I am so pleased to note that our upcoming trip to Israel includes a visit to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.

Seeing this Christian Holy Site on the itinerary brought my mind back to 1975 and a schoolteacher from Utah named Andrea. I cannot recall her last name; I have not seen nor heard from her since then, but I shall never forget her.

Our trip was sponsored by the National Education Association, and it offered professional educators (like Vickie) and their spouses (like me) an irresistible rate to tour “Israel and the Holy Land” over winter (read Christmas) recess.

On the day of departure the forecast was for snow, so we booked our airport Limo to allow an extra two hours to gets us to JFK from my mother’s apartment in East Orange, NJ.

Long story short, snow became a near blizzard. Not only did we not arrive two hours early, we missed the plane altogether. We learned that our Lufthansa flight was the only one that took off that evening.

Andrea, from Utah, also missed the flight. So the airline (those were the days) put us up at a hotel and booked us On a flight the next day. Our itinerary said we would visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve for midnight mass at Church of the Nativity.

For Andrea, a faithful Catholic, Midnight Mass at the Church if the Nativity was not only the highlight of the trip, it was the raison d’etre.

Unfortunately, our missed flight was likely to put our arrival too late to join the group’s Christmas Eve excursion to Bethlehem. “It’s not that big a deal, Andrea,”I said, “I have been to the Church of the Nativity. It is very small, and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is an invitation only VIP event. I am certain the plan is for us to be among the crowd in manger square and experience that unique atmosphere, but there is no way, I am sure, that our tour group is on the invitation list for the mass itself.”

Andrea would not hear of it. “Do you see what it says here,” she exclaimed holding the itinerary about four inches from my face: Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.”

“Yes,” I replied, “at the church, meaning in the courtyard (which is something, I imagine, like being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve), but not in the small church for the service.

Not only did she not believe me, but by the time we landed in Tel Aviv at about Six PM on December 24, she had me almost convinced that we were to be guests inside the church. We rushed to our Jerusalem hotel only to learn that our group, had left for Bethlehem an hour earlier.

Vickie, pregnant with our first child Leo, was totally exhausted, so I volunteered to take Andrea to Bethlehem. When we arrived, Manger Square was packed. We searched in vain “for Dr.Plante and our group from the NEA.” Our task was nigh impossible because neither of us knew what Dr. Plante or anyone in our group looked like.

Suddenly at eleven o’clock a narrow gateway near the church opened, and Andrea and I joined the throng streaming toward it. We managed to pass that roadblock but then came to an even narrower gate where a guard questioned everyone going though and checked for weapons or bombs. Since we had neither of those, we passed that checkpoint as well. Finally with the entrance to the church just in front of us, we confronted another one-person-at-a-time check point where a Palestinian named Mr.Nasser was examining the invitations that those entitled to enter had to present.

Now, I was certain, we were cooked for sure.

When our turn came, I explained to Mr. Nasser how we missed our plane and were part of “a special delegation” with Dr. Plante from the National Education Association in the United States. I am sure he has our invitations. Mr Nasser sized up the situation and replied, “You (pointing to me) go into the church, find this man and bring her ticket out to her here. If you do not find him, you too must come back out.”

So I entered the church and asked every likely suspect if he were Dr. Plante. No luck. Meanwhile Mr. Nasser had entered the church and when I caught sight of him I hid behind a pillar hoping he would not see me and make me leave.

Then a miracle occurred. Literally five minutes before the service was to begin ANDREA APPEARED.

“How did you do it,” I asked?

“Someone outside had an extra invitation,” she answered, “and gave it to me.

And that’s how I get to attend Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

Back at the hotel we met up with our group the next morning at breakfast. They were all talking excitedly about heir experience of being in Manger Square outside the church where Jesus was born on Christmas Eve. They were dumbfounded by our story because no one expected to be inside the church itself … no one that is except Andrea.

Israel on My Mind

Sunset in Tel Aviv

My wife Vickie landed in Tel Aviv a short while ago. She left a few days before I do so that, in her words, “I can have some alone time with our son before you get there, and all you will talk about is Rabbi stuff.”

Yes, our son Leo stepped away from a career as the successful founder and Principal of an inner city Oakland, CA, elementary school conceived to give the largely Latino and Black population of the neighborhood a high quality academic foundation. As Principal Leo continually urged his students to be in touch with and to affirm their cultural roots. At age 42 he made the decision to deepen ties to his cultural roots by beginning the five year full time studies program to become a Reform Rabbi. It is mandatory to spend the first year of that study at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. His courses over the next four years will be in Los Angeles.

I look forward to joining Vickie in Israel where Pastor John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC church and I will lead a joint tour for our two congregations. As it turned out twenty Jews and twenty Christians registered for the trip.

I so look forward to showing them the Israel I love.

That said, Israel is a complex place. With hostile neighbors on each side, its security concerns are beyond anything most of us in North America can imagine.

Does that make everything Israel does in the name of security just, right and consistent with our religious values as freedom loving Americans today?

My personal answer is, “No it does not.”

But that is a much easier question for me to answer from the safety of Sanibel than it is for the residents of Sderot near the Gaza border.

That is why it means so much to me to help facilitate the opportunity for our congregants to see Israel first hand.

But security and the complex political situation of today are hardly the only reasons I am eager for this trip.

Israel — with a history that goes back to the Bible and technological advances that are blazing a trail into the future — is a marvel of modern civilization. But it is also a society of many complex contradictions, a society that we can begin to understand only when we see it with our own eyes.

I eagerly look forward to embracing those contradictions once again.


Nicholas is my Barber, but he is more than that. Each time I visit him at Tribeca Salon on Sanibel Island I receive not only a fine haircut but a thoughtful, common sense-laced discourse on events of the day and what is meaningful in life and what is not.

My most recent visit was particularly instructive. Nicholas spoke with passion — while his scissors never missed a beat — of the joy he finds in giving things away.

We spoke about several things: the upcoming interfaith trip to Israel that I am leading along with Pastor John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC. We talked about religious similarities and differences.

We agreed that “tolerance” as an interfaith goal was insufficient. We must strive for mutual understanding, respect and affirmation. We each can enrich our faith by understanding what most motivates others to practice theirs.

Nick noted that from all of his many customers, who often go on at length on a wide variety of subjects, he looks for the one insightful nugget that can add meaning and texture to his own life.

His words reminded me of the teachings of the second century Sage, Simeon ben Zoma, who taught : “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

When he finished my last haircut, he said to my surprise: “Instead of paying me today, give the money to someone you meet in Israel who needs it.” I said I would pay him and also give the money to someone in Israel who needs it, but Nicholas would not accept the money.

So, I gave him a copy of my new book, … And Often the First Jew that I signed this way:

For Nicholas–

A philosopher and humanitarian

Who also cuts my hair,

And teaches me valuable lessons

Each time I’m in his chair.

Earth Day Thoughts

Take good care of it; it’s the only one we’ll get (Midrash, Kohelet Rabbah, ch. 7)

April 22, 2019, Earth Day

The world initiated Earth Day in 1970. Great idea! It makes us more conscious of how we care for our environment. Hopefully it also reminds us that we must do a better job than we are doing.

But forgive me if, as Jew I feel a bit smug, because we have had our “Earth Day” for at least 1800 years. It is called Tu B’Shevat.

Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat falls mid-winter. It is first mentioned in the Mishnah (the first post-biblical code of Jewish law compiled between c. 200 BCE and 200CE) as “the New Year for trees. or that long it has been our people’s de facto Earth Day.

A famous Midrash teaches when God finished creating the world, the Almighty addressed humanity, saying, “You are in charge of and are responsible for this earth. But it is the only one you will get. So preserve and enhance it. Do not pollute or destroy it” (Kohelet Rabbah, Chapter 7). Sound advice for us today.

In the late eighties when then Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Jr. began his campaign of environmental awareness (which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007), he asked me to prepare “a closing homily” for the first meeting of the initiative held in Nashville, the city where I then served as rabbi. On that occasion, I related a venerable Hasidic story told in many different ways about a magnificent goat that lived long ago. The goat had horns so long and beautiful that when he lifted his head, he could touch the stars, and they would sing the most beautiful melody that anyone had ever heard.

One day, a man was walking through the forest thinking of what he might give his wife for her birthday. He encountered the goat, and a brilliant idea jumped into his head. “I could make my wife a gorgeous jewelry box from a piece of one of the goat’s horns,” he thought.

The man approached the goat, which was very tame and friendly, and explained, “I want to make a jewelry box from just a small piece of one of your horns. It won’t hurt when I cut it off, and I’ll just take a small piece. You won’t even miss it!” The goat lowered his head to accommodate the man’s request.

The jewelry box that the man fashioned was indeed beautiful, and his wife adored it. Proudly, she showed it to all of her friends who soon wanted one just like it. You can see where this is going. Soon the goat was inundated with requests to “cut off just a small piece” of one of his horns. Of course, soon his horns were much shorter. The goat could no longer reach the stars, and that most beautiful melody was forever silenced.

This wonderful tale teaches one of the vital lessons of Genesis’ Creation story. We, human beingsnot the crocodile, the elephant nor the lion, though they are stronger, faster, and fiercerare in charge of, and responsible for, this world. Therefore, if we are to pass on a beautiful and healthful environment to our children and grandchildren, we must do a much better job than we are doing now of taking care of it.

What is the best way to celebrate Earth Day? Study and heed the lessons our Sages taught nearly 2000 years ago.

(Much of this essay is excerpted from my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, pp.2-3. It is available on

A Rabbi Reflects on Good Friday

(With special thanks to my good friend, Rev. Dr. John H Danner for his review and critique of this essay)

Many years ago, my family vacationed in the Ozarks, and I took my nine-year-old son Leo to see the Passion Play performed on the estate of the late Gerald L.K. Smith.

What a magnificent and costly production! Live horses, camels, even elephants cavorted across the huge amphitheater stage. When Pontius Pilate protested to the Jewish masses that he found no fault with Jesus, the Jewish leaders shouted, “Crucify him!”

Then Pilate washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

“Crucify him,” the Jewish leaders screamed again. “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

As we left the vast and magnificently kept grounds of the estate, Leo turned to me and asked, “Did we really crucify Jesus, Daddy?”

“No, my son,” I answered,” we did not.”

“If we didn’t,” he responded, “who did?”

Crucifixion, I pointed out, was a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution, and I do not believe that the Roman governor would allow his subject Jews to convince him to do anything that he did not wish to do.

“More important,” I said to my son, “neither you, I nor any of the Jewish people who have lived for the past 2,000 years were there, let alone involved.”

Times have changed

The anti-Semitic Passion Play, after years of diminishing attendance, saw its last performance in 2012. I continue to cherish the invitation of my good friend, Rev. Steve Hancock in 1996 to speak from the pulpit of the Second Presbyterian Church of Nashville on Good Friday. And this year Rev. Dr. John Danner and Rev. Deborah Kunkel will spend part of their Good Friday, after their own services at Sanibel Congregational UCC, as welcome guests and participants in the Passover Seder of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.

These wonderful realities of Good Fridays present stand in stark contrast to Jewish memories of Good Fridays past. Good Friday was once a day when Jews hid for fear that Christians would attack them. In some places Christian authorities compelled Jews to attend Good Friday worship to listen to readings and preaching about their guilt and stubbornness for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

On Good Friday I feel the weight of Jewish history as at no other time. I close my eyes and see the victims of Good Friday pogroms. I hear voices of those killed over the years for no reason except that they clung to their Jewish faith. I hear their voices crying out to me, “Do not betray us!”

On one of my trips to Jerusalem, I walked slowly along the Via Dolorosa with a Palestinian Christian Guide who explained the 14 Stations of the Cross and that on Good Friday 40,000 pilgrims jam the road to Golgotha to identify with the significance of the crucifixion.

Although I am not a Christian, I am moved by Luke’s** account of Jesus’ utterances from the cross. Beaten, mocked, scourged, crucified and near death, Jesus exclaims, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24) Would that we all could display such compassion to those who have wronged us.

What I find most remarkable about Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross is his absolute immunity to public opinion. Whether the crowds were with him or against him, Jesus did not alter his course.

A week before his death, Jesus threw the crowds into a frenzy of ecstasy. The next week his own disciples denied knowing him. Such abandonment would devastate an ordinary person, but Jesus remained unshaken. Would that we all had that kind of courage of our convictions.

Make no mistake. Jesus is not the messiah for Jews that his is for Christians.

There are profound theological differences between our faiths. I have no desire for us to become one religion, but I have an intense desire that we learn to accept and respect our religious differences and appreciate the values we can learn from one another.

Years of history have blinded Jews to the meaning and inspiration even non-believers can find in Christian Scripture. Years of history have blinded Christians to the richness of the Jewish heritage from which Christianity sprang. If we have not yet done so, let us, as Good Friday moves into Passover, remove our cataracts and behold the beauty and wisdom we can find in another’s faith.

**I recall with gratitude the learning I gleaned from the Seminar I audited on Luke at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1996, with the permission of Professor Amy Jill-Levine,

Jews Also Cry for Notre Dame

After the European Union for Progressive Judaism convention in Amsterdam in March 2012, I visited Paris in my capacity as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Overshadowing our Paris visit was a horrible tragedy in which four people were savagely murdered at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. When word came, Rabbi Tom Cohen, of Kehilat Gesher in Paris, was showing us the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame. Ms. Miriam Kramer, Chairman of the European Union and Mr. Stéphane Beder, President of the French Union of Progressive Judaism were with Vickie and me as we stood in awe in front of the magnificent Cathedral.

When the news of the horror in Toulouse reached us, we quickly repaired to a café in the shadow of Notre Dame to hastily and sadly draft the WUPJ response to the massacre of innocent Jews.

I am reliving that tragedy as I watch live news film of Notre Dame in flames.

I confess that part of my first impression of Notre Dame in 2012 was similar to what I feel whenever I tour magnificent houses of worship: How many homeless people could be housed and how many hungry fed with all the money it took to build this edifice!

That said Notre Dame is a place of matchless beauty and a symbol of a people’s faith in God. To see it in flames exacerbates the fear and uncertainty of the times in which we live.

Thankfully the fire of Notre Dame did not involve the unspeakable loss of life our nation suffered on Nine Eleven. Human lives are worth more than any building.

Still, seeing its famed spire collapse was even more shocking than seeing the Twin Towers in New York City fall on Nine Eleven. After all, the World Trade Center opened in April 1973. Notre Dame was completed in 1345.

If ever a building represented beauty, stability and order in the world it was Notre Dame.

For that reason, we Jews join with Christians around the world in bemoaning the fire in Paris.

A building of unsurpassed beauty is burning in the City of Light, and somehow the whole world seems a little less safe and a little less secure than it was before.


A War Between Gods

Passover begins Friday evening, April 19, and more Jews will participate in a Passover Seder of one sort or another than any Jewish event in the entire year. The Passover story is the “enabling event” that opened the door to all subsequent Jewish experience.

A recent letter I received from a man claiming the Exodus never happened and that Bible stories were fairy tales did not surprise me.

I have long known some scholars question whether the Exodus happened or not, and I leave the question to those who spend their professional lives in such inquiry.

For me the truth of the Exodus story like all Biblical stories does not depend on did it happen or not? Or is it scientifically correct?  The truth of a biblical story lies in what it teaches us that help us to be better people and encourages us to use our talents to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.

The Exodus

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will – between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see Chapter One of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished.

The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay.

Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.

Passover is a story of movement, as the (Baskin, 1974, p.34) Haggadah puts it: 

  • from slavery to freedom
  • from degradation to dignity
  • from the rule of evil to the sovereignty of God

Passover is not just a history lesson. “In every generation” each of us should act as though we go forth from slavery to freedom. And because we have had that experience we feel a duty to do all we can to free others from the many bond that enslave people today, hunger, homelessness, lack of heat in winter, foul water. The list is endless.

None of us can do everything, but Passover teaches us the we all must do something to ease the suffering in our world. That is the TRUTH of the Passover story!




What God Is and What God Is Not

In Germany and in the states, people often ask me: How could a good God allow the Holocaust?

For me the best answer to this question lies in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is angry and jealous when God rejects his offering but accepts that of his brother Abel.

The efforts of commentators to justify God by saying Cain brought dried out stalks (see Bereshit Rabbah, chapter 22) while Abel brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock ring hollow.

It was Cain who initiated the idea of an offering and Abel also (the Hebrew word is גם GAM) brought his choicest flocks.

Why then does God reject one offering and accept the other? I do not know. God does not answer to me, but I try my best to answer to God.

My strong conjecture is to teach us a lesson on how to deal with rejection.  We all face it. Like Cain we have made offerings that are not accepted. We tried as hard as we could, but we did not make the team. We deeply loved a woman, but she did not love us. We wanted a certain job, but we did not get it. The list is endless.

Cain felt just as we do when our “offerings” are rejected. He was angry and jealous.

We all know he killed his brother in his rage, but we often overlook what happens in the story before that.

God speaks to him encouraging him to do his best.

When we do our very best, that is the highest measure of success and affirmation. Of course we should all learn from constructive criticism, but knowing we have done our best is more important than the affirmation of a coach, another person or an employer. For many it is the hardest life lesson to learn.

But that is what God in the Torah is: a teacher. And the truth of biblical stories is not historical and not scientific. The truth is in the lessons we learn from them.

But even after God speaks so directly to Cain, he kills his brother anyway.

So, when people ask me Why God did not stop the Holocaust, I point them to this story. At the very beginning of Genesis we learn we have no right to expect God to thwart the designs of those who do evil. That is our job.

Whether God can stop evil and chooses not to or whether God’s power is limited are questions I leave to others. I rather deal with the Truth (for me that is a capital T) Torah teaches.  God wants us to do what is just and right, but God does not make the choice for us.

Often our unwillingness to accept the notion that God never promised to shield individuals or the world at large from evil, blinds us to what God does do if we allow God to do it: Encourage and inspire us to reject the path of wrongdoing and choose the path of justice, caring and compassion.

In Psalm 25, the petitioner asks God: “Show me Your ways…teach my Your paths…All the paths of the Eternal One are mercy and truth for those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies.” (Psalm 25:4,10)

God is the Consummate Instructor but only for those who want to learn who choose to strive to learn and keep God’s teachings.

Among the ingenious innovations of the shapers of Reform Judaism was changing the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning from Leviticus 16, about the observance of Yom Kippur in biblical times to the majestic passage that reaches its climax in Deuteronomy 30:19.

We have a choice, good or evil, and God urges U’vharta ba-hayim, “Choose life! God is the force that urges us to choose life and good, but God does not make the choice for us.

Preface to …And Often the First Jew

It is a heady but eerie feeling to preach in a church with a cornerstone with the year 1220 on it and to have one of the community leaders inform you that you are the first rabbi to preach there in the church’s history. “Many of our worshippers,” he continued, “have never seen a Jew before.”

It was not a unique example. When I spoke in German churches in towns and villages like Schulensee, Kaltenkirchen, Bordesholm, Husum, Friedrichsstadt and even in cities as large as Leipzig, Neumünster or Kiel, I was almost always the first rabbi to ever speak there, and for many worshippers, I was the first living Jew that the worshippers had ever seen.

To be “the first” is both a privilege and a burden.  I am ever mindful the impression those to whom I speak will have of Jews and Judaism depends on what I say and the way I say it.

For four years it has been my privilege and that of my wife Vickie to spend part of the year in Germany. There, in addition to my work in synagogues and churches, we teach together in German high schools about the Holocaust.  To facilitate our lessons, we use a wonderful exhibit about Vickie’s own 97-year-old mother, Stefanie Steinberg. She was born in Breslau and was uprooted along with her family in 1936 when the Nazi government informed her father, a respected Radiologist who had served in the German army during World War I that he could no longer be a physician in Germany. The family moved to Barcelona, but after the Civil War erupted in Spain, the family dispersed, and Stefanie lived in a Kinderheimin Switzerland.  When she was 17, she made her way to New York and eventually to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

High School students find her story enthralling, and some have reached out to connect with her personally. Almost all the students to whom we speak have never seen a rabbi before; many have never seen a Jew.

“Being the first” causes Vickie and me to feel a special responsibility similar to the one I feel when I speak or teach in German churches. We want students to know about the Shoah, and its horrors. But I constantly say to students and parishioners to whom I speak:

Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ungeschehen machen, aber wir können gemeinsam an einer besseren Zukunft arbeiten.We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.

If in some small way, our experiences in Germany and the essays in this book can somehow contribute to that besseren Zukunft –that better future, our efforts will be amply rewarded.