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08/16/2017 01:38:24 PM

Aug16

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Charlottesville

08/16/2017 01:36:43 PM

Aug16

Rabbi Kathy Cohen

Violence once again is in the headlines. This however is a different type of violence. Unlike the gun violence that I have written about previously, this violence is constructed from deep rooted racism and hatred. This violence is about intimidation. This violence is reminescent of Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow South and the anti-Civil Rights movement. Let's be very clear that this violence is really not about Civil War Statues. It is not about "white-washing" history. It is certainly not about freedom of speech, assembly or permits. Charlottesville, I fear, is only the beginning of a new era.

Our country is divided in many ways - certainly we are divided racially religiously and politically. But at a much deeper level we are divided between how we see right and wrong and whether or not we choose to care. There are many in our country who believe that in order to protect their own rights they must diminish the rights of others. They believe that it is basic self-preservation, and they are emboldened by an administration which is morally cloudy, at best.

Jewishly, there can be no ambiguity here. There is no question that there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism loudly chanted by those who came to Charlottesville bent on intimidation. Men in fatigues with guns purposely stood near the Charlottesville Synagogue during Shabbat morning prayers with the sole intent of intimidation and arousing fear. There can be no ambiguity that these hate mongers are dangerous and that they are not interested in peacefully expressing their opinions. One does not show up at a rally with weapons and helmets when the goal is a peaceful demonstration.

Yet, it is not only the anti-Semitism that should bother us. Obviously, there was racial slurs and calls for "white unity". Anyone not a white, anglo-saxon, right-wing, Christian (in the broadest sense of the word) is the subject of their mounting hatred. It appears that history has moved backwards and certainly that we have not learned from the past.

As I watch the videos of the Charlottesville violence, I cannot help but see the likeness to Kristallnacht. Torches, fights, weaponry, a car mowing people down - none of this is new. There are not two equally responsible parties here. There is not an "alt-left". Those who came to protest the march did so because they did not want the expression of hatred and fear mongering to go unanswered. They were their to make the statement that those who seek to malign others are intolerable. It is important to remember that the values espoused by many of the alt-right who came to Charlottesville were the same values that we fought against in WWII. Let us not be led astray by an argument that there were many "sides" each responsible. Maybe a few of the counter-protestors threw the first punch but think how history would have been different if large crowds showed up to protest the Nazis in 1933. I am not advocating violence but there are times when it is the only plausible response.

Where do we go from here? We must make our voices heard. We are taught that we cannot allow Hitler a posthumous victory. in this case it means that we cannot allow hatred to once again rule the earth. Write to papers, talk to people, attend rallies - be a voice for walking in peace with God.

More Gun Violence

06/14/2017 03:51:14 PM

Jun14

Rabbi Kathy Cohen

 

We live in a fractured world and it is getting worse, not better. I used to believe that each day we were working to get closer and closer to Messianic times but I know longer believe that is the case. Civility has taken a hit.

Some say that this is merely part of a pendulum swing that happens every decade or so. I do not think so. Never before has politics on both sides of the fences descended to such a baseless pit. It starts with a lack of basic respect and escalates to ridiculous accusations and then to gun violence.

I am pro-second amendment but all amendments are interpreted. Why is it easier to get guns than a driving license?  I am tired of the mantra that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well ,the reality is that people with guns kill people.

We are a violent, sick society. We do not emphasize that problems should be worked out through conversation, voting, and respecting those who disagree. When it is acceptable to publicly call long time employees “nut jobs” and regularly tweet to millions divisive, derisive comments about others, our country descends further into the abyss.

Today Republicans were shot for being Republican. Last year homosexuals were shot for being homosexual. This list could go on and on. Who will be shot tomorrow for the beliefs that they hold?

We no longer live in the Wild West. It is high time we stand up and demand an end to the bloodshed and an end to easy access to fire arms. Full background checks do not impede the rights of the second amendment. People who are identified a snot being permitted on airplanes should not be permitted to purchase guns. Those with a history of moderate to severe mental illness should not be permitted to purchase a gun without a psychiatrist’s approval. Children should never be able to access guns without an adult present.

In order to say yes to guns and no to violence, we must stand up and demand changes. If you want a gun for recreational purposes (hunting, target shooting, collecting etc.), and you pass a full background check, nothing should stand in your way.  If you feel that you need a gun for protection and you pass a full background check, nothing should stand in your way.

Isn’t safety more important than gun ownership for all?

The words of our mouths

06/07/2017 12:00:00 AM

Jun7

Rabbi Kathy Cohen

In this week's Torah portion Miriam is struck with a skin disease after making derogatory remarks about Moses Cushite wife. "Cushite" is generally thought to refer to Ethiopia or the surrounding area and thus it is believed that Moses' wife was Black. This part of the parasha has always interested me because it is not clear to me what the message is. The Torah states that it was both Aaron and Miriam who spoke against Moses' wife. So, why is Miriam the only one punished? Did they speak out because she was Black? Or was it because she was a non-Israelite? Perhaps it was neither and they just did not like her personality?  There are so many contemporary issues in these few lines!

First let's think about the theology present. Do we believe that God strikes people with illnesses? Are we willing to accept the notion of God as being so involved in each person's life and so punitively oriented that at the first inappropriate word we are struck with illness? Could it be that God did not do this at all and Miriam was simply exposed to an illness that happened at that time? Is this why Aaron escaped "punishment"? Or is this an inherently misogynistic text that punishes a woman when a man deserves equal punishment? A full sermon could be written on each of these questions but for now let's just give the possibilities some thought.

If indeed Miriam and Aaron made racial slurs against Moses' wife this passage may serve as a warning about xenophobia. It seems that in this scenario Aaron and Miriam have forgotten that all people are created in God's image and the color of their skin is immaterial. Perhaps it is for this reason that Miriam came down with a skin disease. Karma - or some Jewish equivalent? It is a sad commentary that until this very day racism remains a societal illness. Can we learn from this story that all people are to treat each other with the inherent respect due to one of God's creations?

Certainly this Cushite woman was a non-Israelite. Were Aaron and Miriam upset that she was not a member of the tribe? Though intermarriage has become much more accepted in today's world, there are still Jews who look down upon those who are "not a member of the tribe" and married to a Jew. We cannot have it both ways - we cannot be accepting of intermarried couples but unaccepting of the Gentile partner. Some people claim that intermarriage lowers our chance of survival. I appreciate their deep love for Judaism and their concern for the Jewish future. However, if interfaith couples are welcomed, supported and completely accepted, they will be more likely to raise their children as Jews. This may, in some ways, strengthen the Jewish people, not lead to our demise. We cannot really influence who our children fall in love with; we can only be supportive and loving. Hopefully that will be enough to have them embrace Judaism.

There is always the possibility that the unkind comments made by Aaron and Miriam simply had to do with a personal dislike of Moses' wife. This is the type of family dysfunction that we see so often. Adult siblings distance themselves because they do not like a particular spouse. It is strange that we hold on to the idea that we must like everyone in our families. Family is about personal community and deep connection. Even when we do not like individuals we are still obligated to treat them with respect and kindness. Miriam's punishment caused her to have to leave city gates and to leave her family. Maybe a taste of her own medicine? By saying words that made Moses' wife feel like an outcast, Miriam literally became an outcast.

Miriam is generally remembered as the righteous woman who was favored by God. A midrash tells us that because of Miriam's kindness God ensured that a well would always be present wherever Miriam stopped in the desert. On Passover we dedicate a special cup of pure water to her. Like all of our heroes, she was human and had very human flaws. Rather than repeat her mistakes we can strive to learn from them and treat all people with the knowledge that they are created in God's image.

Jerusalem Undivided

05/24/2017 12:57:13 PM

May24

Rabbi Kathy Cohen

We are taught that God gave ten measures of beauty to descend to the earth and nine descended upon Jerusalem while the rest of the world received just one. This is not the beauty that the eye beholds but rather the tremendous love that only the soul can grasp. I feel this every time I enter Jerusalem. I have no words to describe it, other than to say that an abiding feeling of holiness envelopes me.

I love Jerusalem. I love its history, it’s present and it’s promise. Touching the Western Wall connects we the generations past who came to this site to reveal the innermost prayers of their hearts. There is a smell and feel to the Old City of Jerusalem that is different than any other place on earth.

I cannot imagine being barred from the ancient city of our ancestors. My Grandmother used to tell me about her trip in 1958 to Jerusalem and how she could only see the Wall through binoculars. She never dreamed that in her lifetime her grandchildren would be able to touch the Wall. Fifty years ago Jewish young men bravely fought to reunify Jerusalem and fulfill the dream of our ancestors. Many gave their lives and to them we are forever indebted.

Jerusalem is not the perfect city. The politics and tensions are difficult. The ultra-orthodox grow in strength and make others feel unwelcome. East Jerusalem is occasionally a hotbed of anti-Israel feeling. Yet, this little imperfect paradise is extraordinarily special.

A few weeks ago I marched with our teens from Safra Square (the governmental center of the New City) to the Western Wall plaza (the spiritual center of the Old City)  as a statement that the city is once again undivided. All are welcome but Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. It is the Capital of Israel and it does not matter one iota where the American embassy is located.

Jerusalem means the “city of peace”. It is not yet the city of peace but I truly believe that when we finally reach that day we will have a true taste on the messianic times. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.”

In Honor of Memorial Day - An Important Story

05/24/2017 12:57:13 PM

May24

Rabbi Kathy Cohen

As we observed Memorial Day yesterday I wanted to share with you the touching and important story of four chaplains who chose to go down with their sinking ship so that others may live.

It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship. The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.

Hans J. Danielsen, the ship’s captain, was concerned and cautious. Earlier the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the alarming information. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.

On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester.

The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive–and deadly–striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

Captain Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.

Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.

Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.

Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.

“Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,” says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox.

Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.

“Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.

By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.

When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

Ladd’s response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains–arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.

“Valor is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”

That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.

The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously December 19, 1944, to the next of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the post chapel at Fort Myer, VA.

A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by the President Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the stringent requirements that required heroism performed under fire. The special medal was intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.” www.fourchaplains.org

Their Blood Cries Out

05/17/2017 11:25:05 AM

May17

Each time that I return from March of the Living, I found myself a bit confounded by the peculiarities of our lives. In Poland we visit a shtetl that looks like it might have in the 18th centuray. One half of the town was occupied by the Jews and the other half by Gentiles. For centuries they had lived in peace with each other. The Nazis came and marched all 3000 Jews into a beautiful nearby forest. Mass graves had been dug and all but 25 of the town’s Jews were systematically murdered.

On one of my previous visits to this little town I wrote the following:

A poor little shtetl

Four centuries old

A rich Jewish life

Of prayer and Torah.

 

Three thousand souls departed the earth

On that dreadful day

Marched to the forest of God’s beauty

Where the ground received their blood.

 

The birds sang

The trees rustled

In the wind

Who knew that God cried that day?

 

Many years later I walk that path

I hear the bird’s song

I sense the sadness of the trees

As tears well up in my eyes, I feel their anguish.

 

God’s beauty forever blighted

The pure air forever polluted

Their souls have ascended

May God watch over them now, finally

 

I know that my ancestors lived in a similar shtetl about an hour and a half from this village. I know that they suffered a similar fate. It is only by the grace of God that I exist. So what does that existence mean? What are we here to accomplish. In the light of the lives that were cut off before their time, how do we look in the mirror?

The blood of our ancestors demands of us that we stand up for those ion need. It demands that we find no place for prejudice in our hearts. It requires that we create a society based on inclusion, truth and integrity. We must not only embody these traits ourselves but demand them of our elected leaders as well. In order to not repeat the past, we must be very vigilant about the present and safeguard the future.

Tycochin is the name of this shtetl but there are a thousand more just like it. May its memory never fade.

Omer: Part One

04/12/2017 05:14:03 PM

Apr12

Tonight we begin to count the Omer. This is a tradition that I did not grow up with and I guess that few of you did either. In ancient days the Israelites were instructed to count seven weeks from the evening of the second night of Passover – a total of 49 days – and then on the fiftieth dy to bring loaves of bread made from the new grain as part of the observance of the holiday of Shavuot. When the temple was destroyed this practice ended. However the counting of the days became the focus and in recent years the reform movement has adopted this custom as well.

This time period is supposed to be a spiritual preparation for Shavuot – for the recounting of the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This is the singular moment in our people’s past and present. We are taught that not only the people of that generation but that all Jews, of all time, were present at the foot of Mount Sinai as we received the Torah. This is not history or story, this is our deep personal memory!

Counting the Omer is a time of joyous anticipation. When we finally reach the end of those 50 days, we re-experience the greatest moment of our existence – the moment when with our people we stood in God’s presence. This was the moment of total personal fulfillment.

The Kabbalists linked each week of the Omer to the lower seven spherot. Basically the Kabbalists understand humanity to operate (or spiritually need to operate) with in ten spheres – the seven lower being easier to attain than the top three. They suggest (and I loke the idea) that we look at each week in the following way:

Week 1 – Hesed - concentrate on lovingkindness and love. Each day find a way to appreciate those who mean the most to you. Listen deeply as a practice each day. Express your love for God by loving God’s creations.

Week 2 – Gevurah – strength to impose upon ourselves limits and structure. What are the areas in our life that would be improved if we could assert a little more self discipline? Each day of this week we attempt to do the things we know we should but often don’t.

Week 3 – Compassion – Can we show more compassion during this week? Can we recognize the people who we tend to judge rather than accept? Can we be more compassionate with our own personal shortcomings?

Week 4 – Netzah – Endurance – How often have we begun a task and left it unfinished? How often do we set goals and not work hard enough to attain them?  This week we work to increase our personal endurance.

Stay tuned for Weeks 5, 6 and 7 in the next blog!

Passover: One Great Holiday! Part Two

04/07/2017 02:15:17 PM

Apr7

Continuing on last week’s theme about why Passover is so special and so wonderful, today I will discuss the amazing food of Passover! Though some see the food restrictions as difficult and troublesome, I see them as part of a seven day spiritual journey that allows us to fully feel as if we came out of Egypt. I also love the challenge of eating good, tasty food and adhering to the guidelines. We are taught that we may not eat wheat (except matzah), rye, oats, barley, spelt of anything made from them. For reasons that are not particularly clear, though some say that it was the fear of mixing up legume flour and forbidden flours, the Ashkenazim outlawed the eating of all legumes (adding corn and rice) and anything made with them. . Even by the thirteenth century there were Rabbis saying this was unnecessary but the practice persisted.

Independent of each other three Rabbinical Counsels of the Reform and Conservative Movements had made statements in recent years that permit the eating of all legumes. Many people still choose to refrain from the eating of anything made with legumes. In this case the love of tradition outweighs the rationality of the decision. This is another thing I love about Passover – tradition!  At every Seder, I remember the seders of my childhood. As I eat matzah I recall the matzah sandwiches that I brought to school. The smell and taste of charoset reminds me of the many “traditional” charoaset recipes.

Whether or not we choose to eat legumes (and I do) the food tradition of Passover is rich and enjoyable. There are so many great Passover recipes that I often find myself challenged to decide which to make. This year, as one of the special events, we are going to have an “international” charoset bar at the seder. We will have the opportunity to taste the traditions of our people who developed alternative Passover recipes in different countries..

I love the food of Passover because it is different and often creative. Matzah pizza might be better than Chicago pizza! On Facebook there is what looks like an amazing recipe for “matzah crack”. Somehow, even gefilte fish tastes better during Passover.

Take om the challenge and make something amazing this Pesach!

Passover: One Great Holiday! Part One

03/29/2017 02:05:10 PM

Mar29

There are many things that I love about the Jewish year but the Passover Seder might be at the very top of the list! I look forward to Passover on so many different levels. For me, Passover ranks just below Yom Kippur in holiness and just above every other holiday in meaning. Why you ask? Good question!

On its most simplistic level, Passover is the holiday of the coming of Spring. I am simply not a Winter person. I do not appreciate cold, wind or snow. Ice falling from the sky is an anathema to ne. When Passover arrives, I know that it will not be long before the winter blues are completely behind me. I have a sort of fascination with the buds of Spring. I love the first daffodils as they push up from the recently frozen earth. The eating of the parsley at the Seder confirms to me that I am not alone. Our ancestors were equally taken with the arrival of Spring and created the ritual around the parsley as a way to that God for the coming beauty and warmth of the Spring Days.

I love Passover because it reminds us of the greatest story ever told. Cecil B. DeMille realized this and created one of the most popular movies that has enlightened several generations. I still secretly envision Moses to look remarkably like Charleton Heston. But DeMille and Heston aside, the story of the Exodus from Egypt speaks to us all. We can argue it's historical accuracy but we cannot argue its historical impact. In part, Jews are who they are today because of the great power of this story. We learn thatt our roots are humble and humility must always play a role in our lives. We grow to understand that God is our Savior in ways that we may not be able to detect at the moment. We rejoice as we leave the "fleshpots" of Egypt and set out for a new life. We can feel the fear in our ancestors as the Egyptians change their mind and begin to pursue the people. Dancing with Miriam on the dry land after passing through the Sea of Reeds is a joy that arises from deep within our being. There are few stories that continue to interest me year after year but this one does. The Exodus from Egypt is our own story and it deeply resonates with me.

More than the story however, I love the symbolism, pageantry and the rituals. There is something magical (not tasty) about that first bite of matzah. Reminding us not to be "puffed up", the matzah is the "ego leveler" of our people. Once a year it reminds us that there is no good place for an inflated ego. I love hiding the afikomen and seeing the face of the children as they look for it. No matter how out of tune or how many mistakes they make, the voices of the children singing the Four Questions is one of the sweetest sounds of the year. Even the eating of the horseradish is special. It not only clears the sinuses but helps to form the tears in our eyes that brings us a little closer to our ancestors. 

Stay tuned next wee for Part Two of Passover - One Great Holiday!

A Slice of Heaven on Earth

03/15/2017 03:04:27 PM

Mar15

AS our group entered the ALYN Hospital in Jerusalem I immediately knew that we had landed in a very special and unique place. In the heart of Jerusalem this pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation facility opens the hearts of all who enter its doors. We arrived on the day that the hospital was celebrating Purim and were delighted as  staff and children alike donned their costumes. Jewish, Christian and Muslim children play and reside next to each other. Children from all over the Middle East and some from Europe and the States as well have been treated here.

We watched as parents of babies on respirators were counseled and taught how to bring their children home and give them “normal” lives. We were amazed in hearing about how the technology department developed and retrofitted technology so that each child could be as independent as possible. Standing wheelchairs,  computers controlled by minor movements, very small respirators allowing children to move freely, unique prostheses have all been developed by the amazing staff at ALYN. After they develop a successful tool for the children they make the plans  available to other pediatric rehabilitation hospitals around the world.

The pool at ALYN was filled with children of all ages working on their motor skills while others were in school on the premises keeping up with their grade level whenever possible. Clowns work with the children while therapists design individual plans. It is hard not to walk these halls and not have tears in your eyes.

In the heart of a city known for strife lies a slice of heaven on earth. Children in need are seen simply as children, not as Arab or Jew, Israeli or Palestinian, White or Black. Our tradition teaches us that the difference between bliss or degradation in the worlds to come is not external circumstances but the internal desire to reach out to others. At ALYN children help each other and the staff rallies to create beauty and healing in the midst of these young lives touched by severe difficulties. 

As we were about to leave I looked at our group and saw that many had tears of joy in their eyes. These were the sacred tears of knowing that our hearts had been touched and in some important way our lives had been changed.

 

From Deep Sadness to Profound Joy

02/22/2017 03:35:29 PM

Feb22

A feeling of shock and sadness enveloped me as I read about the vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Saint Louis. A cemetery is sacred and hallowed ground. Wreaking havoc within one is more than an act of prejudice. This is the land where we say our last good byes to loved ones, where we shed tears of deep sadness and where we visit to remember the beautiful lives that were a part of our life. Vandalism in a cemetery is much worse than hate speech; it is hatred in action.

Visions of the cemetery in Jewish Warsaw return to my heart. Desecration by the Nazis was rampant. Headstones were overturned and used for construction of walls and roads.I can only imagine the pain of the surviving family members as they watched the most sacred space of their family members desecrated.

We are living in a new reality. In the past few weeks many dozens bomb threats have plagued Jewish institutions. Swastikas have been discovered on University campuses and Neo-Nazis like hate groups now number over 900 in the United States. Sadly, I often wonder when our little Jewish community will know some form of this virulent hatred.

Then, in the midst of my sadness, I read an article detailing how within days of the cemetery desecration in Saint Louis the Muslim community had raised $20,000 to help fix the destruction. My heart soared. This act of compassion and kindness is worth so much more than the generous amount of money raised. In the midst of fire laden hatred a new alliance is forged. Jews and Muslims across the country are finding ways to support each other. History is changing. From despair, a new light is shining. I find beauty in this new alliance.

Jews and Muslims in America may create a new reality. Brought together because of rampant hatred towards both of our communities, we are finding that there can be more that unites us than divides us. Our pain is real and it is deep but so is our joy at newfound friends.

On Birthdays and Gratitude

02/17/2017 12:39:14 PM

Feb17

This weekend I celebrate another birthday and over the years I have found that birthdays are a wonderful time for reflection. In the midst of an ever-changing world that brings many of us an unprecedented level of anxiety, I have chosen to concentrate my reflections on gratitude.

 

We are taught that each day as Jews it is our duty to say 100 blessings. If we spend our day looking for 100 positive things, it is hard to get wrapped up in negativity. I am not sure I can get to 100, but I have decided to share with you my top 55 (in honor of my 55th birthday) reasons for gratitude. I hope that you will develop your own list.

 

I am grateful for (in no particular order):

1. being born healthy 2. Being born into a loving family 3. Being born a Jew

4. freedom 5. Sufficient nutrition 6. My parents

7. my siblings 8. A good education 9. Childhood friends

10. medicine 11. Kind teachers 12. Athletic ability

13. mother’s unconditional love 14. Father’s financial commitment

15. books 16. Professional baseball 17 most sports

18. love 19. Israel 20. Democracy

21. Jerusalem reunited 22. My children 23. Laughter

24. those who appreciate me 25. Political action 26. Wealth

27. renewed health 28. Adopted family 29. My children’s success

30. nature 31 art 32. Children

33. our preschool 34. Close adult friends 35 adult Temple leadership

36 Mussar 37. Vacations with my children 38. Trips with Congregation/community 39. My dogs 40. Adult friends

41. mountains 42. Oceans 43. Celebrations

44. generosity 45. SCOTTY 46. Chailites

47. Temple Brotherhood 48. Temple Sisterhood 49. Breast Cancer research

50. medical breakthroughs 51. Excellent physicians 52. Listening ears

53. Liberalism 54. Diversity 55. generosity

Action Required - House Resolution 78 -  all about Jews

02/08/2017 10:54:34 AM

Feb8

The following resolution was blocked from consideration on the Congress floor. I am outraged by the inherent anti-Semitism of such a move. This is an appropriate resolution that clearly states that the Jews were the main target of the Nazis even while others were also targeted. There is absolutely no reason why this resolution should not be equally supported by both parties. Please call Pete Larkin in Representative Goodlatte’s office and express your insistence that this resolution be considered and that he vote in favor . Pete’s can be reached at 857-2672.

H. RES. 78
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
February 1, 2017
Mr. Crowley (for himself, Mrs. Lowey, Mr. Engel, Mrs. Beatty, Mr. Beyer, Mr. Blumenauer, Ms. Bonamici, Mr. Brown of Maryland, Ms. Brownley of California, Mr. Cárdenas, Ms. Castor of Florida, Mr. Castro of Texas, Mr. Cicilline, Ms. Clark of Massachusetts, Ms. Clarke of New York, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Danny K. Davis of Illinois, Ms. DeLauro, Mr. Ellison, Mr. Espaillat, Mr. Evans, Mr. Foster, Ms. Frankel of Florida, Mr. Gottheimer, Mr. Gene Green of Texas, Ms. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Mr. Heck, Mr. Higgins of New York, Ms. Jackson Lee, Mr. Lewis of Georgia, Ms. Kaptur, Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Khanna, Mr. Kildee, Mr. Larsen of Washington, Mrs. Lawrence, Mr. Levin, Mr. Ted Lieu of California, Mr. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Ms. Matsui, Ms. McCollum, Mr. McGovern, Ms. Meng, Mrs. Murphy of Florida, Mrs. Napolitano, Mr. Neal, Mr. Pascrell, Ms. Pingree, Mr. Richmond, Ms. Rosen, Mr. Ryan of Ohio, Ms. Schakowsky, Mr. Schneider, Mr. Serrano, Mr. Sires, Mr. Suozzi, Mr. Swalwell of California, Mr. Takano, Mr. Tonko, Ms. Tsongas, Ms. Velázquez, Ms. Wasserman Schultz, Mrs. Bustos, Mr. Deutch, Mr. Vela, Mr. Soto, Mr. Smith of Washington, Mr. Aguilar, Mr. Courtney, Mr. Quigley, Mr. Pocan, Mr. Nolan, Mr. O'Halleran, Mr. Brady of Pennsylvania, Mrs. Dingell, Ms. Titus, Ms. Kelly of Illinois, Mr. Norcross, Mr. Polis, Mr. DeSaulnier, Mr. Nadler, Mr. Panetta, Mr. Hastings, Mr. Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, Mrs. Torres, Mr. Bishop of Georgia, Mr. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Mr. Kilmer, Mr. Keating, Miss Rice of New York, Ms. DelBene, and Mr. Grijalva) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs
RESOLUTION
Reiterating the indisputable fact that the Nazi regime targeted the Jewish people in its perpetration of the Holocaust and calling on every entity in the executive branch to affirm that fact.
Whereas it is an indisputable fact that the Holocaust was one of the worst atrocities and most heinous crimes in history, leading to the annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime through execution, barbaric medical experimentation, starvation, and forced labor;
Whereas the 2017 White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day did not include a reference to Jewish people targeted during the Holocaust;
Whereas, when given the opportunity to correct the omission, senior officials in the White House instead defended the exclusion of any reference to the Jewish people in the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement;
Whereas the Holocaust was instigated, planned, and carried out by the Nazi regime through a systematic plan of propaganda, misinformation, and lies;
Whereas the Holocaust was started because of the Nazi regime’s desire to exterminate the Jewish people, their identity, their culture, and their history through a “Final Solution” that would eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the Earth;
Whereas Jewish targets and victims of the Holocaust were from all ages and backgrounds, including men, women, children, and infants;
Whereas many other groups of people were also targeted during the Holocaust, including Roma, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, religious minorities, and more;
Whereas despite well-established facts about the Holocaust, some people, including people in positions of authority, continue to question whether the Holocaust happened;

Whereas a 2014 global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes found that 35 percent of people around the world have never heard about the Holocaust and an additional 32 percent believe it’s a myth or greatly exaggerated; and
Whereas people pursuing anti-Semitism often draw inspiration from innuendo, racism, hatred, misdirection, and omission: Now, therefore, be it

That the House of Representatives—
(1)reiterates the indisputable fact that the Nazi regime targeted the Jewish people in its perpetration of the Holocaust;
(2)states that to deny or minimize that the Holocaust was an effort to eliminate the Jewish people is shameful; and
(3)calls on all the executive branch agencies and entities, including the White House, to affirm that the Nazi regime targeted the Jewish people in its perpetration of the Holocaust.

When Politics and Religion Collide

02/01/2017 04:34:09 PM

Feb1

When I was a child our temple had a huge sign in the front lawn that said “Save Soviet Jewry”.  I don’t think that anyone in the 1960s thought that it was at all controversial. We were engaged in the Cold War and anti-Soviet sentiment was at an all time high. As a child the sign made me think. It got me to ask questions. It made me proud that our congregation cared about people far away.

Theses days I often wonder that if we were to put a sign outside our building consistent with Reform Jewish values, what might it be? The slogan of Reform Judaism in America has always been “be a light unto the nations”. We have a beautiful history of helping the underdogs in society. Our tradition demands that we care for the segments of society that are most at risk. Unfortunately, today that list is quite long.

In pithy form, here are some signs I would suggest – “We stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters”, “Women’s rights are human rights”, “Secure borders with kindness and mercy”, “Nazis murdered 6,000,000 Jews”, “Patriotism requires questioning”  “Hate speech is Lashon Hara (evil speech)” “Coexistence for a  kinder, gentler America” “Peace is the greatest value”, “We died in Nazi Europe because the borders closed.” More important than placing these signs in the grass is writing them upon our hearts,

There are many synagogues these days putting signs out. There is a point when politics is no longer politics and it spills over into morality.  At that moment it becomes the realm of religion. When Jews are no longer mentioned in speeches about the Holocaust, a tipping point has been reached. When families in the midst of immigration are torn apart, a tipping point is reached. When religious profiling is used as a litmus test, a tipping point has been reached. When White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are exalted by the President of the United States silence is wrong.

It is here that a wonderful opportunity exists. Reaching out to others of all races, religions, sexual preferences is fulfilling the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam. Speaking out against hatred in all of its forms is the hallmark of our tradition. Embracing the stranger rather than fearing them brings peace to our world. Shalom means not only “peace“ but also “wholeness”. We need to be wholly present, attentive and proactive to create a world worthy of our teachings. 

What are the signs that you are writing on your heart?

 

Plagues surrounding us today

01/25/2017 06:39:16 PM

Jan25

This week we begin to read about the plagues that struck Egypt when Pharoah refused to allow the Israelites to go free. I must admit that as a child I was a bit partial to the plague of frogs. I loved the way that Cecil B. DeMille envisioned it but I thought that the frogs could be a little more colorful – afterall God made some pretty amazing looking frogs. The rest of the plagues, however, left me with a deep feeling of unease. It seemed like the ancient society was filled with a bunch of dullards – could they not see the writing on the wall? 

We had a tradition at our family sederim when I was growing up. My Uncle asked each of us to ask a question about the seder and he judged which was the best question. The child with the best question got a big box of candy. I was one of the youngest cousins and therefore figured I would never win. One year when I was around 8 or 9, I challenged my Uncle and said “what was wrong with the rest of the Egyptians? Why didn’t they demand that Pharoah do what he could to stop the plagues? Why did they have to wait until people died?” My Uncle smiled and handed me the box of candy. However, he did not even try to answer the question.

That was just a few years short of five decades ago and I have the same question. Why wait until people (particularly children) die before action is taken. I no longer worry about the Exodus – this is my question for today. There is true evil and sadness across the globe. We know about it. We are not ignorant. Yet we do nothing. How is that possible? How is it Jewish to allow prejudice to flourish? Why are we cognizant of starving children yet content to overfeed ourselves? Can we not see the writing on the wall?

We are commanded to pursue justice – not just to administer it when the need arrives at our front door. We are to go out and find the places that need fixing. We are to engage in the sacred work of Tikkun Olam. Each morning that we awake is a new opportunity to heal our corner of the world. Each day presents new possibilities to shout out against injustice. Will we sit idly by or will we be true to our Jewish heritage?

What plagues need to strike us before we understand that our responsibility is to the betterment of all of humanity? How many will die before we recognize that the time to act is now? 

We are taught: “If I am not for myself, who am I?
                   If I am only for myself, what am I?
                            And if not now, when?”

 

From Marching with MLK to Marching with Women

01/18/2017 12:42:34 PM

Jan18

One of my favorite “memories” is the picture of Martin Luther King Junior marching in Selma with several Rabbis at his side. At the time, I was too young to understand the significance. It was not until my confirmation class when my Rabbi was telling us about this historic event that I felt its true impact. I remember sitting up in class and feeling enormously proud to be Jewish. This was probably the first time that I considered being a Rabbi. This was a moment of change in history. It took courage, empathy and a clear sense of justice for these Rabbis to travel to hostile territory and stand for Civil Rights for all. Suddenly, Judaism made sense for me. I saw in that moment that Judaism was a way of life that stretched well beyond holiday celebrations, lifecycle events and prayer.

Every MLK Jr. Day I think about the significance of Jewish leaders marching with Dr. King. King’s message of peaceful determination in the face of overwhelming prejudice and hatred is as pertinent today as it was fifty years ago. Things have changed but have they changed enough? Certainly the Black community still has to battle against racism and baseless hatred. So many other minority communities face the same challenge.

This Shabbat I will deviate from my normal Shabbat practice and join the Women’s March on Washington. Misogyny, bigotry, racism, and political bullying must be responded to with a peaceful presence and a strong resolve. This is not about partisan politics; this is about human community. As Jews, it should not matter whether we are the target or whether it is the physically or mentally handicapped, Mexicans, Muslims, women, or any other group. Just as our leaders joined the cause of Civil Rights in the 60s, our tradition dictates that we be on the side of the downtrodden and repressed.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and this dream enabled him to see a world free of prejudice. He took his message to the people and the streets intrinsically knowing that apathy was wrong. He lost his life fpor that dream but in doing so he enabled so many others to dream and create a better future. Our time has come to stand on the Jewish side of history. It requires that we stand up for the rights of all; that we write letters to our Representatives, that we join hands with those who are being targeted, that we engage in Tikkun Olam.

From the march originating in Selma to the Women’s March on Washington – we will overcome!

The Music of our Souls

01/11/2017 10:27:57 AM

Jan11

As most of you know, I am pretty much tone deaf. I do not know if this is the way I was from birth or if it is the result of several childhood ear surgeries that left lots of scar tissue. Yet, I assure you that there is a big difference between being tone deaf and unable to appreciate music. Music is the language of the soul and though I may not be able to distinguish individual notes and often cannot pick out a slightly bad note, I am deeply moved by the magnificent music of our tradition.

Music has two important components. The lyrics speak to our intellect. They satisfy the mind’s need for connection to the words, thoughts and traditions of our amazing heritage. Through the lyrics we learn, wrestle and contemplate the texts that our people have exalted for centuries. Without satisfying the mind’s need for nourishment, the soul has a harder time relating to the moving harmonies.

Since the earliest of time humanity has recognized the gift of music. Whether it was simply the voice stringing notes together, or drums and later more complex instruments, societies have always desired the richness of a musical tradition. In ancient Judaism, singers would stand on both sides of the Temple steps and antiphonally sing Psalms as worshippers mounted to the platform. With great joy musicians praised God’s greatness and the favor that the people felt they had received. Instruments of many kinds were a part of their lives, but we know especially of the beautiful harps.

In many ways human nature does not change; it only becomes more refined. This is certainly the case with music. So many genres have been created over time – opera, symphonies, choral, folk, pop, rock, religious, secular, and the list goes on. The complexity of the notes reach deep into our souls and we find ourselves responding in remarkable ways. We are calmed, excited, energized, or sense deep beauty. With music we respond from the gut; from the depths of our being.

It is here that true prayer resides. Only a small part of prayer is actually in the head; real prayer stirs us at a much deeper level. The chants of our ancestors, the music of our tradition, the new tunes of our composers lead us to a greater and more fulfilling prayer experience.

We are instructed to “sing a new song to God”. God does not want or need this new song but we do!

The Tightrope of Religion and Politics, Help!

01/04/2017 12:43:05 PM

Jan4

I was just asked to sign a letter to be delivered to the White House on January 20th asking the new administration to protect refugee immigration to our country. The letter, penned by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) requested that Rabbis of every movement join together to emphasize to the new administration that our country was founded and constantly improved by immigrants. I agreed with all of the tenets of the letter and promptly added my signature but under the signature block there was a place to list congregation. I left that space blank.

The question I have asked myself for years arose again. Where do politics and religion meet? When should politics and religion be separated? Is this one of those times? There are some who believe that there is no meeting point, that somehow both should exist completely independent of one another. There are others that believe that they are so intertwined that there cannot ever be a separation. I try to walk the tightrope of the middle ground.

Certainly there are times when religious institutions should stand up proudly and loudly for the values they represent. Our movement is blessed with the Religious Action Center that both lobbies Congress on our behalf and provides a plethora of information about those Social Action issues that the Reform Movement as a whole has decided are of great importance. However, what is done nationally does not necessarily need to reflect what is done locally. Several of my colleagues in North Carolina have been quite vocal about the State’s eroding rights of the LGBTQ community. Last year I spoke at the national Voting Rights Act Rally as a representative of the Reform Movement. However, I always think twice before I sign may name as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, Roanoke, Virginia unless I am speaking about a clearly Jewish topic (such as defending Israel or speaking against anti=Semitism).

Our tradition has much to say about important matters such as reproductive rights euthanasia, civil rights, women’s rights, climate control, gun control, war, refugees etc. I could clearly be involved with these issues politically in the name of Jewish values but should I be involved as the Rabbi of Temple Emanuel? It is always a hard call for me.

As an inclusive community, we must be fully inclusive – aware that inclusion also means those that do not agree with the liberal leaning political stances of our national movement. I do not believe that it is possible to separate religion from politics – they are expressions of the same societal need. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that these inalienable human rights were God given, we seek “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Your thoughts? When should I write Rabbi Kathy Cohen, Temple Emanuel, Roanoke, Virginia as opposed to simply Rabbi Kathy Cohen, Roanoke, Virginia?

Why all that oil is healthy, spiritually speaking

12/14/2016 04:17:08 PM

Dec14

 I would be hard pressed (pun intended) to convince you that all that oil is good for you, physically speaking. However, on a spiritual level, the story of oil and the daring and brilliance behind it should give us pause to think.

​What you may not know - the story of the oil did not appear until approximately 600 years after the Chanukah war ended. The "Hallmark" version of the story leads us to believe that as Judah Macabbee and his clan won the war they entered the Temple, cleaned it up, and discovered that there was only enough oil to last for one day for the eternal lamp (ner tamed). The legend states that the oil lasted miraculously for eight days.

This story of oil does not appear until the time of the Talmud and the tale there does not include anything about the war. Why? Well, during the writing of the Talmud, Israel was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire. It was well known that the Romans had no tolerance for any of its subject people celebrating holidays that could be construed as the commemoration of a revolt. In order to preserve the holiday of Chanukah the rabbis writing the Talmud gave it a "new" meaning. They were well aware that the Romans had spies reading the Talmud and they simply wrote a false meaning for the celebration of Chanukah that would be acceptable to the Romans. 

​Instead of the commemoration of a victory in war, the celebration of Chanukah becomes the remembrance of a Godly miracle. So many questions can be asked here. Is this an ethical lie? Is there such a thing? Is telling a mistruth in order to save the holiday a laudatory action? What type of role model does this establish? Is it blatantly manipulative and therefore unsavory?

Hard questions indeed. I prefer to think of it as a necessary reality. Certainly we should avoid lies whenever possible. Sometimes a little lie is necessary (for instance, if a homely bride asks if she looks beautiful, or to save the lives of others in times of persecution) and sometimes a deception can serve the greater good. I believe this is the case with the oil story.

​The greater truth here is that there was a miracle - the Rabbis found a way to keep the celebration of Chanukah alive - albeit at a cost. I have no doubt that this deception was not recorded with glee. It is only with a heavy heart that our learned scholars could do such a thing but in so doing they have left for us quite a legacy. Sometimes we must weigh what is right over what is true. Sometimes we must trust our gut and act accordingly. 

Spirituality cannot be developed in a world of no conflict or no risk. Spirituality requires struggle. The very word "Israel" means to struggle with God. On Chanukah we can be reminded that our Rabbis did not shrink from the task. They did not let Chanukah descend into the depths of oblivion even though that would have been the safer, more honest route. They chose to respond to a higher calling.

As you fry your latkes and eat your jelly donuts, try to worry less about your cholesterol and more about the true genius of the oil. It's lesson is one of spiritual depth and brilliance. Though the end does not generally outweigh the means, sometimes it does. With maturity of thought, depth of spiritual resonance and the courage to stand up for what we feel is right, we begin to approach the true lesson of the oil. Chanukah is truly not a pediatric holiday - it is about the most challenging of adult thinking!

Considering Chanukah - For Adult Eyes Only

09/06/2016 11:39:17 AM

Sep6

This time of year can be very difficult for Jews. Amidst the transcendence of Christmas, we may feel forgotten, left out. In response we have what I like to call the Chanukah hype. Suddenly a little story whose essence is about a nasty civil war is transformed into a major holiday about religious freedom. Chanukah becomes the holiday that celebrates the same values of our country - religious freedom, the victory of the underdog and even the pervasiveness of miracles. And yet Chanukah is really not about these ideas at its essence. On an adult level the lessons of Chanukah are of tremendous importance and should not be shrouded by niceties.

Consider the following - a large portion of this war was the Herllenized Jews and the Hasidim(Pious) Jews fighting against one another, the "miracle of oil" story only appears 400-500 years after the war, all Jews were the underdogs here - not just Judah macabre and his clan. In today's world Judah Maccabee would likely be among those militant Jews settling in the West Bank and causing political havoc. All of this gives me pause to wonder why we even celebrate Chanukah! I wonder if Chanukah were not during the Christmas season if we would have allowed it to take the place of the very minor holiday that it is.

Theologically, Chanukah is fraught with difficulties but there is more to our religious existence than theology. For many of us Chanukah evokes warm memories of family gatherings, the excitement of gift giving and the tantalizing smells of latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). The lit  Chanukah candles are beautiful and despite our collective cloudy memories of the true story, the told story of Chanukah has some good values. Dreidels are fun and chocolate gelt can be irresistible. But is it enough?

Perhaps as adults it is time for us to consider the true lessons of Chanukah - that is the truly unsettling realities of a fractured people. In the days of Antiochus our people broke apart. Steeped each in their own thinking, these two groups of Jews generated enough hatred toward each other that they were literally able to kill one another.The importance is not about who won and whether either group was "right" but rather the lesson that we can never descend to the depths that our people did in the days of Antiochus.

A thinking, conscious people will always have a variety of thoughts. Differences in though need to be more than tolerated; they need to be honored - as long as they as they recognize that we are all created b'tzelem Elohim - in God's image. For me, herein lies the true lesson of Chanukah - we all lost because we descended to baseless hatred and murdered one another. It is pretty easy to get caught up in our own rhetoric. It is much more difficult to hear the words of others and find and honor their value. In these tumultuous times, the Jewish people must see each other as one. Chanukah reminds us that the lights of tolerance, peace, kindness, compassion, generosity, dignity, love and patience are our path forward. 

as we spin the dreidel, may we spin away ill feeling. As we eat our latkes, may we taste the sweetness of our people. As we share our gelt, may we share from the fountain of Jewish life!

Happy Chanukah!

 

Wed, September 20 2017 29 Elul 5777