A Place at the Table: Interfaith Community Relations

In a Medieval tale the Pope challenges a small town rabbi to a theological duel. The stakes are the highest imaginable; the loser shall be put to death. Each succeeding question is more nerve wracking than the previous – yet the clever rabbi answers them all with aplomb and his life and that of his community is spared.

This article was originally published in the BIJ Bulletin January-February 2010 / Tevet-Shevat 5770.

In a Medieval tale the Pope challenges a small town rabbi to a theological duel.  The stakes are the highest imaginable; the loser shall be put to death.  Each succeeding question is more nerve wracking than the previous – yet the clever rabbi answers them all with aplomb and his life and that of his community is spared. 

This fictionalized story tells a version of real events that took place far too often in every place where Jews lived and in almost every historical period. The Jewish community in Diaspora has endured periods of great danger, including the Babylonian exile in which the story of Esther is set, and from which we derive the joyful spring holiday of Purim.

As contemporary Jews who live in a place and time of relative peace and safety we find ourselves in a remarkably fortunate situation. Yet knowing our tumultuous and painful history we cannot take our good fortune for granted!  Therefore, our Jewish community needs to remain perpetually committed to and fully involved in interfaith community relations. 

As a rabbinical student I attended Seminarians Interacting, a program of the National Conference for Communities and Justice (NCCJ), and the experience reverberates as a profound influence in my rabbinate.  Formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the NCCJ is the organization in which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel met and marched arm-in-arm for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and Washington DC.

As Jewish San Franciscans we can take pride in our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) for its tireless effort in keeping Jews safe, visible and engaged in important civic affairs.  The JCRC educates government representatives and business leaders about the remarkable accomplishments of the State of Israel and was also instrumental in the establishment – 20 years ago – of the San Francisco Interfaith Council (SFIC).  It is comforting to know that Jews continue to serve among the Council’s most prominent leaders. 

At the seder table - Photo:  Glazer Family Archives
At the seder table - Photo: Glazer Family Archives

I was introduced to the SFIC during my first year at BIJ when I spoke on an interfaith panel discussing our respective faith perspectives on the religious obligation to alleviate hunger.  Since then I have had the great pleasure of representing BIJ at many SFIF events including disaster preparedness symposia, interfaith meetings at St. Mark’s Cathedral, a monthly Women Faith Leaders group, the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast (at which our Cantorial soloist David Morgenstern joined me this year) and San Francisco’s Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. 

Whether addressing hunger, poverty, marriage equality, homelessness, worker’s rights, health care reform or a myriad of other social concerns, working and serving with clergy and lay leaders of diverse faiths helps us build communities of understanding, increase tolerance for diversity, and aids us in fighting xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.

At a recent videotaping by our teens in our History Alive project, long time member Arthur Becker, who turns 98 on January 4th, told of a 1958 meeting with his brother Charlie Becker and San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. That momentous meeting resulted in the name change of Stanley Drive to Brotherhood Way and forever sealed our fate and that of our neighbors as preservers of religious diversity in San Francisco.  How fortunate we are to be the Jewish community presence on Brotherhood Way and to have BIJ members sitting on the Brotherhood Way Committee. May all of our interfaith community efforts always bear the fruits of Shalom!

BIJ Israel Education & Programming

As part of a NEW Israel Education and Programming Initiative at BIJ, a dialogue, “Exploring our Complex Relationship with Israel,” was convened on Sunday morning February 21st. It was facilitated by Mady Shumofsky of JCRC’s Project Reconnections. The dialogue was terrifically successful and everyone left the workshop wanting more.

This message, written in the early spring of 2010, is being published here for the first time.

As part of a NEW Israel Education and Programming Initiative at BIJ, a dialogue, “Exploring our Complex Relationship with Israel,” was convened on Sunday morning February 21st. It was facilitated by Mady Shumofsky of JCRC’s Project Reconnections. The dialogue was terrifically successful and everyone left the workshop wanting more.

A dozen BIJ members met in the Fireside Room for two hours and shared their diverse views and experiences in a thoughtful, respectful and attentive exchange.  While the structure of the dialogue initially felt a bit stifling, it enabled us to speak freely on an issue we all agree is probably one of the most sensitive and potentially divisive issues of our lifetimes.   

Participants expressed a unanimous interest in further exploring their questions and concerns about Israel in the context of our BIJ community.  They requested that there be more dialogues like this one – possibly a series of dialogues next year with a group of committed participants who’d attend all six or eight sessions. I am seeking funding for these and should have more information this summer.

I also hosted a conversation with parents to discuss the ways we speak about Israel with our children and to uncover the values and concerns that shape these discussions.  We read When the Shark and the Fish First Met written by Gilad Shalit (Israeli POW) when he was only eleven years old and illustrated by a host of Israeli artists.  The parents meeting on Sunday morning March 21st was lively and animated.  We parted with a question about the pedagogical approach we should take and the extent to which Israel education should be included in our Youth and Family Program at BIJ.  This is something parents suggested we address more fully in the context of a future YFP meeting.

Several BIJ members who would like to see more Israel related programming at BIJ are exploring approaches we might take to continue our learning since we.  Suggestions include:

1)      An Israel Reading Group designed to help us gain a greater understanding of the modern history of Israel and Palestine and develop a common language for speaking about Israel.

2)      An Israel News & Views Group that would distribute and discuss timely articles about Israel and Palestine.  There would be advance distribution of the readings and an agreement to only speak about them in real time in order to avoid inflammatory exchanges that can sometimes erupt over email.

3)      An Israel Events Group that would attend local events and meet afterward for tea and discussion. Some folks may want to see the brand new film BUDRUS featured on the front page of the NY Times on April 7th.  Co-directed by Ronit Avni BURDUS describes the growth of a Palestinian unarmed movement in the West Bank. It screens in May at the SF International Film Fest at the Kabuki Theater and Ms. Avni will be there for a Q&A. 

4)      An Israel Programming Group – To work together to bring more Israel related speakers, events and programming to BIJ. We have had many such speakers and events at BIJ in the past and are in conversation with three or four speakers to present at Friday night services or on a Sunday morning in the Fall of 2010.

I will be in Israel twice during the upcoming months (April & June/July) and will be telling stories about my travels at Erev Shabbat services following each trip.  The first report back will be at services on Friday May 14th at 7:30 PM and will be followed by a discussion of the proposed ideas for our new group(s). The second date will be announced at the end of the summer.

Aside from the Facilitated/Structured Dialogue which is a separate program in itself, all ideas could fold into one group with a critical mass of interested participants. Interested in getting more involved?  Call Michael Pastor at michaelcpastor@gmail.com.

The Mitzvah of Making Minyan

“When we speak the name of someone who has died, it’s like bringing a part of their soul back to life.”

A Minyan of Mt. Airy Women
A Minyan of Mt. Airy Women

This article was originally published in the BIJ Bulletin March-April 2010 / Adar-Nisan 5770.

“When we speak the name of someone who has died, it’s like bringing a part of their soul back to life.”

I was surprised to hear this comment from a confirmation student whose theology is otherwise pretty eclectic, because his sentiments affirm those of many traditional Jewish commentators.

Every faith tradition memorializes their beloved deceased with practices that keep memories and spirits alive.  In tribal communities, burial sites and cemeteries are visited in sacred pilgrimage. Long standing memorial practices and rituals connect individuals, families and communities with those who are no longer physically present in the world.

In this regard Jewish tradition is not unique.  Many congregations, BIJ included, announce the names of the recently departed and read a yahrzeit list before reciting Kaddish.  Mourners recite Kaddish for eleven months and annually at yahrzeit. We light memorial candles. We give tzedakah. We pray Yizkor on the festivals and on Yom Kippur.  We host a Kiddush or oneg Shabbat and drink a bittersweet l’chaim.  We gather to study a passage of Torah, Mishna, Talmud or other sacred text and enjoy a celebratory meal on the yahrzeit of great communal leaders and teachers.

While Judaism provides an elaborate structure of memorial practices, ours is not at all a culture of death.  At its core, Jewish tradition is life affirming. The recitation of Kaddish may permit survivors a moment to remember their beloved deceased, but the prayer speaks of radical awe in this miraculous and eternal moment. 

Furthermore, the underlying power of Kaddish is not merely in the instant of remembrance, but in the building and preservation of community. That a minyan is required to recite it is not a mere halakhic legalism. Minyan allows us to sustain and perpetuate community.  It is as essential to the mourner as it is to the thirteen year old who becomes a bat or bar mitzvah. Minyan holds the collective social force of critical mass.  In essence, minyan is synonymous with community. This is why so many Hassidic tales extol the virtue of being the tenth person and honor those who fulfill the mitzvah of ‘making minyan.’

Congregations are often identified by their rabbis but rabbis do not and cannot constitute a community.  As our Cantorial soloist David Morgenstern recently reminded me, “Nine rabbis do not make a minyan, but ten ordinary Jews do!”  Beyond the walls of the shtetl it is just short of impossible to find a Jew in the street to make a minyan.  Since liberal Jews are less compelled to fulfill ritual mitzvot, the community must rely upon the individual Jew’s call to conscience.

In truth, our actions belie our values and beliefs. While Judaism’s focus on mitzvot makes it seem as if a higher value is placed on deed than creed, the two, in fact, work in tandem. Each time we respond to the spiritual imperative – each time we respond to the call by showing up and saying – Hineni, I am here – we affirm our community.

 The Irish philosopher George Berkeley questioned whether something ceases to exist if nobody is around to perceive it.  He was clearly on to something! The only way a name spoken before Kaddish will bring an aspect of that person’s soul to life is if we are present to hear it.

Dedication – Avram Yehudi Leib z’l (my great-grandfather)

When I decided to become a rabbi, I asked my mother what my great grandfather Avram Yehudi Leib would have thought. She said, “Two things. He would have been very very proud. And very confused.”

Avram Yehudi Leib, my great grandfather When I decided to become a rabbi, I asked my mother what my great grandfather Avram Yehudi Leib would have thought. She said, “Two things. He would have been very very proud. And very confused.”

Shavuot, Healthcare Reform, and the Just Society

As we approached Pesach this year and swallowed our remaining crumbs of hametz, we witnessed US history in the making. On March 23, 2010 voices of celebration were heard across our nation as President Barack Obama signed the new healthcare legislation into law. Despite acts of violence perpetrated by misguided individuals against courageous legislators – healthcare reform and social justice advocates recognized and rejoiced in the powerful impact that this historic legislation would have on our lives as Americans. It was a shehecheyanu moment.

This article was first published in the BIJ Bulletin, May-June 2010 / Iyar-Sivan 5770.

As we approached Pesach this year and swallowed our remaining crumbs of hametz, we witnessed US history in the making.  On March 23, 2010 voices of celebration were heard across our nation as President Barack Obama signed the new healthcare legislation into law.  Despite acts of violence perpetrated by misguided individuals against courageous legislators – healthcare reform and social justice advocates recognized and rejoiced in the powerful impact that this historic legislation would have on our lives as Americans.  It was a shehecheyanu moment.

The purpose of the rule of law, whether civil or religious, is to build a society where corruption, violence, greed and self interest are kept in check and compassion, human dignity, duty and justice can prevail.  When ‘the enemy of the perfect is the good,’ only clear vision and decisive action by committed leaders will effect necessary legal change in society. 

According to Midrash on the festival of Shavuot when the Sacred Law (Torah) was offered to the Israelites at the foot of Sinai, they did not first probe and pick at its faults.  Rather they accepted this gift as a sacred covenant. Now a free people this would replace the rule of tyranny under which they had lived for four centuries as slaves in Mitzrayim.  Over the millennia as the Jewish community lived the laws of Torah into reality, it has been interpreted and shaped for practical application to daily, communal life.  And it continues to evolve, as will our new healthcare legislation. 

The mitzvah of protecting the stranger, the orphan and the widow – ger, yitom v’almanah – is repeated over and over ad nauseum in Torah.  Our ancestors obviously knew that a just society is measured by the degree to which it protects its most vulnerable citizens. Hence,  they selected of the Book of Ruth, a visionary narrative that demonstrates the highest values of Torah in action, as the central text Shavuot.  As we study Torah and Megilat Ruth this Shavuot let us commit to our part in building a more just society.

Thanks David!

Todah Rabbah David Morgenstern for being my web whiz and for getting this blog going!  David has his own wordpress blog called kavvanotes. Check it out!

Update: David’s sudden death early in the morning May 4, 2015 / 15 Iyar, 5775 has left a deep hole in my heart. My Cantorial Soloist for my entire tenure at BIJ (filling in and then taking the role for himself), musical partner on the pulpit and educational collaborator he was a truly amazing friend and colleague. I can only offer words of condolence and comfort to his wife Inara, daughter Ariela (Marc), brother Jamie (Linda), sister Ann (Jeffrey), nieces Dara and Rebecca the extended Morgenstern Family, his Friends and Community.  Funeral services were held on Wednesday, May 6 at Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco. We will miss your kindness, brilliance and gorgeous voice. You can never be replaced!

David Morgenstern, A man of many talents!
David Morgenstern, A man of many talents! Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, Hanukkah 5770