Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Happy is the One Who is Anxious Always - September 2017

Happy is the one who is anxious always, as the one who hardens the heart falls into misfortune.
  • Proverbs 28:14

[Having completed 18 years with Temple Sholom - and looking forward to the next 18, I thought I would take this year to reflect back on a life with this congregation.  As I am also turning 50 this year, it made sense to look at the Book of Proverbs.  Rabbinic legend ascribes three books to King Solomon, the wisest of kings: Song of Songs to his youth; Ecclesiastes to his later years; and Proverbs to his middle age.]

After ten years at Temple Sholom, I took a look back at both where I and the congregation had travelled.  At that point, in 2009, we has successfully sold our building in Plainfield, found a temporary home at the Fanwood Presbyterian Church, and raised almost enough money (we thought) to build a new building.  For me, I realized that I had moved from being the new rabbi at the synagogue - who needed to ask everyone else about its history and customs - to finally having some wisdom and perspective.  As I looked back, I focussed on one accomplishment during my tenure - that Temple Sholom had become, in the parlance of the Jewish organizational world, a learning congregation.  The term had been coined by Dr. Isa Aron of Hebrew Union College, through the Experiments in Congregational Education (ECE) project.  The term did not mean that the members of the congregation all came to adult education classes, but rather that the leadership of the congregation was in a place that encouraged meaningful innovation that fit the needs, goals, and vision of the congregation.  Simply put, we had become self-reflective.  We no longer only made changes to fix what was broken; we tried new experiments - some of which worked, and some of which did not - because we wanted to be more than ok; we wanted to be better.  Ten years earlier, when I had wanted to bring the congregation into the ECE project, I was told we needed to meet a criteria of readiness.  ECE could tell us what readiness was, but it had not yet learned how to tell us to get there.  Ten years later, we were there.

As in congregations, so in our personal lives.  Proverbs says the one who is always anxious is happy - it seems that Jewish neurosis is thousands of years older than Woody Allen.  The second half of the verse explains that the opposite of this anxiety is hard-heartedness - unwillingness to change.  Anxiety, in this context, is the drive to do better; to not rest content, but to push ourselves to take the risks to make ourselves better.

In the midst of the month of Elul - the month in which we are expected to begin the process of t’shuvah - of repentance; of turning back to the right path, we are called to be learning individuals; to be self-reflective; to be anxious.  We have constructed a liturgy, different from the rest of the year, that keeps us uncertain, on the edge, anxious, in order to push ourselves to do the hard work to make ourselves better.

This year, our congregation has a new machzor- the CCAR’s new High HolyDay prayerbook - MIshkan haNefesh - the meeting tent of the soul.  The book is designed to help us engage in the process of t’shuvah- of challenging ourselves to make our lives better; to live better - more in the way that we challenge ourselves to be.  The Cantor and I are anxious.  It is our first time leading out of this new book.  We hope that you will be anxious as well - that the new and familiar, but a little different, liturgy will disturb you just enough to make your t’shuvah that much deeper, that much more meaningful, that much more self-reflective.

May we truly have a good year - just anxious enough to keep us moving things in the right direction - the direction of peace, of love, of a better world for us all.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Thursday, June 1, 2017

We Bring Holiness by Giving and Doing - Summer 2017

At Mitzvah Day this past month, our religious school students and families featured the tzedakah and hands-on social justice projects that they had worked on all trimester.  The trimester theme was Holiness through Action and, as a congregation, we studied how Judaism commands us to bring holiness into the world by thinking of those around us.

The primary body that our congregation has created to help us in this endeavor is our Social Action Committee.  The mission statement of that committee - as ratified in 2008 - says:

A basic tenet of our religion is that Judaism is moral and progressive, ever seeking to foster reason, justice and righteousness.
It is in our teachings that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore all human life is sacred. Furthermore, we revere all of God’s creations and recognize our human responsibility for the protection and preservation of our environment and world. Our Torah, teachings and prayers compel us to strive for the betterment of ourselves and  those around us.
Social Action means helping. We do this through Tzedakah  (giving of funds), G’milut Chasidim (directly helping through our actions), and Tikkun Olam (advocating for fairness and justice.)
These being our guiding principles, we at Temple Sholom are involved with numerous programs for the needy. It is our challenge to continue and expand that involvement so that all in our Temple Community may participate. Furthermore it is our goal to instill in our youth the importance and value of Social Action. It is also our challenge to ensure that the wider community feels the tangible benefits of Social Action at Temple Sholom.

  While there is always more we can do, we have made a good start with g’milut chasadim - whether through our meatloaf drives, Habitat for Humanity days, or, once again, housing the homeless.  Our new chapter of Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey, having held a successful educational forum about New Jersey government, and sent a delegation the RJVofNJ lobby day in Trenton, is well on its way to strengthening the voice of our advocacy.  For Tzedakah, the plethora of baskets in our lobby show, the families we adopt at Christmas, are just some of the examples of how we give.  (If you are interested in helping out with the Social Action Committee, it is re-forming over the summer. Watch for more information.)

Tzedakah is a core Jewish concept - not just giving to others in need, but also supporting our own community.  Our new income model for the Temple relies on members giving what they have to build the community we want.  While we will no longer be having fundraisers or a Kol Nidrei appeal, there will still be many opportunities to contribute to specific programs or funds in the congregation, in a traditional Jewish manner - the tribute.

There are many times in the Jewish calendar - yearly or lifecycle - that carry an expectation of giving.  At happy or sad occasions, it is traditional not only for friends to make donations in honor or memory of the event, but also for families to make donations as well.  Like many congregations, we take tribute donations to the dedicated funds from friends, comforters and well-wishers.  The office will then send a tribute card to those for whom the donation is made, so both parties can feel good about what they have made possible.

The back of each Temple Topics contains a list of the various funds that are available for donation.  You may notice that there is no fund (as of yet) for scholarships for camp for our children.  It has been my practice to offer scholarships from my discretionary fund.  This year, however, I have had a much larger than usual number of requests.  On the one hand, I am glad that so many of our families want to send their children to live in an immersive Jewish environment over the summer.  On the other hand, the fund has become depleted.  So, here is the ask, for those of you who personally know the value of Jewish camping for you, or your children, or would like to help children in the congregation go to camp, please consider making a donation for that purpose to the Temple Sholom Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.  Your donation is needed to help make sure that we continue to raise up new generations of Jewishly engaged adults and families - and it is truly appreciated.

Thank you - I hope to see you at our Shabbat ShaBBQ on Friday, June 30th, or on any one of our relaxing summer Shabbat services.  

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Let's Get to Work - April/May 2017

Rabbi Tarfon would say: “The day is short.  The tasks multiply. The workers are lazy. The reward is great.  And, the boss is impatient.” [And he would continue] “It is not upon you [alone] to complete the task, but you are not free to exempt yourself from it [either].” - Pirkei Avot 2:14-15

I have always contended that the sages of the Mishnaic period, who wrote the texts that became the Pirke Avot, around 2,000 years ago, were about as pragmatic as we could hope for.  The aphorisms that make up the zeitgeist of the rabbinic world are sometimes deep [Ben Zoma - Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone else.]; sometimes compassionate [Hillel - Do not judge your neighbor until you have stood in their place]; and sometimes consciously ironic [Shimon Ben Gamliel - I have spent my life at the feet of the Sages, and have learned that nothing is better than silence.]  In most cases, their pithy phrasing can be easily applied to the world in which we live and the decisions with which we struggle.

When faced with challenges - whether personal or political - many of us try hard, but are often discouraged.  We ask if we can really make a difference, and place ourselves at the beginning of Rabbi Tarfon’s quote above.  There isn’t enough time.  There’s so much work.  No one wants to help.  I don’t want to do it, no matter what they pay me.  And, my boss has unrealistic expectations.  To summarize, there is no way to do everything that is asked of us, that we ask of ourselves, that we will ever change things.  To this, Rabbi Tarfon answers, “Nobody said you had to finish it.”  We breathe a sigh of relief. It's not our job.  Someone else will do it.  But, he finishes,”But you can’t drop the ball, either.”

As with most rabbinic dicta, there are two sides balancing each other, and our job is to either find which side we need at the moment, or find some kind of balance.  We should not be discouraged by the daunting tasks we face, and if we think we cannot accomplish all our dreams, then we may be right.  However, we need to take up our small piece of the task, that generations before have begun, and it make take generations to come to finish.

Rabbi Tarfon could have laid out his advice in the opposite order: We have to engage in the task, even if there is not enough time and the work is ever greater.  Instead he lays out all the objections first.  Then comes the kicker.  Despite it all, we still have responsibility.

The underlying message of the text is that there are others to help us in the work.  If the responsibility rests not only on our shoulders it still rest collectively on the many shoulders of those around us.  We owe the work not only to ourselves and our sense of what is right, but all to those who stand around us. We cannot expect them to do the work without us; we must all pitch in.

The next task, then is to determine what our tasks are.  What are the ways that we, as a community, feel compelled to engage the world.  Often, we have different ideas of the solutions, or even the methods to reach solutions, but we agree on most of the goals.  If it was only one person’s responsibility, they could choose the means and the solution.  Since we must work together with other - we must work together with others.

In the past few months, we have talked about political divisions within our community, and what it means to our conversation.  Conversation is only the beginning - a necessary start to the tasks that do fall upon us all. As we study this trimester holiness in our actions, and head into our congregational Mitzvah Day in May, let us have the important conversations that gets us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  As a congregation, we have shown ourselves to be ready to do the hands-on social justice work - of housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Let’s continue to hold ourselves to the standard of Rabbi Tarfon, and get to work.

Rabbi Joel N Abraham

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Be Wise, Make Friends - March 2017

Ben Zoma Omer - Eizeh hu chacham? Halomeid mikol ha-adam.
Ben Zoma would say, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.”  - Pirkei Avot 4:1

Most Americans get their news from on-line sources.  More millennials get their news from comedy shows that network news shows. A majority of Fox News viewers think CNN makes up the news.  A majority of CNN viewers think Fox makes up the news.  Readers of the New York TImes are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. Readers of the Wall Street Journal are more likely to vote Republican than Democratic.  

I made all that up.  It could be true, but I did not bother to do any research.  After all, it is much less time consuming to just write something down than to lay down a reasoned argument  - since people will already have decided to believe what you are saying based on whether they perceive you agree with them or not.

Perhaps it is trite to say that following social discourse requires a healthy amount of skepticism.  We are always ready to be leery of news or information sources when we think they are biased in the opposite ways that we are.  We are even skeptical of news produced by our own camp’s outlets.  So, all in all, I am not worried about whether or not you have a dose of skepticism, I am worried about the “healthy” part.

Ben Zoma was the zen master of Pirke Avot.  He created aphorisms about archetypes that inverted their expected meaning.  Who is strong?  - Not the one who can lift mighty objects, but the one who has mastery over his/her own inclinations to do wrong.  Who is rich?  Not the one with the most possessions, but, rather, the one who content with whatever it is they already have.  And, who is wise?  Not the one who has achieved the pinnacle of knowledge, but rather the one who realizes that there is something to be learned from everyone else.

Study after study decries the tendency to limit one’s social media voices to those who are in agreement with one’s own political views.  (I actually heard that on the radio; I did not make it up.)  Those who listen to different voices are better adjusted; more able to cope with life.  However, listening to different opinions and voices is only a first step. Hearing them leads to the next step - understanding.  It takes effort, and sometimes a willingness to wade through a lot of invective, to go past what someone says, and even thanking them for saying it, to engaging in a conversation to find out what they mean, and why they are saying it.  We often congratulate ourselves for having friends with differing views, but are we truly friends if we focus on what is different, rather than what is in common?

The Temple received a Better Together grant from a well-respected Jewish organization to engage in a project to bring together Jewish teens and senior citizens, to learn from each other. We broadened the grant - to bring in a parallel cohort of African-American teens and seniors.  During one of our conversations, we asked each participant if they could think of a time when they had been influenced to change their own behavior.  Each and every incidence (except for one participant who had decided to become a vegetarian because she saw a video) was rooted in a conversation and a relationship.  People do not modify their views because of a good argument; they are influenced by those they have come to know and, therefore, to trust.

So, in this time of increased finger-pointing and divisiveness, let us make a choice for wisdom.  Let us learn from Ben Zoma that we are not the source of our own wisdom, others are.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Take a Break - February 2017

Six years you shall sow your fields, and six years prune your vines, and gather the produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a sabbath of sabbaths - a Shabbat to God: You will not sow your field; you will not prune your vines. Lev. 25:3-4

Some sabbatical reflections: Almost eight years ago, as I began my second decade with Temple Sholom, the congregation gave me the ability to take some sabbatical time.  Taking a whole year off seemed daunting to a moderate-sized congregation, so we arranged that I would be able to take a cumulative six months over the five years of that contract, avoiding B’nei Mitzvah and major Temple events.  I ended up taking a month here and there - usually in the summer months, or December to January.  Because of Temple needs, one month of those six ended up in this current contract, and now I have completed, over eight years, the six months of rest.  Since I am grateful to the congregation for this opportunity, I thought I would share some of my thoughts, looking backward and forward.

At the beginning, my goals for sabbatical were three-fold.  Based on the text above, one primary goal was rest - a chance not to be on-call, or concerned about what was happening next.  But rest, in and of itself, seemed just to be a vacation, and a second goal was to see what arose from “lying fallow” - seeing what might sprout without careful tilling and tending.  To be able to see things in a different way, I tried to visit other congregations and even other religion’s services, but also just to take time to observe and re-examine old assumptions.  Third, I wanted to be able to take some time to study.  The more I learn, the more I can share, but study time often gets lost in the press of day to day.

Looking back, I can see some of the fruits of this time now brought into our congregation.  The ideas of sharing the joys in our week, as well as the sorrows, after we light the candles, came from sabbatical reflection on the nature of our communal worship - as did the time we now cherish when those in mourning share a memory of those they have come to remember at the Mourners’ Kaddish.  Our Hebrew school’s re-focus on helping our children to be “leaders of meaningful (Reform) Jewish worship” came before a sabbatical, but the repercussions were reinforced and expanded in sabbatical reflection.  I also had time to work with some of our larger Reform movement organizations - the Central Conference of American Rabbis on a project to help other rabbis with sabbatical; the Union for Reform Judaism on education at our teen leadership academy at the Kutz Camp; and exploring the concept of creating a Doctor of Ministry in Social Justice at the Hebrew Union College, our seminary.  As to study, I did a little bit of Hebrew brush up guided by Dr. Stanley Nash, but, by and large, the times of sabbatical were not conducive to the academic calendar.

After this month, I have returned with some ideas about how to help congregants fulfill their purposes and find meaning by engaging in the social justice work of their hearts - but more about that in the months to come.  I return from these widely-spaced tastes of sabbatical with gratitude to you, and a hope that, in taking time to let whatever may grow, grow, there are new things to feed our community.  I recognize that not everyone - barely anyone - is able to take extended time away from their careers (by choice) without the worry of continued employment, but I encourage you to take what moments you may - even each week at services - to step back, to let life flow by at its own pace, and to try to see things from a bit of a different angle.  We work so hard to sow and to prune - expecting everything to bloom as we expect.  It rarely does - and there is a gift in discovering what can grow and prosper when we step back and give a little space.

Thank you again.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What is Hateful to You is a Low Bar - January 2017

דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor - Hillel, Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a

The sage Hillel gives this summation when asked to describe the entire Torah to someone seeking to convert to Judaism by learning everything necessary while standing on one foot.  Hillel’s rival, Shammai sends the person away, but Hillel summarizes the Torah with this phrase, concluding “This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.  Now go and learn it.”

Let’s take this moment to engage in commentary.  For much of my life, I have admired this statement of Hillel’s, mainly for its practicality, in comparison with the contemporary New Testament’s phrasing of the Golden Rule - “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  As a smart aleck child, I would say, I want someone to give me a million dollars, but I can’t give them a million dollars.  Hillel’s phrasing seemed more do-able.  I could certainly avoid engaging in behavior that I would not want done to me.

Lately, however, I have come to see that Hillel’s ideal falls short of what we need in our modern world.  The phrase embodies sympathy - we project our feelings on the other person, and feel for them.  I would argue that we are called to empathy  - not to project ourselves, but the reverse - to imagine how that person feels themselves, not as we would wish them to feel.  I would take Hillel a step further - “What is hateful to your neighbor, do not do to them.”

Perhaps this seems common sense.  It would be foolish not to give your neighbor a loaf of bread because you are allergic to gluten; or even to share with them your favorite cheese pizza if they are lactose intolerant.  However, there is difficulty in achieving this more lofty goal.  We know what is hateful to us; we do not need to do any research.  To know what is hateful to our neighbor, we have to know them.  We have to engage in dialogue and get to know what they value and what they loathe.  We cannot guess what is hateful to our neighbor; we must take the time to find out.

I bring this understanding to the current debate about “political correctness”.  I would define political correctness in the following way- everyone has the right to not be called by a name that causes them pain.  If a native American objects to being called an Indian, then what right do I have to tell them that it should not bother them?  If someone of African-American descent wants to be called Black, or of color, or however they choose to identify, I owe them as a fellow human being the right to name themselves.  And, if such a name or identification used in another place, such as a team name or mascot, then I should empathize and feel the echo of the pain that they feel.

We have engaged in this research in many ways at Temple Sholom.  We have invited those without homes into our synagogue home and asked them what they need.  Our JU teenagers have gone to visit the local Muslim community center, to get to know students their own age, but of a different faith.  Our older teens are taking part in a Better Together project to hear about the experiences of African-American peers, Jewish seniors, and their peers as well.

All the rest is commentary - and what we have taken upon ourselves as the inheritors of Judaism, is to continue the conversation and the commentary.  As Samuel Holdheim, the radical Reformer of the 19th century said, the Talmud was right for the ideology of its time, and I am right for the higher ideology of mine.  We have come to understand that names do cause harm. How can we do anything else than empathize - and not do what is hateful to our neighbor?

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Friday, November 4, 2016

Chasing Peace - November/December 2016

Rabbi’s Column - November/December 2016 - Chasing Peace

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה:
Hillel would say, “Be like the students of Aaron (the brother of Moses): Love peace and pursue peace, love all of creation, and bring people near to Torah.” Pirke Avot 1:12

By the time you read these words, the election of 2016 will (probably) be over.  That makes prediction very difficult.  However, regardless of the outcome, our country will need to come together.  At this point, most people are counting down the days until after the election.  However, just reaching November 9th will not solve any of the problems that have arisen in this bitter political season.  Although there may be no more political ads on TV, your e-mail inbox may not refill each day with requests for donations, and there will be no more televised debates, the aftermath of the election will be more than the healing that needs to come from hurtful rhetoric, but the realization of the actual issues that we may have, naively, thought were behind us.  Peace is not the absence of conflict; peace is easing the pain and suffering of all.

We often ask just for a moment of peace and quiet - as if a cessation of noise would make all the bad things go away. In fact, we often return to the real world to find that things have boiled over in our absence, and that there is more tension rather than less.  When Hillel, above, spoke of peace, he did not mean the peace that we find with a pillow over our heads, but the peace that comes when agitation is actually lessened.

In the past year, we have seen open anti-Semitism, class conflict, tensions between native US citizens and immigrants, fear of Muslims, and a demonization of our political structure.  The end of the election is not the end of these important feelings  - which we must confront to overcome.  Government is actually one of the chief means that we have, in our democracy, to address these issues.  If we settle for the peace of not thinking about Congress between elections, we remove our heads from the sand to find things have only gotten worse.  We need to talk to our politicians not when they are coming to us and asking for our votes (and our money), but when they are sitting in Washington.  If we want our government to be responsive to the people, we need to respond to our government - not just during the political season.

The challenge for us, as of November 9th, is to let our elected officials know that, whether we voted for them or not, they are still our representatives - that we expect them to work, not to posture.  We want them to meet with the people across the aisle, and come to deals that make none of us overjoyed, but bring different sides of the issue together in working for a solution.

Here is how to pursue peace - start with yourself.  After you re-establish the relationships with your friends, family, and co-workers whom you defriended over the past eight months, write a letter to your Congressional representative, your Senator, your President, and even your state Assemblypeople and Senators.  Congratulate them on their victory, then lay out the issues that you think they need to tackle first.  Tell them you want them to speak with people of differing opinions - and to make compromises.  Tell them you want to stay in the loop, and read what they send you.  If you want to go the next step, schedule a visit to their district or Washington/Trenton offices and meet with their staff.

The only hope of peace is the pursuit of peace.  It take effort.  Let us do what we can to restore and rebuild the peace of our nation.  Let us remember to respect all of creation - no matter who they may have voted for, and let us show that we bring people near to Torah by living out the values of Torah in our own lives.

Rabbi Joel N Abraham