Embarrassing Moment; Priceless Lesson

It was the most embarrassing moment of my life, but the mimeographed letter made clear what I had to do:

Since you have missed the Honor Roll for the second time this year, you are no longer a member of the National Honor Society. Please bring your pin and membership certificate to Miss De Luke in room 202 at your earliest convenience.

My fall from academic grace was swift and hurtful. I had hit my stride as a student at the beginning of my junior year. I remember vividly how I beamed when at the end of the first marking period, our guidance counselor, Miss Jane Perry, came into our English class to announce that I stood first in the class for that six weeks.

At that time Miss DeLuke called me to her classroom and asked me to consider becoming Honor Society President the next year.

Six months later I was walking to her classroom to return my pin. I was mortified.

For some weeks previous I had felt unusually tired. A medical exam revealed that my Protein Bound Iodine (PBI) count was quite low. “This,” my doctor exclaimed, “could account for your diminished academic performance.” He then wrote a letter to the school explaining the condition in some detail.

Clutching the letter, I made a beeline for Miss Perry’s office. This will get me back in the honor society, I thought to myself. “After all, I have the gold standard Gordian Knot cutter for any school-related problem, a bona fide doctor’s excuse!”

“That’s too bad,” Miss Perry said, after reading the letter. “I’m glad you are being treated.”

“So, I asked, “Can I get back into the Honor Society if I get my grades back up?

Miss Perry’s unequivocal, “No,” slapped me across the face.

“I am sorry it happened,” she continued, “but the rules are the rules. You will not get back in the Honor Society.”

As I left her office the oft-repeated words of my hockey coach, Gil Adams, reverberated in my head: “When you play a game, no one cares that you had a cold, a sprained ankle or a stiff neck. All they will ask is, ‘who won, and what was the score.’”

At graduation, those in the Honor Society wore a gold tassel and a gold sash. I think I was the only one listed in the program as a High Honors (top five per cent) graduate without those adornments, and I felt humiliated.  More than five per cent of the class walked that day with National Honor Society recognition.

Fifty plus years later, of course, it matters little. But the lesson the experience taught is with me every day:

Just do the best that you can, and don’t make excuses! Nobody cares about them anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer After Super Bowl LI

Eternal One,

Once again much of the world you created rejoiced in the face of evil. Thousands spent billions to watch and millions more tuned in to the mayhem of Super Bowl LI.

They rave about how exciting the game was!

  • It mattered not that many on the field were able to play only with the help of Toradol or other dangerous drugs to mask their pain.
  • It mattered not that so many past players have committed suicide, died young, or live with life-ruining dementia.

We watched anyway!

Some claim: “They knew the risks, and they chose to play.

  • Would they have known the risks if the first time they walked on a field, their parents and they had to sign a declaration that told the truth:

“Playing this game is liable to shorten your life or condemn you to live each day with pain?”

  • Would they have accepted the risk if we had not glamorized football and conditioned players, from when they were in the cradle, to worship at football’s altar.

When we study ancient history, we read of gladiatorial festivals and ask: “How could civilized society allow such carnage in the name of entertainment?”

When, O God, will we ask the same question about American football?

How long, O God?

  • How long will we celebrate and delight in such havoc to enrich owners, sponsors, TV networks and gamblers?
  • How long will we deny the price our entertainment exacts?

Many moral or religious leaders have turned a blind eye!

They watch, wear game jerseys and make bets on the outcome with others consecrated to work for a more just, caring and compassionate society.

Where, Eternal One, is the compassion for these former NFL players who have committed suicide?

They are not just statistics. They were real people:

Where also, O God, is our concern for the families of dead players found on post mortem to have Chronic Traumatic Brain Damage?

They are not just statistics! They are real people:

And where, O God, we must ask, is our compassion for those who still walk this earth doomed to lives of pain and suffering from the traumatic brain damage their doctors have diagnosed?

They are not just statistics! They are real people:

Some of these names, O God, were well known to even the casual football observer. Only diehard fans knew the names of others.

No matter! We must ask:

  • Did they die or do they suffer in vain?
  • Can we not learn the lesson of their misfortune?
  • As players grow bigger, stronger and faster, will not future casualty lists not multiply much more rapidly?

Open our eyes, Eternal One! Remove our blindness! Help us to see at last that the glory, the fame and the riches football brings to the few are just not worth the terrible price they exact from our pockets but, more importantly, from our souls!

Amen

 

Count Me Out of the Concussion Bowl

On Sunday, February 5, America will observe for the fifty-first time what has evolved into our most observed national holiday: Super Bowl Sunday. I call it “The Concussion Bowl.”

Count Me Out!

It is clear now, beyond any shadow of a doubt that the collisions that are integral to tackle football on any level inflict lasting long-term injuries on participants. Many suffer serious brain injuries that lead to depression, dementia, inordinate instances of suicide and early death.

One of the greatest college football—and until his debilitating injury, one of the great pro—football players, Bo Jackson, has said he will forbid his son from playing football. As his old ad correctly put it, “Bo knows football.”

What about the rest of us?

In the face of such evidence each individual faces a stark and daunting choice: You can be part of the ongoing pattern of injury and early death that football inflicts by watching, supporting your team and buying their merchandise, or you can be part of the solution by turning it off and turning away.

Football today is as much a part of our national culture as, say, cigarettes were in the 50’s.

In those days, great athletes, doctors and dentists publicly appeared in ads peddling cigarettes to impressionable and easily influenced young people. Nobody thought much about it.

Now we know better!

Similarly, football has become a national religion. The biggest campus heroes—whether the campus is high school or college—are often the football stars. So many impressionable kids want to be like them.

That was OK before we learned conclusively the damage football causes—long term and permanent damage—to so many who participate.

Now we know better!

Oh, I know, some will claim that players know the risks, but they make the adult choice to participate. I admit there is some truth to that.

But it is also true that such an attitude sends an awful message about our values as a human society. When we condone and even laud those who risk permanent bodily injury and early death only for the sake of our amusement, entertainment or gambling enrichment, we diminish ourselves immeasurably.

As a rabbi I would add, that we diminish the Divine Image in which God created us.

I don’t so much blame the players for developing and using their talents in this way. For kids the lure—however long the odds—of a free college education and, for the truly elite, millions of dollars, is irresistible. Moreover, their elders have conditioned them—from one generation to another–to yearn and strive for the glory involved.

No I don’t blame the players, but I do blame the enablers–the owners, managers and most of all the fans–who perpetuate this lamentable culture.

I only pray that one day football will go the way of the once glamorized and openly advertised cigarette: banned in all public places!

I Was Wrong!

There is no other way to put it:

I was wrong!

I wanted to honor our constitutionally mandated electoral process and give Mr. Trump 100 days to show America that he would grow into his office and implement policies that benefit us all.

I was wrong!

The list of his egregious actions is too long and too well-known to merit full elucidation here, but two put me over the top:

  • The  Executive Order on immigration! My goodness! What kind of a heartless cretin thwarts the reunification of families for no good reason? So many of those whose lives you disrupted, Mr. Trump, have rendered valuable service that has made our nation a better place. How dare you? Bravo to all who flooded our airports in protest!

    I stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors who have suffered most from this outrage.

  • The Holocaust Remembrance Day Declaration that made no mention of Jews! I know that for many this incredible statement—that he had the nerve to defend—is far down the list of the new president’s sins, but for me as a Jew, a rabbi and the son of man who was arrested and abused on Kristallnacht it is a tipping point.

Yes, Mr. Trump, many more millions of people were victims of Hitler’s madness than the six million Jews who perished! But what other ethnic group had—by Hitler’s design—its worldwide population reduced by one-third?

What other European group saw its population reduced by two-thirds?

What other religious group saw 4/5 of its religious leaders massacred?

One might expect such a statement from Stalin’s Russia but not from the United States of America.

There can only be one word to aptly describe a presidential declaration re the Holocaust that makes no mention of Jews:

Disgraceful!

The fact that your Jewish daughter and son-in-law did not react publicly to this dreadful omission tells me all I need to know about the “Jewish identity” of both of them.

And again, these are just two of many grievous acts by the President that have violated  the basic values for which America should always stand.

And so Mr.Trump, consider the 100 days of grace I wanted you to have EXPIRED!

It took longer than it should have for me to reach this conclusion. I apologize to those who put stock in what I mistakenly thought was a magnanimous gesture of reconciliation.

There is no other way to put this:

I was wrong!

From now on look for me among those who dissent and protest!

 

Dear Mr. Trump:

You are making me feel like the boy with his finger in the dike!

What’s worse you are scaring thousands of good American citizens and registered immigrants and students who have made significant contributions to American society!

That is not what I call making America great again!

Look, I’ll admit: I actively opposed your election. But I urged those who read what I write to give you chance. I feel that is the American way! I criticized those who tried to overturn the election results. I publicly scoffed at those who said you won because of Russia or the CIA or any other reason except that your election reflected the resonance of your message among the American electorate.

I’ve lost some friends because of you.

Many responded to my essays with anger and a long list of the things you’ve done to convince me that you have already blown any chance you might have had.

The most positive responses were gentle rebukes of my naiveté.

I’ll be honest. You’re making me look bad!

Like most Americans, I resonate to your pledge to crack down on,”Radical Islamic terrorism. And I do not object to your use of the phrase. I hate terrorism, and, as a rabbi, I particularly condemn when I see it perpetrated by Jews. The activities of the Jewish Defense league of Meir Kahane in the United States years ago, of Baruch Goldstein and those who perpetrated the 1994 Hebron Massacre and those who attack Palestinians today or who glorify violence of any kind bring disgrace to my people. I want them hunted down and stopped as much as I want ISIS brought to its knees.

But what you are doing Mr. President, is putting fear into the hearts of so many who are loyal to the ideals of American democracy.It is the worst form of prejudice to brand all members of any group as evil because of the actions of a few. Jewish terrorists do not represent Jews, and ISIS does not represent Muslims.

So please, in the name of all that America stands for, go on national TV (or at least TWEET) to proclaim that all registered foreign-born people are welcome to remain in this country. Please reassure us that while we will vet those seeking to enter,  we shall hold all potential immigrants to the same standard of worthiness.

If we ever cease (to paraphrase Emma Lazarus’ immortal poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty) to welcome the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, America will lose any hope of greatness, past, present or future.

Mr. Trump, there are many other issues I would love to raise with you and for which many of my friends will chide me for ignoring. But reassuring law-abiding residents that they will always be welcome here would be an important first step.

As I write these words in San Francisco I look out of my hotel window and see “Old Glory” proudly rustling in the wind above a nearby building. May your words and actions, Mr. President, insure that now and always, “…proudly she waves!”

Sincerely,

Stephen Fuchs

The Connie Golden Story

At the 2017 convention of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, Rabbi Connie Golden honored me by asking me to officiate at her installation as the president of the organization. These are the thoughts I shared about this remarkable human being.

 

When I first met Connie and Jerry Golden, our seats were together on a plane to Jerusalem for the 1988 Central Conference of American Rabbis convention. For most of the eleven-hour journey Jerry slept while Connie and I talked.

“I wanted to make more people happy.”

On that flight I learned that in her pre-rabbinic life Connie had worked first in publishing and then as a casting director for stage and television productions. Her unease in that role was one of the factors that moved Connie toward the rabbinate. “As a casting director,” she said, “I could make one person—the one who got the part—happy, but it meant making fifty or sixty others unhappy. I wanted to make more people happy.”

A Beautiful Love Story

I learned on that flight also that Connie and Jerry had met while she was providing extraordinary pastoral care to Jerry’s first wife, who was dying of cancer. His wife had told him about a woman rabbi who had been visiting her, and as a bereaved widower Jerry sought counsel with the rabbi who had done so much to ease his wife’s final journey. So began a beautiful love story.

Probably the most important thing I learned on that flight, though, is that Connie is the perfect example of the famous teaching: “God gave us two ears but only one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we speak.”

In fact, by the time we landed I was sure that God had blessed Connie Golden with a third ear, one attached to her heart.

Whether in a huge congregation in Memphis or a tiny one in Meridian, Mississippi, whether at a hospital bedside or on a cruise ship, Connie’s ability to really hear what others say and feel is extraordinary. No wonder the CCAR entrusted her with the most sensitive issues involving colleague misconduct by putting her on the Ethics Committee, where she served for 8 years.

Yes, Connie listens, but when she expresses herself—as her many published poems attest—she does so with skill, precision, empathy and eloquence.

Those who have studied with me, or read my books or web page essays, know that for me the most vital reason to study Torah is to find ourselves in the biblical text.

So when I study the parashah, Vay’hi, at the end of the Book of Genesis, I know beyond doubt that it is “The Connie Golden Story.” Like Connie, Joseph listens with an ear that hears more than the words his brothers speak. Joseph knows that when his brothers approach him, they are afraid, thinking “loo yist’meinu Yosef? what if now that Pop is dead, Joseph takes revenge on us? (Genesis 50:15)”

In the brothers’ fright, they tell Joseph a tale of how Jacob, before he died, told them to urge Joseph to forgive them. Yet surely Joseph would have known that if Jacob had wanted to say such a thing he would have said it to Joseph himself. But no matter.

Joseph responded to his brothers’ understandable anxiety the way Connie responds to us, with empathy and love: “Vay’nacheim otam vay’dabeir al libam. He comforted them and spoke tenderly to them. (Genesis 50:21)

Thus the Book of Genesis ends the way this Convention ends. All issues are dealt with, all conflicts resolved, and “they all lived happily ever after.” So enjoy this moment of joyous felicitations, Connie!

Now if that were truly the end of the story we would not have to ask the Eternal One to bless Connie at this time. All we would have to do is say, “Mazal Tov!” But “The Connie Golden Story” will continue, just as does the story of our People. As we know, the “happily ever after” at the end of Genesis turns, as Exodus begins, into the avodat pareich, the hard labor, of Presidential responsibility. Beginning soon—maybe even tomorrow—Connie, the phone calls, texts and emails will begin, and the privilege of the Presidency will meld into the duties and responsibilities which we know you will deal with so capably.

Yes, as surely as Genesis turns to Exodus, Connie, you will indeed need the help of the Eternal One to deal with the many burdens we shall lay before you. For that reason, I ask our colleagues to rise and join me in asking God’s blessing upon you:

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yish-m’recha

Ya-er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha, v’yaseim l’cha SHALOM!

Amen

 

 

 

 

Why I Am Giving Trump One Hundred Days

In “He Won the Election So Give the Guy a Chance” I pleaded that we should try to start the new administration on a note of good will and cooperation rather than confrontation. Many expressed anger at my suggestion. The most gentle of the critiques call my idealism, “Naïve.”

The gist of the criticism is, “Trump’s past actions and statements are so egregious and his appointments so frightening that it is beyond belief to think he will ever change and govern with the goal of compassion, equity and justice.”

I get that.

I was a vocal opponent of Donald Trump for eleven months leading up to the election. My anti-Trump web page essays were read by thousands more people than have read any of the other 383 essays that appear there.

But the fact is that none of the outrage so many of us expressed changes the reality that he is now President of the United States.

I believe it is in our selfish best interest to engage rather than estrange the new president.

To paraphrase him: “We have nothing to lose,” because all the protests and marches that we can organize will not remove him from office.

But there is another reason for my “naïve” position. I am a passionate believer in the lessons of our Torah.

For me the truth of Torah has nothing to do with, “Did this really happen?” For me the truth of Torah lies in the ability of its stories to influence how we live and how we think.

One of the Torah’s most important “truths” is that people can change! Here are three examples:

Jacob

  • Jacob was the worst sort of miscreant. He exploited the fact that his own brother was tired and hungry to extort the birthright from him
  • Even worse, he stood shamelessly before his blind father and proclaimed not once but three times that he was Esau in order to steal the blessing Isaac wished to give his first born.

Despite these disgraceful episodes, Jacob grows and becomes worthy enough in God’s eyes Yisrael-Israel, the one who gives his name to our people.

Joseph

  • He tattled on his brothers.
  • He lauded over them the fact that he was his father’s favorite.
  • He eagerly told his brothers of his grandiose dreams that he would rule over them.

But Joseph grew and changed. He finds it in his heart to forgive his brothers for selling him as a slave and leads Egypt through a horrible period of famine.

Judah

Judah callously convinced his brothers to throw Joseph in a pit and then sell their hapless brother as a slave. But Judah learns well the lesson taught him by his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38). Judah, like Jacob and Joseph, grows to eschew venal self-interest and demonstrate inspiring leadership.

Benjamin, Jacob’s favorite son since the loss of Joseph, was caught—although he didn’t do it—stealing the Egyptian overlord’s (Joseph) special divining cup and sentenced to slavery. But Judah, in perhaps the most eloquent address in all of literature, offers to remain a slave to spare his father from suffering the loss of his beloved Benjamin.

I am a passionate believer in the “truth” of Torah that people can change.

If people who did things as horrible as Jacob, Joseph and Judah could change, then I am holding out my “naïve” hope for Donald Trump.

That is the most important reason I am giving him 100 days to prove himself worthy of the office he now holds. I am hoping, and I am praying.

And the clock is ticking.

 

He Won the Election So Give the Guy a Chance

Many of my liberal friends will not like this essay, but I am disappointed with the attitude of so many.

Face it. Whether we like it or not, Donald Trump won the election. Like George Bush in 2000 he lost the popular vote but no matter. According to the laws that govern elections in the United States of America he won.

He won quite handily.

He won despite the fact that everyone predicted he would lose. He won despirte the fact that the mainstream media ganged up on him and transparently wanted Hillary Clinton to win.

From the day of the election to this, many have campaigned to overturn the results. Professors, pundits, ordinary citizens have protested. Some Congresspeople  will actually boycott the inauguration.

To me it is just sour grapes!

My background is in athletics as a high school, college and local tournament tennis player. I learned very early: You play as hard as you can. You do everything you can to win, but if you lose you don’t make excuses.

You shake your opponents hand, congratulate him and hope to do better next time.

That is exactly what we should do as Donald Trump becomes the President of the United States.

I actively campaigned against him. The essays I wrote detailing why I thought Mr. Trump was totally unfit to be the leader of the free world attracted many times more readers than any of the other  350 plus entries I have written on this blog.

Despite my best efforts and those of so many others he won.

To compound matters, since he won, he has made appointment after appointment that fill me with trepidation for our country’s future.

But he won, and he has the right—with the advice and consent of the United States Senate–to appoint anyone to whatever position he pleases.

 Give the guy a chance!

If we truly want what is best for our country, then we must stop being sore losers and give the president our support and well wishes as he embarks on the world’s most difficult leadership role.

There is nothing to gain by trying to thwart the man before he begins

Let’s give him 100 days and see what he has done!

At that time if I am unhappy with the direction of his leadership, count on me to raise my voice in whatever way I can to protest.

That is the American way, and that is the way I think is best for our country!

 

Shabbat in Jerusalem

There is nothing that I have seen anywhere that compares to Shabbat morning when we have been in Jerusalem. 

There are fewer cars on the road on Shabbat than other mornings and an aura of holiness envelops the city.  Vickie and I walk leisurely to synagogue and wish everyone we see a “Shabbat Shalom!”  Some return our greeting and others do not. We pass by residents of the city and others from other parts of Israel and the world. There are religious and secular. And one can always know the visitors who gaze in awe at the beauty of the city confirming the rabbinic teaching that the Almighty gave ten measures of beauty to the world of which nine were allotted to Jerusalem.  (Babylonian Talmud)

The secular are out walking, jogging, and biking and there are the religious of all types in their Shabbat finery on their way to or from worship.

In the Diaspora we all know too well what divides Israel’s Jews, but we rarely dwell on what they have in common and what makes them a people in their own land.

Our Shabbat mornings brings our shared beings and for us reaffirms our reason for being in Israel: to join the struggle for our rights as Progressive Jews in our own country.

It is this task that seems so hard to grapple with every day of the week, but on a glorious Shabbat morning walk that difficulty tends to fade as we share our Shabbat with others in this way. On Shabbat morning what divides us is so less urgent than what brings us together.   Clal Yisrael, our oneness, pushes aside our weekday concerns.

We are all charged by the Almighty in Genesis to:

  • “Be a blessing.”
  • Walk in God’s ways and strive to be worthy of them!”
  • And to  “keep the way of the Almighty” and teach our children to practice “Tzedakah v’mishpat –righteousness and justice.”

We are all obligated by the covenant G-d made with Abraham to use our talents in every way to fulfill the prophetic vision of a day when, “everyone shall sit under their vines and fig trees with none to make them afraid.”  (Micah 4:4)

In his best-selling book, The Gifts of the Jews, Irish Catholic author, Thomas Cahill, noted that among our greatest gifts to humanity is the idea of Shabbat.  It is a day to refresh our souls, and to remember our covenential obligations.  Shabbat is also the day that lights our way for the rest of the week.

Progressive Jews can do no less than use the transforming powers of Shabbat in Jerusalem to attempt to connect Jews around the world to one another and to make them one with this blessed land.