Monday, September 21, 2015

Observing Rosh Hashanah 5776

I began leading High Holy Day services during my senior year in high school.  As chief Jewish military chaplain of the Western States, my childhood rabbi in San Francisco who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah, William Dalin, provided Jewish service leaders for every military base in the West. As such he asked me to lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Beale Air Force base about an hour's drive north of Sacramento.  (Beale, I discovered, had originally been a World War II Japanese internment camp.) The congregants would be military personnel and civilians from the local community.  It's hard to imagine that that was 48 years ago!  Except for two years while studying in Jerusalem, I have led HH services every year since.

August and early September inevitably became annual pressure filled times in the Isaak household. Four major sermons, Torah and Haftarah insights and prayer theme explanations to consider and prepare. How would I address the congregation this year? What personal concerns, societal problems, current issues ought to be addressed?  What expressions did the congregants want/need to hear from me. What is the proper balance between conditions of the individual soul and more general concerns of the environment, bigotry and/or challenges confronting Israel and the Jewish people? In addition days and weeks leading up to the High Holy Days also entailed the distributing of High Holiday honors, distributing parts for our teens, preparing Torah scrolls and checking in with Torah readers. Also needing attention at this time of the year are the welcoming of prospective and new members, the beginning of Foundation and religious school and aiding in general program planning for the academic year.    

This year would be different.  With Rabbi David Kosak now at the helm following my retirement, Carol and I decided we would become sitting in the pew congregants, joining our children and grandchildren at Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn.  After many years of complaining that she could never sit with her husband in shul, this year would be different. Marissa and Daniel with their two children occupy a postage stamp sized apartment, so after exploring airb&b, I rented a room in an apartment within walking distance.  Our son Gabriel and his family in Manhattan joined us for a joyous Shabbat dinner.

We had visited Kane Street Synagogue just a few months ago when we named our newest grandchild, Louise.  When I called Sam Weintraub, Kane Street's rabbi, to let him know that we were coming and to check how we might procure tickets if that was wasn't, he suggested that I might enjoy their alternative service at the Friend's School held a few blocks away.  Marissa assured me that that was also their preferred venue.

In a small rectangular space with a capacity of no more than 150 max, we gathered for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Clearly the attraction is a young man named Joey Weisenberg.  Though neither ordained rabbi nor cantor, Joey welcomes all with a warm smile.  Clearly he knows traditional nusach, but it is what he does with the nusach and the easy to join-in nigunim that create a truly masterful experience. There was a time when I would somewhat disparagingly refer to what Joey does as "yubba bubba", but I found there a sweetness and a genuine spirituality, a term I generally shy away from, that I found very attractive.  Though the main service began first and second day at 8:45am, Joey's service started at 7:45am!  (Rabbi Weintraub told me at Tashlich that years ago Joey could not understand why anyone would object to a RH service that would run past 3pm.  Therefore the early start.)

The service contained no English readings, no introductions to Torah or Haftarah portions, no explanations of specific prayers or parts of the service. A congregant offered a brief Dvar Torah/Sermon.  Pages were indicated on the front wall. Joey and a small group of his "hasidim" stood around the Amud in the center of the room, adding  creative percussion that supported the singing. Clearly this is not a service for everyone.  I suspect it attracted some of the most knowledgeable congregants.  What also enhanced the service was the large number of young families with young children.  Our children Marissa and Daniel with their three and five month olds were typical.

Employing the marvelous new Lev Shalem Makhzor, we skipped not a page.  Some might mistake the complete liturgy for an Orthodox service, but it was unmistakenly egalitarian: female as well as male Torah and Haftarah readers, honorees, gabbaim, etc.  

We will return for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services before returning home the next day to enjoy our Sukkot observance.  

Joey Weisenberg takes his magic on the road, visiting various communities as Shabbat scholar in residence. He has much to teach in creating a lively, participant engaged religious experience.  I would certainly strongly encourage bringing Joey to Neveh Shalom.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

We Are All Refugees...

Note: Carol's photographic opening from previous blog post was Thursday evening.  The post was only published on Friday.

The great migration of Jews fleeing Eastern European persecution occurred between 1875 and 1915, when over 2,500,000 Jews arrived on these shores.  This was a time with few if any immigration restrictions.  "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

I on the other hand am a first generation American.  My extended family struggled to discover avenues of escaping Nazi Germany, and doors which would open for them. They were few and far between.  My father who never completed high school made his way to Palestine alone as a 17 year old in 1937.  My mother, too old at 16 to qualify on her own for the Kindertransport, was nevertheless allowed to accompany her younger brother to England. There the family who took her in treated her as a maid. Subject to food rationing in Germany, she often talked about eating bread crusts that her host family threw in the garbage.  My aunt, my father's sister was on one of the boats that returned the Hamburg, finding no port in the new world affording disembarkation to any of its desparate refugees.  She eventually escaped with her mother, my paternal grandmother, though Italy to freedom.  My maternal great grandmother was shipped off to Theresienstadt, the supposed model concentration camp.  She survived when she and others were traded for trucks... My maternal grandmother was gassed on a train.  When Carol decided to collect a family medical history of my father's 33 (!) aunts and uncles, I learned for the first time how many never made it out.

It is with this personal history and the larger Jewish experience of fleeing persecution and antisemitism that I see in the eyes of Syrian, Iraqi, East African, Central American refugees familiar faces.  And so must we all.  These are the faces of fear and despiration.  We must not let them die at sea, or languish aimlessly for months and years in refugee camps.

We must open our arms and find ways for them to house, feed and educate their children. These are extraordinary times, requiring extraordinary selflessness and governmental generosity and creativity.  The selfishness of a Donald Trump who demonstrates no compassion for the undocumented and others of his ilk must be roundly condemned and rejected.

These are helpless human beings, struggling against evil forces not of their making.  Let us open our hearts to their plight and afford them the dignity they deserve.      

Friday, September 4, 2015

"We Will Not Negotiate Out of Fear, But We Will Not Fear to Negotiate" (JFK Innaugural address 1961)

I write from Boston where tonight I will celebrate my wife's photography exhibit opening at the Griffin Museum. During the day Carol and I made our way to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

The quote above from Kennedy's famous inaugural address struck me as particularly poignant during this week when America's approval of the Iran nuclear deal was guaranteed.  34 Senators all Democrats including our own Jeff Merkley vowed that they would not override the President's veto, guaranteeing passage. I hope Senator Ron Wyden will decide to join them, for if that number of Senators reaches 41, the agreement will not even require Obama's veto. (If I am not mistaken the vote is not to approve the agreement, which is not required since this is not a treaty. However the vote is actally to agree to drop the sanctions against Iran implemented originally by Congress, a stipulation required by the agreement.)

I am personally exceedingly pleased that the international agreement will take effect. I am convinced that it will be shown to be in American as well as Israel's best interest.  If the US did not approve, nothing would prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons immediately, completing the project within months.  Iran would also receive most of the money that is in escrow, because it is being held by foreign governments. Only American sanctions would remain in place. That of other nations would be removed.  Contrary to the opinion of nay sayers, there was no better international agreement in the offing.

Yes, PM Netanyahu's vehement opposition was to be considered. And if I were the only one who favored the agreement, I would have had to consider why. However three polls demonstrated that a majority of American Jews supported the deal.  Early in the process I signed on to a list of American rabbis in support of the deal which grew to over 425 names.
Israeli intelligence officers, heads of the Shin Bet, overseers of Israeli security, claimed this deal was the best guarantee to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for at least 10 to 15 years. And today scores of Israeli generals, colonels, admirals and heads of branches of Israeli security published their support in a full page New York Times ad.

 I agreed to join a delegation from J Street to encourage the Oregon congressional delegation to vote in favor. While J Street spearheaded this effort, they proved to be not the only Jewish organization to support it.

I believe that PM Netanyahu made a serious miscalculation.  Rather than take on the Obama administration, he should have appealed for greater guarantees from the US and European governments should there be reason to believe Iran was cheating. Israel could have asked for determination as to what will happen at the end of 10 or 15 years.  Now there is need for serious repair in the most serious rupture in US-Israel relations in Israel's 67 year history.

Kennedy's promise was prophetic.  We will not negotiate with our enemies or antagonists out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.  The alternative brings not only death and destruction, but inevitably unknown consequences.