Edith and Demetrio

We met on Rosh Hashanah when I served as interim rabbi of their synagogue in Milan.  They speak little English, and I speak almost no Italian, but I quickly understood what they hoped to accomplish, and wanted to help.

Edith and Demetrio both had Jewish roots that had become very precious to them.  They met on a trip to Israel in 2008 and wanted to join their lives and their destinies to each other and to the Jewish people.  They have been serious students and had learned a great deal.  But every effort they made to formalize their process of conversion met with rejection and red tape.

Soon the co-presidents of Beth Shalom Milano, Carey Bernitz and Lori Kaplan were taking turns translating the discussions I had with this wonderful couple.  it was clear to me that the Jewish people would  be blessed to have them as full members of our faith.  The more we studied the more convinced of this I became.

One day I offhandedly remarked that with all of the obstacles they had encountered it would almost be easier if they came to the states and converted with me.  I would convene a Bet Din (rabbinical court) and then officiate at their marriage in the beautiful sanctuary of  Congregation Beth Israel, of which I am now Rabbi Emeritus.

As soon as the words left my mouth, Demetrio looked at Edith, Edith looked at Demetrio, they both looked at me, and Edith said softly, “Could we?”

And I said,”Yes!”

And so they arrived with Carey Bernitz in tow to translate to appear before our Bet Din, enter the mikveh, and be formally welcomed into the Jewish people at a moving Shabbat Eve service at Beth Israel.  Then when Shabbat had ended we celebrated Havdalah, and the happy couple were married “according to the religion of Moses and Israel” in a traditional Jewish ceremony.

My wife Vickie and I are thrilled to have Edith, Demetrio and Carey as our house guests and even more thrilled that we could make what was a dream — for them and for us — come true.

Our entire experience in Milan — from the day we arrived in August to the day we left in December — was so very meaningful for us.  I conducted services and classes, met several times with a young man who recently celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, worked with other wonderful candidates for conversion, visited and performed rabbinical functions for the Reform communities of Florence and Turin.  We had a wonderful time.

Still it is so clear to me. If we had only come to Italy to be there to ease the path to Judaism and eventually perform the Jewish marriage ceremony for Edith and Demetrio, the entire experience would have been worthwhile.

Elijah’s Role on Yom Kippur

It is for good reason that Jews close Yom Kippur — just before the blowing of the shofar— with the triumphant cry from the  passage (First Kings, Chapter 19) in which Elijah vanquishes the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel:  “Adonai Hoo Ha Elohim!  The Eternal One  alone  is God!”  We chant it seven times before we hear the shofar (the only time  we hear the shofar on Yom Kippur) to signify the end of the most solemn holy day in our calendar.

Sadly, most Jews have no idea of this connection, but it is crucial.   King Ahab and even more so, Queen Jezebel (whose name is synonymous with wickedness) had corrupted Israelite worship by setting up Ba’al and its prophets as their favored cultic practice.  They vowed to kill Elijah who was the champion of the one true God.  

So, Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al on Mt Carmel.  He says we will each prepare our offering, and the god who consumes the offering without having kindled a fire is the true deity.  The prophets of Ba’al go first, and though they cry out and gash themselves, nothing happens. Elijah then pours water over his offering, so much water that it fills the trench around the makeshift altar and cries, “Answer me O Eternal One, Answer me!”

POOF!  The offering, the altar beneath it and even the trench filled with water go up in smoke.

Who is God? Elijah essentially asks?  Is it your idol that you worship by gashing yourselves and with other abominations that make a mockery of human dignity? Is it Ba’al who you hope will greedily eat your offering?  Or is it the one true God who wants us to create a world of justice, kindness, caring and compassion?

And then, in a most dramatic fashion, God vanquishes Ba’al on Mt Carmel and all must acknowledge God’s sovereignty.  It is a replay in miniature of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt where God defeats Pharaoh, the pagan god in human form.

So what should Jews take away from what is arguably the holiest moment of the year?  What should we all learn from this passage that can help us to live more meaningfully?

Even though many in power debase the ideals and values that the Almighty wants us to uphold — and even though God does not assert the reality of the Divine presence as dramatically to us as we see on Mt. Carmel (or in the parting of the sea) — it is our job to hold fast to God’s desires for us.  True worship is not found in mouthing empty words, but in making our faith the driving force in our lives.  We glorify God and demonstrate our faith when we use our talents — whatever they may be — to help repair this broken world.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

Kertoon.com

Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching, my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder in hopes that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories than there are stories about Moses, and even Solomon. This is due in part to the prophet Malachi, who  transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian C. figure to the one who would  announce the coming of the Messiah and the end of war and bloodshed.  With the coming of the Messiah, an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth.  Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents.  For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.

Ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and lows that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty, yet—like many who selflessly give of themselves—he has fallen into a funk of self-doubt.  Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught.

And worse, the wicked Jezebel has put a price on his head.

God tries to encourage Elijah, and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses,  Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  There, he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives.  Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real!  God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind.   Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire.  But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.

Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts.  It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others.  But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours, alone.

As profound and wonderful as it was, not even God’s voice could lift the cloud of despair from Elijah. Thus, the time has come for him  relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative.  The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.

This should not be perceived as punishment.  At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel —despite his desire to do so—into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah, we must all some day let go of the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.

Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty, like Moses and Elijah, can find valuable instruction here.  Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever.  That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have.  And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

The Trickle That Became A Mighty Stream

“Mommy-Os and Daddy-Os, these are The Videos!

That was how the cutting-edge DJ, Jocko Henderson, introduced the song “Trickle, Trickle” back in 1958.

Before there were even videos as we know them today, there was a doo-wop group by that very name. Their biggest record, “Trickle Trickle,” never made the Billboard Top 100, but did peak at an unimpressive # 90 on the Cashbox chart. However, the record by the group from Queens, New York, did receive a lot of airplay in the New York area.

The flip side of “Trickle”,  “Moonglow You Know” and a subsequent release, “Love or Infatuation” showcased the group, and particularly the magnificent voice of lead singer, Ronald Cussey, although some accounts list him as Cuffey.  Sadly, a few years later, Mr. Cussey died of leukemia and the group disbanded. Other members, first tenor, Clarence Bassett, who wrote “Trickle, Trickle” and second tenor, Charles Baskerville, went on to sing with Shep and the Limelights of “Daddy’s Home” fame.

They, too, are all but forgotten.

The Videos’ legacy  is a song that has become a classic.  A 2004 listing by Digital Driver ranks “Trickle, Trickle” as the 19th greatest upbeat doo-wop song of all time.

Manhattan Transfer released a credible version of the song in 1979.

But that is just the beginning!  Today, “Trickle, Trickle,” as a YouTube search will quickly reveal, is performed by countless  high school and college ensembles, a cappella troupes and retro Doo-wop groups around the world!

Today few people remember, let alone credit, Ronald Cussey or Clarence Bassett. But they are the ones who launched a tune now heard and enjoyed by millions.

The Lesson: We should do all that we can do and be the best that we can be! We never know what impact our efforts might have on others –even millions of others — down the road!

Remember, The rain keeps droppin’, there ain’t no stoppin…’

A Pain in the Back

“Hey, Kid, wanna get ahead and make the big bucks? Become a chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon!”

I have said those words half jokingly to many a student over the years. Though the impetus  is serious,  those words incite anger and sadness in my heart.

And it rekindles every time I pass an elementary or middle school. Kids are slumped over, carrying backpacks that are almost bigger than the kids, themselves. From what I see, they are setting themselves up for serious back problems down the road.

I went to school, obviously, and was a pretty good student. At the most, I carried two or three books worth of homework in my arms every afternoon.

Nobody carried a backpack.

My, how times have changed!

Speaking of change, whatever happened to childhood?

The erstwhile Bill Watterson, comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes was not only a masterpiece of the genre of cartoon art, it was a stinging protest against what we as a society are doing to our kids: robbing them of free time and using negative reinforcement to rein-in imaginations.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

npr.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a kid, I loved baseball, and could name by rote, the uniform numbers of almost every player on the 50’s rosters of the NY Yankees, Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. I played ball with my friends almost every day in the HS annex across the street from our apartment.

Yes, I also did my homework.

My most precious childhood memories are of playing stickball, baseball and football with whomever was “at the lot” at the time. I dreamed of the day I would play on a real team with real uniforms which finally happened at age 11. I’d earned a spot as the starting third baseman or left fielder (depending on which of our two pitchers was on them mound that day) for our city champion Little League team, the East Orange Firemen. It was great reward for all the of practice I had put in and all the imaginary games I played.

In contrast, I don’t see kids just going out and playing ball across the street. Their introduction to baseball comes when their parents sign them up at five or so for tee ball. But before they even take the field there is a significant outlay for uniforms and fees.

Free play? There is no time for that. Baseball is carefully plugged in to an already hectic schedule. They don’t watch baseball. They just play it in their uniforms from 10 to 12 on Sunday mornings.
The rest of the time is filled with many other structured activities and, yes, weighed down by so much homework that childhood becomes a literal pain in the back.

Future chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons, on the other hand, will be very rich!

Life Lessons from My Love Affair with Tennis — 1

Tennis and I go back a long way, ever since I was a little kid, and my Dad first taught me how to play.  Make no mistake; I was never a good enough to play the grand slams, but I love the game and owe it so much!

As a sophomore I was the number one player on our East Orange High School tennis team.  I posted a 2-13 record that year.

The first of the “2” occurred when the number one player from our cross town rival Clifford Scott, Henry Paillard, was not playing, and I got a win over their not-as-strong number 2, Bob Lawrie.

My second win, though, was huge!  We played each of our conference rivals twice.  In our first meeting at West Orange, I did not only lose; I received a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing from Jay Saunders.  Maybe Jay took me for granted when they came to our courts a couple of weeks later, but I earned a 6-4, 6-4 win. I was so proud!

I was EO’s number one for three years, and in those three years I lost to Kearny’s Cal Trevenen six straight times.  In those six matches I won only one set, the first set of the first match we played when we were sophomores.

At Hamilton College I became a better player earning a 50-3 record in three years on the varsity and winning a couple of NCAA, college division, regional tournaments and being the finalist in another.

My breakthrough came freshman year.

In those days freshmen were not allowed to play varsity, and I was the number one player on our freshman team.  Who should walk out on the court as my opponent for our opening match against Colgate – at Colgate, no less – but Kearny’s Cal Trevenen!  But this time I did something I honestly thought I couldn’t do and grabbed a straight set victory.  I defeated Cal again when Colgate came to Hamilton.

I reached out to Cal about two years ago (he is a successful attorney in Montclair, NJ), and though he was very gracious, he really didn’t even remember who I was. I can never forget him, though, for helping teach me one of life’s most important lessons:

Yesterday is gone.  It doesn’t matter anymore.

Do the best you can right now, and who knows what good things can happen?

Adhesive Tape

Followers of my page know that I recently celebrated the 55th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah—the most important day of my life.

On that day, I walked up the steps to the bema on shaky legs. There, my father waited to enwrap me in the Tallit my grandmother had bought me . I still remember the pride on her face when she showed me the embroidered words in the corners near the fringes, “Best Quality.”

My father said the blessing in Ashkenazic Hebrew . The key words in Sephardic Hebrew are
לחתעטף בציצית (l’heet-ah-tafe bah tzitizit). But when my dad said it in Ashkenazic pronouncing the first “t” as an “s” it sounded to me like “adhesive tape.”

The word to enwrap is a reflexive verb but the plain meaning of its three letter root, ayin, tet, fay, is “to faint” or to falter.
I was certainly ready to faint or falter that day, but my father’s application of “adhesive tape” helped me to stand upright.
As time went on that adhesive tape had me somehow connected to Torah in a way that — though it seemed tenuous to me as a 13- year old boy — has attached me to Torah through all of these years..and my connection continues to grow stronger.

As a rabbi I have collected a good number of  tallesim over the years, but I wore my grandmother’s “best quality” one when I read the Torah for my 55th Bar Mitzvah anniversary. On that occasion, I noticed for the very first time that in the same little patch where it says, “Best Quality” there is a quotation in Hebrew from Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”

What a powerful symbol my first — and now seldom worn — tallit remains. It reminds me of my grandmother’s love, my father’s support, and my connection to, and love for, the land of Israel. But most of all, it is the adhesive tape that binds me with love to Torah and its teachings.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

“A Sneak Peek: Chapter Summaries of What’s in it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives”

Below you will find descriptions of the chapters in my forthcoming book. Of course I hope these description will make you eager to read the entire work   As I am finishing up my writing, I want to also ask my readers:  Is there anything missing; anything you think should be included in this book that I may have left out. I consider your feedback very important and will carefully consider any suggestions.
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Creation – Neither science nor fairy tale, the Story of Creation in Genesis reveals the overarching hope of biblical thought:  That life has purpose and meaning, and for better or worse, we human beings are in charge of, and responsible for, this earth.  Each of us participates in creation when we use our talents to help in some way create a more just, caring and compassionate society.

Eden – Many think of the Story of Eden as “The Fall of Man.”  We might better think of it as the “Elevation of Humanity.”  Eve, rather than being the villain that much of religious history has made of her, is the true hero of the story because she chooses a limited life of purpose and meaning in the real world over an endless existence of indolence in the Garden.

Cain and Abel — Nobel laureate John Steinbeck considers Cain and Abel, “the symbol story of the human soul” because it is the story of every one of us. It is about rejection – which all of us have faced – and how we deal with it.  And Yes!  If this world is ever going to work, we must be our brothers and sisters’ keeper.

Noah and The Flood — Many accounts of a deluge emerge from various cultures of the ancient near east.  The biblical flood story is unique in two important ways:  Only in the Bible does the flood occur because of humanity’s moral failure. Only in the Bible is the hero chosen not for capriciousness, but for his righteousness.

Babel – The brief account of the Tower of Babel is analogous to “the last straw” in God’s attempt to persuade humanity as a whole, to create a just, caring and compassionate society. Also, I am often asked: “Wouldn’t it be great if there were just one religious outlook?”  No!  The Tower of Babel teaches us that God created diversity, and the world is better off because of it.

Abraham – After three attempts at persuading humanity to create a just, caring and compassionate society (in Eden; pre- and post-flood Eden), the Eternal One chooses Abram as a Covenantal Partner. He then launches a new vehicle for humanity to understand God’s desires.  Now, one family and its descendants will become an instrument to teach the world the ideals and values we all hold dear.

Jacob – A punk kid who extorts the precious birthright from his brother and misrepresents himself before his blind father grows through many trials to emerge as a responsible partner in God’s Covenant. If we understand the relationship between the crimes of Jacob’s youth and the tribulations he endured because of them, his journey can transform our lives, as well.

Joseph – Like his father, Joseph transforms from a spoiled, selfish brat into a leader whose bold policies saved the biblical world from famine.  His story and the parallel story of his brother Judah, are stories of suffering, growth and forgiveness.  The lessons they learn through bitter experience can inspire us as we seek meaning and purpose in our lives.

Slavery – “A new king arose who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  In this verse, we have the paradigm of all Jewish history.  A pattern has repeated itself in almost every country where Jews have lived.  It is a fitting starting point for our people’s journey from the degradation of bondage to the dignity of a free people, and it has a universal message.

Six Women Heroes – Moses is the hero of the Exodus and hands-down the most important figure in the Bible and all Jewish thought.  Nevertheless, Moses would not have gotten as far as uttering, “Let my people go…” (Exodus 7:16) before Pharaoh were it not for six women.  If we look closely, we find many biblical examples in which women play pivotal roles in biblical narratives, while the male protagonist is often clueless by comparison. The recurring biblical theme of the woman who “gets it,” while the man does not, was initiated by Adam and Eve.  This theme offers strong testimony that the Bible affirms and exalts the power and role of women.

Moses and the Call to Leadership – Why God Chose Moses.  The Bible gives us hints, but for the rabbis, the partnership was based on a careful examination by God of Moses’ character.  This chapter explores the rabbinic view of why God chose Moses, and the implications of that choice for our lives today.  Like Moses, we each have a destiny, if we choose, as Moses eventually did, to embrace it.

God’s Role in the Exodus — If God represents goodness and kindness, why does God “harden Pharaoh’s heart?”   To understand the story of the Exodus, we must see it as a war between God and the pagan deity, Pharaoh.  Pharaoh, on the one hand, represented the prevailing pagan value system. One worshipped him by building bigger and bigger monuments to his glory in the hope that he would use his perceived powers to protect his followers.  God represented the values of the Covenant made with Abraham: the values of justice caring and compassion.  These divergent value systems cannot coexist, and the Exodus represents a struggle to the finish between them.  The story and the Passover celebrations based on that, bid us to ask which set of values we choose for ourselves: a life of self-centered greed, or a life of caring, concern and service to others.

Crossing the Sea – In the Hebrew Bible’s most dramatic miracle, God splits the Red Sea allowing the children of Israel to cross on dry ground.  The Egyptians follow and are drowned when the Almighty orders the seawaters to cover them.  The Children of Israel are now free, but not free to be like everyone else.  The ancient Hebrews were set free in order to march on to Sinai to renew the Covenant God made with Abraham. It is a Covenant whose basic values are accessible to everyone, whether he or she is Jewish, or not. One of the issues the drowning of the Egyptians addresses is how we should react to the downfall of our enemy.

A Visit from Jethro –Jethro’s visit to Moses and the Israelites marks, perhaps, the first management tutorial in recorded literature.  Moses, Jethro warns, risks burnout unless he develops a plan to delegate authority.  Moses heeds Jethro’s advice, and we can benefit from it at well.

Standing at Sinai – This chapter examines different perspectives of God’s revelation at Sinai.  What might have happened during the encounter that transformed God’s people from a band of refugees from slavery into a people covenanted for all time to the service of the Almighty?  We shall look at a number of Midrashim that offer contradictory viewpoints on what might have occurred at Sinai and ask the more important question: what do these different points of view teach us today?

The Golden Calf – Almost as soon as Israel agrees to the Covenant with God, they break faith in the worst way imaginable by worshipping a golden calf.  Certainly, we do not build idols and bow down to them today, yet the story of the golden calf still speaks to our human condition.  Do we choose the path of generosity, kindness and the quest to make a better world, or to find our own security and satisfaction at the expense of others?

The Spies — In the second year of the Israelites desert journey Moses sends out twelve spies to report on the land God has promised them.  Ten of the spies come back and say the land is unconquerable.  Two, though, Joshua and Caleb demur and say we need to have faith and confidence in God’s promise.  The chapter explores what we can learn from this story.

The Waters’ of Meribah — For nearly forty years Moses has been God’s faithful servant.  He slips up once – in what seems like a minor way—by hitting a rock to give drink to the thirsty people instead of asking the rock to brings forth water in God’s name.  God punishes Moses by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land.  Is this fair?  Perhaps not, but the lesson of the story is vital to each one of us.

What If I Don’t Believe in God? — As discussed throughout the book, the Hebrew Bible assumes the existence of God, who wants human beings to establish a just, caring and compassionate society.  The simple fact is not everyone believes in such a God.  This chapter discusses how the ideals and values of the Journey can speak effectively and meaningfully even to those who do not believe in God.

Conclusion— This summary of the journey and its meanings reviews and elaborate on the vital lessons we learn from the Genesis’ story of creation to the edge of the Promised Land where Moses’ dies on Mount Nebo.  Moses is the Hebrew Bible’s pre-eminent figure, but he dies with his dreams unfulfilled.  Like Moses, most of us leave this earth with –despite our accomplishments – dreams unfulfilled.  The lesson we learn is that each of us should do the best we can for as long as we can, to make the world in some way, better.  Part of our task is to inspire and mentor others to continue the work.

 
 

Why the letter Kof?

The Hebrew letter Kof stands as a symbol of my web page.  I chose it because it is the first letter of the Hebrew word “Kadosh” which means holy.

One of the most famous lines of the Torah teaches (Lev. 19:1) “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”

“Holy” really means set apart or different from the ordinary.  Torah came into the world because the ordinary values of the ancient world were not good enough for our people. Our tradition calls on us to be different: to strive for an ever higher standard of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion than those which prevailing societal norms uphold.

In terms of time we are taught to make a distinction between ordinary time — the time to do the work of living — and time that is Kadosh, holy.  In Kadosh time we step back and ponder why we do the things we do.  We ask ourselves: How can we infuse more kindness, caring and compassion into our daily living?  In his best seller THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS (ANCHOR BOOKS, 1999), Thomas Cahill calls the division between sacred and ordinary time the greatest gift of the Jewish people to humanity.

When I was a child, my parents gave me a copy of THE ALEPH-BET STORY BOOK by Deborah Pessin.  It contains children’s stories about each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  My favorite among the stories was then and is now, “Kof and the Woodcutter’s Prayer.”  In it, a poor woodcutter and a rabbi who visits him by chance both learn and teach a vital lesson about humility and priorities. I have retold that story many times in my career because of the lessons it teaches.

My favorite Shabbat Prayer asks God to, “Help us to distinguish between that which is real and enduring (my favorite definition of Kadosh) and that which is fleeting and vain.” In writing my book I have searched the Torah for those values which are real and enduring. In my blog as well I hope my thoughts help my readers and me to infuse a greater sense of Kedushah, (holiness, that begins with the letter Kof) into our lives.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

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