Friday, December 1, 2017

Keep It Civil (But Not Necessarily Secular) - December 2017


אַל־תָּרֹוב עִם־אָדָ֣ם חִנָּ֑ם אִם־לֹ֖א גְמָלְךָ֣ רָעָֽה׃
Al tariv im adam chinam, im lo gamalcha ra’ah.
Do not trump up an argument with someone, if they have not done you any harm. - Proverbs 3:30

Two classic stories about synagogues:

The new rabbi comes to town.  The first Shabbat that she is leading services, half the congregation stands up for the sh’ma and half the congregation sits.  Immediately, an argument breaks out.  “What are you doing?  The new rabbi is here.  Stand up like you’re supposed to!”  “What do you mean, we have always sat for the sh’ma. What kind of an apikouros (heretic) are you?”  Before the congregation can come to blows, the rabbi tries to engage them in a conversation about the minhagim (traditions) of the congregation.  One half says they have always remained seated for the sh’ma, the other half says the opposite.  No matter whom the rabbi asks, no one has a definitive answer that the others will accept.  Finally, they send the rabbi to the house of the oldest member of the congregation, one of the founders, who has just reached his 100th birthday.  The rabbi asks him, “What is the real minhag of the congregation?  Do we stand for the sh’ma?”  The senior member shakes his head, “I don’t remember that.”  “Do we sit for the sh’ma?”  The senior member shakes his head, “I don’t remember that either.”  “You have to know.  Otherwise, they’ll keep shouting and each other and arguing all the way through the service.”  The senior member’s eyes light up, “Ah, now that’s what I remember.”

Second story - a person goes seeking the famous atheist of L’vov.  She reaches the town and goes to the local tavern, the market, the library, and all the places she can think to look. Finally, out of desperation, she goes to the least likely building in town, she thinks, to find an atheist: the synagogue.  There, of course, is where the famous atheist can be found.  Dumbfounded, she asks him why he would be in the synagogue, of all places.  Is he coming to speak to God?  “No,” he replies.  “Schwartz comes here to speak to God.  I come here to speak to Schwartz.”

One of the unexpected challenges in being the long-term rabbi of a congregation is monitoring and taking responsibility for the tenor of conversation between congregants.  No one wants to be a member of a congregation that is arguing all the time.  Conversely, no one wants to be a member of a congregation where people of differing opinions are not accepted.  Unsurprisingly, being a Reform congregation in a state in the Northeast, most of our members are politically liberal.  However, our diverse congregation includes not only people of different socio-economic levels, backgrounds and educations, but also of differing political beliefs.  Confronting the story of a rabbi who had banned all political discussions in their congregations, we went the opposite direction.  We imagined that, as our sacred space, Temple Sholom should indeed be the place where people can feel safe sharing their opinions, even if they disagree.

Admittedly, we are not there, all the time, yet.  We have created a list of Jewish values that help us respect each other in our conversations (see this column from Summer of last year - http://sholomravtempletopics.blogspot.com/2016/05/ ).  This past election season, dedicated Temple volunteers brought together congregants with widely divergent political views for a potluck meal to watch the gubernatorial debate.  The evening was a great success - and a path forward.  We may not be where we want to be, but we are working hard.  The trick is for all of us to remember - we are all good people, and often believe in the same goals, we just have different ways that we think are the right ways to get there.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sing Unto God, ALL Ye Righteous - Oct/Nov 2017

A house is built by wisdom, and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things - Proverbs 24:2

I believe that one of the things that endeared me to the Temple Sholom search committee way back in 1999 was when I told them that I had grown up at a congregation nearby and knew “New Jersey Reform Judaism”.  For most of my childhood, my father was the rabbi at Temple Beth-El, the next Reform congregation west of Temple Sholom.  While I was growing up, the congregation had, every service, a non-Jewish organist and, for all but our last few years, a non-Jewish soloist, who stood on the bimah next to the rabbi, and sang all the music.  The non-Jewish part is not relevant for their religion, but rather the background. Not knowing Hebrew, she sang the transliteration in much the same way that an opera singer might sing Italian or German - for the sounds rather than the words.  For Classical American Reform, in much of the 20th century, music was performative.  The congregation was allowed to sing along, at certain times, but the purpose of the music was the same as concert attendance - to move and to uplift the listener.  By the 1970’s, the status quo was being challenged by the new folk music coming out of our youth movement (NFTY) and our camps.  The symbol of the classical tradition was the organ and the new style - the guitar.

When I came to Temple Sholom, we still had an organist who played at least once a month at Friday evening services and at every Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Most of those services were held in the large theater-seating sanctuary, because that was where the organ was. Our sanctuary had seating for about three hundred, a raised bimah (with several stairs) and a very imposing architecture.  The acoustics were designed so that the congregation could hear music from the bimah, but not the singing of the congregation.  There was a large organ and even a choir space which was designed (but I do not know if ever used) for the choir to sing, invisible to the congregation, behind a wall with a mesh screen.  At Temple Emanu-El in New York City, the choir and the organist are actually one story up, above the Ark, behind a similar wall.  The worship space was designed to make the congregant an observer more than a participant.

Following trends which pre-dated my tenure, Temple Sholom had already begun to change.  For several years, we had hired student Cantors from Hebrew Union College, who brought not only the formal style of classical Reform Judaism, but the hazzanut of Ashkenazic Orthodoxy, the neo-hasidism of Shlomo Carlebach, and Sephardic tradition, as well as the new Debbie Friedman camp music.  On the non-organist Shabbats, music was either a capella or guitar.  For the High HolyDays, we had a hired (non-member) choir for the High HolyDays, and the guitar was rarely used.  Services had occasionally been held in the old sanctuary, known as the Nathanson chapel, with more informal seating and a (slightly) lower bimah.  I arrived in the summer, and we began to have summer services seated in the round.  As our student cantors were not available during July and August, we mostly sang a capella. The know well-known rule began - when there is no cantor, the congregation has to sing louder to drown out the rabbi.

Now, however, the secret agenda can finally be revealed.  As we were encouraging our new student cantors to bring more and more guitar music into our worship, we began to alternate our worship between the formal sanctuary and the less formal chapel, based on attendance and feel for the service.  When the time came to leave our Plainfield location, we made two important changes.  In our new worship space, we sat in a semi-circle, rather than in straight rows.  Our new student cantor, Shira Nafshi, developed a volunteer congregant choir.  The new choir practiced every week and sang, formally, every month or so.  Here’s the subversive part.  We knew that many of the members of our choir were regular service attendees.  We consciously taught them new music that the congregation could sing.  The most important time the choir sang was not on the monthly Fridays when they led, but every other Friday when they sat mixed in the rest of the congregation and provided an example of joyous voices coming from the membership, not just from the bimah.  Over the time that we spent in rental space, we transformed ourselves from a listening congregation to a singing congregation.  Over time, one of the most important criteria when we interviewed student cantors was their guitar skills and ability to sing with and not over the congregation.  It is no surprise that our current cantor, who sang from childhood in her congregational choir, was also a songleader in our NFTY region. We created a songbook with transliteration, so everyone could sing, regardless of their Hebrew knowledge.  When the time came to design our new building, our acoustics were intentionally designed for the congregation to hear each other sing, as well as to hear the voice of cantor and choir.

As in our Proverbs quote this month, a house of worship is also built by wisdom and meaningful worship is established by understanding - understanding not just of what prayer may be, but how to participate.  At the beginning of each service, the cantor and I work to bring everyone into worship. Our worship philosophy is that everyone should feel invited to participate in whatever way they are comfortable, but that we make the service as accessible as possible. On a Saturday morning, we spend ten to fifteen minutes introducing that unique congregation to our prayerbook, to our music, to our worship. Our B’nei Mitzvah are trained to be leaders of meaningful Jewish worship - and they know that it is a partnership between leaders and congregation.

Growing up in a congregation, in our Reform youth movement, in the music of our camps, my favorite song has always been Debbie Friedman’s “Sing Unto God”.  Here it is, in its original, slightly dated, language.  Thank you for singing with me (and over me) for the past 18 years:

Sing unto God, sing a new song
O sing praises to God, give thanks to Him with a song
O sing praises unto the Lord thy God.
Rejoice in the Lord all ye righteous
And cry out to the Lord with joy
Sing out from your hearts, O sing praises to God.
(Bless His name, O sing unto the Lord a song of prayer
Sing praises to the Lord, sing unto God) (2x)
Sing unto God, sing a new song unto (3x) God,
Sing a new song unto God (3x)
Songwriters: Debbie Friedman
Sing Unto God lyrics © A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing

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