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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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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The Watchmaker

When I came to Israel last week, I brought a broken watch that had sat in my drawer for two years. The watch repair departments of prominent jewelry stores in West Hartford, Connecticut and Bad Segeberg, Germany both examined it but told me there was nothing they could do with it. I had all but given up hope of ever wearing my special watch again.

Along Allenby Street in Tel Aviv there are at least two dozen jewelry/watch repair stores within a half-mile of the Mediterranean Sea. I decided I would try one.

I did not use Trip Advisor or Yelp reviews to choose. I was looking to pick up a vibe. As I passed one small shop, I paid attention to the gentle manner in which the proprietor dealt with a particular female customer.

My gut told me, “This is the place.”

When I handed the distinguished looking man my watch, he cradled it in his hands as though it were his infant grandchild.

He carefully examined and exclaimed that he might be able to fix it. “Come back in half an hour.” Something in his manner told me I had no need to ask for a receipt.

An hour later, I returned. The man looked at me with a proud twinkle in his eye and handed me the watch. He told me it was very complicated, and that were it not a gold watch, he would not have worked on it at all. He then gave me a gentle lecture about how I had to be careful with this watch and not wear it every day.

“No,” I promised, “only for Shabbat, holidays and special occasions.” He charged me 120 Israeli shekels, about $32, which was more than fair.

A few days later I went back.

While I was in Israel my former camp counselor and now friend, Doug Barnert, sent me a Facebook message. He wanted to support Israel by asking me to buy something worth about $100 for him.

So after my experience with my watch, I went back to the store at 60 Allenby Street. It is called Shalman Brothers, and I recommend it to everyone.

This time Ya’akov Shalman and his brother and business partner, Daniel, were both there. I told them: “I have a friend in the USA for whom I need a present. It has to be small enough to easily fit into my suitcase. So please give me the best watch that you have that costs as close as you can come to $100.” He showed me a beauty, and I bought it for Doug.

I am no expert in watches, but I think they gave me a deal.

By this time we were friends. The older brother shared that he is 82 years old and was born in Israel.His father and grandfather were born in Israel. This shop has been in their family since 1921.

And still some persist in saying that the Jews are interlopers in this land.

When I asked him about this he said, “All you have to do is look in the Bible to see how long we have lived here. How can any one say this is not our land?”

I could not agree more!

A Letter from Israel

sunset-over-the-mediterraneanThe beauty of the huge sun sinking quickly into the Mediterranean makes the ten thousand miles I flew to get here worthwhile. I have seen few sights as beautiful.

I am not here often, but each time I am, I am at home.

My people have laid claim to this land for 4000 years, so let no one tell us we have no right to be here. After one third of all the Jews in the world—and two-thirds of the Jews of Europe—perished in the Shoah, let no one say we have no right to be here.

Had there been an Israel in 1935, millions of Jews who died would have lived!

When, after World War One, more than 20 Arab Islamic states—in many of which a Jew cannot legally set foot—sprung up, so let no one say that we Jews, who also lived under Ottoman rule, have no right to one–tinier than almost all of them–Jewish state as well.

And when we discuss, as we should, Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel, let us also discuss the roughly equal number of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands where once Jews felt welcome and at home.

Now I often find myself critical of policies of Israel’s current government.

I often find myself wishing and hoping that they would do more than they do now to bring about peace with our Arab neighbors, but so many of Israel’s unyielding critics ignore the reality under which this tiny country labors.

When, from the time they are old enough to think, the enemy teaches its children to hate Israel, to hate Jews and to consider martyrdom in killing Jews in Israel a glorious death, what is Israel to do?

There is much to criticize in Israel, just as there is much to criticize in the United States.

Yet for 4000 uninterrupted years our people has lived on or longed to live on this land and prayed for peace with its neighbors.

The huge fiery sun sets quickly to the west over the ancient city of Jaffa and sinks quickly into the Mediterranean! And just as the poet of Genesis’ creation story wrote, a much smaller but exquisitely beautiful crescent moon takes its place to stand sentry over the night. Just east of the sea the modern city of Tel Aviv bustles about its business. The contrast between the ancient and modern tableaus that exist side by side in Israel stretches the definition of stark!

Contemporary Israel is by no means an idyllic Bible land. But it is the home of my people. Let no one say we have no right to be here!

But let Israel—by forging ancient values with modern technology—find a way to live in peace with the enemies who continually reiterate their vow to destroy us.

Israel’s history is filled with many acts of military heroism, but our Sages taught (Avot de Rabbi Natan, 23:1): “Who is the hero of heroes? One who turns an enemy into a friend!”

For the sake of our children, grandchildren and generations to come may Israel and its neighbors soon produce those types of heroes!

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.