…

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At Dachau

On the infamous “Night of Broken Glass” November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a savage against the Jews of Germany. Leo Fuchs, my father was one of the 30,000 Jewish men arrested in Germany that night and among the 500 arrested in his home city of Leipzig.

Historians called that night, Kristallnacht, or in Germany Reichspogromnacht, the clear boundary in time after which no one could any longer doubt Hitler’s ultimate plan for Europe’s Jews.

That ultimate plan condemned one-third of all the Jews in the world to death. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jews and three-fourths of Europe’s Rabbis Cantors, Jewish educators and communal leaders perished.

Out of the 18,000 Jews who lived in Leipzig in 1935, Hitler killed 14,000, seven out of every nine.

Upon their arrest on Kristallnacht, Leipzig’s captives had to stand in the stream that flows through the city zoo. There Nazi soldiers commanded citizens to spit on them, curse at them and throw mud on them.

Then they took my father to Dachau where they shaved his head and beat him.

But my father was one of the very fortunate ones. He had an older brother and an uncle already established in the United States. They petitioned Governor Herbert Lehman of New York, a Jew with German roots, and on December 3, 1938, my father was able to sail for New York City.

There he met and married my mother, and my sister Rochelle and I were born. I am very grateful.

I have never visited Dachau, but Dachau visits me often. My father’s two older brothers lived into their 80’s; my father died at 57.

Yes, I blame Dachau.

If someday I physically go there, these are the words I shall say:

 

Sometimes silence is the only appropriate response.

When we confront the depths of depravity to which humans can descend,

And the depths of despair that humans can inflict on others, Slack-jawed silence is the only response that is not flawed.

Entering Dachau is such a time.

The questions, “Why? And “How?” are all we can utter.

But there are no answers.

But if we believe,

In spite of what this place represents,

That there is a God, or a force within us that bids us to do what is

       just and right,

Then we must act—

     as God’s eyes that see the pain around us,

     as God’s ears, that hear the anguished cries,

     as God’s hands that reach out to comfort

           those who suffer

     and as God’s feet that run to those

     Whom life has wounded—

To walk with them

Away from the shattered past

       Of yesterday

Toward tomorrow

       And the promise of hope!

Amen

A Long Deferred Visit: AUSCHWITZ

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

arbeit-macht-freiTo commemorate Yom Ha Shoah, I share the following reflection of my visit to Auschwitz.

It should always be cold, it seems to me, at Auschwitz, and the sky should always be a dreary gray.

Unless it is a very hot day, I am always cold. It has been that way it, it seems to me, since the frigid night in February when my Hamilton College Hockey team played MIT in Boston outdoors.

I was not one of the team’s better players (an understatement), and I spent much of the game on the bench. Since then, I have been cold.

And so, as much as any of the horrible sufferings people endured or succumbed to at Auschwitz, I think of the cold.

The thin pieces of rag that inmates wore, and their often bare feet provided no shield at all against the brutal Polish winter.

It was not cold by…

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Six Women Made Passover Possible

We cannot really appreciate the meaning and message of Passover without recognizing the importance of these six women!

Passover will soon be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover Seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year!

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold. Without Passover we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero. The Book of Exodus, however, makes it clear that the role women play in that event is crucial. Without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten so far as to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!

Shipphrah and Puah

Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb. The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh. Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews. They were only following orders. Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice.

Yocheved

Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off!

Miriam

Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life.

Pharaoh’s Daughter

The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter also should not escape our attention. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses.   For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name, and she herself received the name Bit-yah, which means “daughter of the Lord.” (Va-yikra Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).

Zipporah

The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son!

The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking.

(My book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives discusses the role of these six women in greater detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is It Time?

Guest blogger: Jeff Smith

Many thanks to Jeff Smith, a multi-talented, multi-media expert for this post. I only hope the talk I give on April 30 is worthy of the blurb Jeff wrote . I welcome suggestions as to how to approach this topic.

Whether attributable to the election of Donald Trump or not, there can be little doubt that the Bomb threats, desecrated Jewish cemeteries, and in the case of one Indiana Synagogue, a bullet fired through a Hebrew School classroom window, indicate an uptick in anti-Semitic activities in the past few months. Many people compare these hateful acts to those perpetrated on the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. If they could, many now would ask those German Jews, “Why did you wait so long to get out?”

Should American Jews be fearful that this is the leading edge of a new wave of anti-Semitism that could lead to a similar horrific result? Is it time to weigh our exit options? Where would we go if we did want to leave?
On Sunday April 30th at 9:00 AM, the Brotherhood welcomes Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, Beth Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus who will address these difficult questions and other pressing issues of the Jewish community. A suggested $6.00 contribution includes breakfast. All are invited.
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