Hopefully, Next Year

Today would have been the day.

Today was the day Vickie and I were to begin six exciting weeks of teaching in German High Schools about the Shoah, and when I would be speaking in churches and synagogues.

I was also particularly looking forward to celebrating our 46th anniversary on June 9 with our hosts Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening at the exquisite Fuchsbau (Fox Den) Restaurant. We loved the idea of celebrating our anniversary in a restaurant we could imagine was named after us.

The next day we were to travel to Berlin where I had been invited to participate in the ordination ceremony at the Abraham Geiger College, I was also to teach a three-hour seminar there and lead the service and deliver the sermon at Friday night worship.

From there our schedule called for us to travel to Leipzig, the city where my father was arrested on Kristallnacht to take part in a week long series of events for descendants of Leipzig’s once thriving Jewish community.

My bittersweet birthday present to myself on March 16 was to cancel our entire trip.  At that time I wondered if I was being prudently proactive or presumptuously premature. After two more weeks went by it was clear that cancelling was the only decision to make.

It feels strange to be staying in Sanibel now, as our time in Germany has become so important to Vickie and me as part of our quest to do our small part to try to make the world a better place.

For the past five years we spent between five and ten weeks there doing the things I described above.  Before coming to Sanibel in 2017 we were there for ten weeks in the fall. There I had the privilege of conducting services for the High holy Days in Kiel, Bad Segeberg and Freiburg. When we accepted the invitation to serve Bat Yam Temple of the Islands here in Sanibel, the expectation, of course, was that we would be here for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  So we switched our program to the late spring and shortened it considerably.

This would have been the first year our hosts, Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening would have hosted us in their new home in Bad Oldesloe and the first we did not spend in their previous home in Bad Segeberg.  We looked forward to experiencing their new surroundings and to exploring a new town in picturesque Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost of Germany’s 16 states.

A few weeks after cancelling the trip I stopped playing tennis even though I know the warm sunshine and vigorous exercise did me a world of good. That was another bittersweet present I gave to myself.

Just today, Vickie and went to the courts for the first time in a month and hit for about half an hour.

We came in contact with no one and wiped our rackets down when we finished. It is nice to be back on the courts, and I will follow the United States Tennis Association guidelines to play prudently.

Playing tennis again will be a small consolation for missing our time and the people we have come to enjoy so much in Germany! Hopefully we will be able to go back next year.

Rabbi Kenneth D. Roseman

Rabbi Kenneth D. Roseman, PhD, died last week.  He served for a few years as Director of Admissions and then for several years as Dean of the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion.  With his passing, a true “Light of Israel” has gone out.

As Director of Admissions at the time, Rabbi Roseman interviewed me when I applied to the rabbinical program at HUC-JIR in the winter of 1968.

I approached the interview with trepidation because on paper I was hardly an outstanding candidate. I was no Phi Beta Kappa. In fact I considered my self more of a “Lambda Tau Gamma” as in “Lucky to Graduate” of Hamilton College. On top of that I had the Hebrew background of a Bar Mitzvah student, who had not seriously looked at a Hebrew text since his Bar Mitzvah nine years before.

But Rabbi Roseman must have seen something worthwhile in me, and I could feel the interview was going well. It was going so well that I had the temerity to ask; “Do you think it would be possible for me to spend my first two years of the five year graduate program in Los Angeles?”

While it is now a full-fledged branch of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion offering the full program leading to ordination, in those days the LA campus was a very small school at which west coast students could take the first two years of the program before transferring to Cincinnati for the last three. It was located in an old estate high up in the Hollywood Hills.

Rabbi Roseman seemed taken aback by my request, and he answered, “Hmm, this is very unusual. Why would you want to do that?”

Well, sir,” I answered, “I am 22-years-old and today in Cincinnati is as far west as I have ever been. I think it would be wonderfully broadening for me to experience life on the west coast.”

For a second I thought I had blown the whole deal, but he responded empathetically. “I tell you what. I will consult with Rabbi Gottschalk (Alfred Gottschalk was then the Dean of the Los Angeles Campus. He would later become President of the entire College-Institute upon the death of Rabbi Nelson Glueck in 1971.) If he says yes, it is OK with me.”

Spending my first two graduate years in LA was one of the best academic decisions I have ever made. To this day I am grateful to Rabbi Roseman for making it possible.

After two years in LA, I spent a leave of absence year studying in Israel** before returning to Cincinnati. So it was at the end of five graduate years that I had completed all necessary course work but had not written my rabbinical thesis.

Because I had no need to be physically on campus Rabbi Roseman helped arrange an internship for me to serve the 58-family congregation, Temple Isaiah, in Columbia, Maryland. Rabbi Roseman offered that it was a great opportunity. I could write my thesis, serve the small congregation’s needs and also teach in the education programs of the largest synagogue’s in both Baltimore and Washington. When I interviewed for a real job for the following year, I would have real congregational experience on my resume.

As my internship year progressed, the congregation began to grow, and in the early spring the leaders of Temple Isaiah asked if I would like to become the congregation’s first full-time rabbi.  I jumped at the chance. The next year when the congregation held a formal ceremony of installation, I invited Rabbi Roseman to be our guest speaker.

Time went by. Rabbi Roseman left HUC –JIR to serve a sizeable congregation in the Dallas area. There he wrote several interesting books that changed the way many congregations taught American Jewish History in their Religious Education programs.

A few years ago at the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis Convention in Phoenix, I was invited to teach a seminar based on my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.  Teaching one’s colleagues is always daunting, but the nervousness factor ratcheted up several degrees when I saw Rabbi Roseman sitting among those attending my session. I came up to him before I was to start and said, “Rabbi Roseman, I am so very honored that you …”

“It’s Ken, Steve,” He interrupted me with a smile, “and I am very excited to be here.”  He could not have been more attentive or complimentary, and soon I could forget that the person who shepherded my entrance into rabbinical school and helped me launch my career was sitting in my class.

His death caused by the Coronavirus was a shock. He was 80 years old, had a profound influence on my life, and his memory will be to me — as it will be to so many — others a very special blessing.

**Now all entering Rabbinical and Cantorial students spend a mandatory first year studying in Israel. In my day it was optional.

 

השיבנו Take Us Back

השיבנו

Take us back, Eternal One!

Take us back to when we could absorb

The impact of each death

Before having to deal with the next,

And the next and the next …

Take us back , Eternal One,

Take us back to when we could visit

Our loved ones in the hospital

Our friends in their homes,

Our favorite stores and restaurants.

Take us back, Eternal One,

Take us back to a time we could embrace

Those we wish to embrace

And refrain from embracing

Out of choice, not necessity.

Take us back, Eternal One,

Take us back to when Food Banks were full

And the lines of those in need

Did not extend for miles.

Take us back to a time when connecting by computer

Was a supplement to

Not a substitute for

Connecting in person.

השיבנו ה׳ ונשובה.

חדש ימנו כקדם

Take us back, Eternal one,

And we shall return.

Renew our days as of old.

(Lamentations 5:21)

Especially Now, People Are Asking:

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“Now it happens to be the way of all men to take sides … About God you don’t know and I don’t know. But I have made a decision in favor of God …”   Rabbi Max Gross to Michael Kind in Noah Gordon’s novel The Rabbi, (New York, McGraw Hill, 1965) p. 139

 

During these precariously uncertain days of the Corona Virus pandemic, I have received, not surprisingly several questions about God.

I have been curious about God all my life, and at age 18, when I first read Noah Gordon’s The Rabbi my interest intensified and has grown over the years to be a driving force in my life.

After more than half a century of inquiry, I can make no more profound theological statement, nor one that better reflect my thinking than the one Mr. Gordon puts in the mouth of Rabbi Max Gross above.

To be a believing Jew, I have learned, does not mean to BELIEVE in God, it means to struggle with God.

In Genesis (ch. 33, verse 25 ff) after a titanic struggle God changes Jacob’s name to the one by which our people identify ourselves to this day: Yisrael, Israel, “One who struggles with God.”

More than half a century after Gordon’s novel intensified my own struggle with the Eternal One, I produced a volume of essays that I humbly recommend to those – Jews and non-Jews alike – who might find some of the steps of my struggle instructive.

It is called, Who Created God?

 It is available on AMAZON.com both in paperback and very inexpensively in a Kindle edition.

If the book answers some of your questions about God or even helps refine the parameters of your struggle of your connection – or lack thereof – to God, I would be very gratified indeed.

 

(If you do read the book, please consider leaving a review of it on AMAZON.COM that will hopefully encourage others to read it as well.)

In Honor of Earth Day

img_0010We are in charge of and responsible for this earth. We must do a better job of caring for it.

 

In the late 80’s when then Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Jr. began his campaign of environmental awareness (which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007), he asked me to prepare “a closing homily” for the first meeting of the initiative held in Nashville, the city where I then served as rabbi of the Reform temple. On that occasion, I told a venerable Hasidic story – told in many different ways – about a magnificent goat that lived long ago. The goat had horns so long and beautiful that when he lifted his head, he could touch the stars, and they would sing the most beautiful melody that anyone had ever heard.

One day a man was walking through the forest thinking of what he might give his wife for her birthday. He encountered the goat, and a brilliant idea jumped into his head. “I could make my wife a gorgeous jewelry box from a piece of one of the goat’s horns,” he thought.

The man approached the goat, which was very tame and friendly, and explained, “I want to make a jewelry box from just a small piece of one of your horns. It won’t hurt when I cut it off, and I’ll just take a small piece. You won’t even miss it!” The goat lowered his head to accommodate the man’s request.

The jewelry box that the man fashioned was indeed beautiful, and his wife adored it. Proudly, she showed it to all of her friends who soon wanted one just like it. You can see where this is going. Soon the goat was inundated with requests to “cut off just a small piece” of one of his horns. Of course, soon his horns were much shorter. The goat could no longer reach the stars, and that most beautiful melody was forever silenced.

This wonderful tale teaches one of the vital lessons of Genesis’ creation story. We, human beings – not the crocodile, the elephant nor the lion, though they are stronger, faster, and fiercer – are in charge of, and responsible for, this world. Ergo, if we are to pass-on a beautiful and healthful environment to our children and grandchildren, we must do a much better job than we are doing now of taking care of it!

From: What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, pp. 2-3.

 

 

The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

fullsizeoutput_2575Dawn breaking over Husum, Germany

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. When I was a young Rabbi, a Catholic priest asked me,  “What is this obsession you have with remembering?  Why can’t you just focus on the present and the future?”

The best answer I can give comes from a Non Sequitur cartoon of a survivor and a small girl, Danae, sitting on a park bench. She notices the numbers tattooed on his arm, and asks about his, “boring tattoo… It’s just a line of numbers.”

“Well,” he answers, I was about your age when I got it, and I keep it as a reminder.”

“Oh,” Danae asks, “a reminder of happier days?”

“No,” he replies, “of a time when the world went mad.” And then he explains about the horror, as Danae imagines herself in a concentration camp.

She responds, with a tear rolling down her cheek, “So you keep it to remind yourself?”

“No, my darling,” he answers, “to remind you.”

Vickie and I do not have tattoos, but those we have seen on the arms of many of our parents’ friends are etched into our hearts. For the past five years we have spent between five and ten weeks per year in Germany where we teach about the Holocaust in German High Schools. We speak about her soon to be (God willing) 99-year old mother and my late father as among “the lucky ones.” They escaped the worst of the horror and came to this country and built meaningful lives here.

No, Vickie’s parents and my father were not, thank God, among the six million who perished, but they are among the many millions more whose lives and whose children’s lives carry the internal tattoo of memory.

So, I would answer the priest who inquired about our need to remember, “Memory is part of our DNA.”

The important question is: will we allow the memory to harbor hatred and resentment, or will we share our memories to work for reconciliation and harmony? Vickie and I choose to push back the darkness of our memories. We do so not to keep reminding ourselves, but to remind this and the next generation of Germans about the depths of brutality to which humans can descend.

I first heard the phrase, “The darkest hour is just before dawn,” in a hit song, Dedicated to the One I Love from the early sixties by the Shirelles. A few years later the Mamas and the Papas also had a hit with that number.

Language historians trace the origin of the phrase to a 1651 travelogue chronicling the visit to Palestine of the English theologian, Thomas Fuller. He wrote: “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.”

Since I first heard it as a teen, “The darkest hour is just before dawn,” has encouraged me to believe that if I keep pushing them away, whatever emotional clouds envelops me will soon lift. In Germany our aim is to help young people to push away their emotional darkness about the Holocaust.

Vickie and I hold dear the young man who came up to her after our presentation to a high school class in Kiel, and with tears in his eyes said, “Mrs. Fuchs I must apologize to you.”

“But you have nothing to apologize for,” she answered.”

“I must apologize because my grandfather was SS,” he answered.

Their embrace brought tears to my eyes.

We are grateful for the opportunities we have had to help people like this young man, push away their darkness.

In Germany we frequently say, “We cannot undo the past but the future is ours to shape.”

Holocaust Remembrance Day is more than a reminder of the past. It is to remind future generations to work to push back the dark clouds of antisemitism, bigotry and hatred and embrace the dawn — that can be just ahead — of harmony, understanding and love.

 

 

 

 

Weeping May Tarry for the Night, But Joy Comes in the Morning

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalms 30:6),” is one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible.

Robert Alter’s translation, “ At evening one beds down weeping, and in the morning glad song,” (The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Co., 2007, loc. 2387, Kindle edition) may be more accurate linguistically, but it lacks the majesty of the more familiar King James translation of the verse.

As we move from day to day through the Corona plague, I find no more fitting mantra of aspiration than these immortal words.

Our lives have changed radically. Isolation is the new normal. The country faces a horrific choice. We must weigh the risk of an even greater death toll against the impact of an economic recession that deepens daily. Protesters have taken to the streets as arguments rage about our preparedness as a nation for the reality through which we are now living.

The late Rabbi Leon Klenicki, former Director of Inter-Religious Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, defined the word “crisis” as, “turning point.”

Without question, however long it endures Covid-19 will mark a turning point in our lives. We not only wonder when the economy will recover but if. Some industries face the possibilities that they never will. 

The cost in human suffering is incalculable, and the economic hardship many face is beyond measure. People who never dreamed they would depend on charity now wait in line for hours just to receive the food they will need to feed their families for the next week.

Through it all, the Psalmist promises: things will get better. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy will come in the morning.”

One way or another we will get through this.

We as a nation, and we as a worldwide humanity created in God’s image, will survive this pandemic. Hopefully we will learn from it to be more diligent in our stewardship of the planet entrusted to our care.  Hopefully we will put greater store in the relationships we used to take for granted. Hopefully we will hold more precious every breath of life that we have the privilege to take.

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We have learned that those who survived the camps shared a common characteristic: they clung to the hope that they would make it.

There is a lesson there for us. Though the toll of lives lost and economic devastation is staggering, we must not despair. Our night of weeping will end, and joy will come in the morning.

Corona Response: We Can’t Do Everything, But We Can Do Something

The Corona Virus Crisis has confronted us with circumstances few of us could have imagined only a few months ago. 

Our lives have changed – radically, but one look at the news, with people standing outside in frigid weather on long lines waiting for food or a test spaced at least six feet apart, should let us know how blessed we are to be here in southwest Florida.

The numbers of lives lost and afflicted stagger us. And the thousands on the front lines fighting the virus and caring for the sick inspire us. 

Numbers?

No.

They are real people who could easily be our loved ones or ourselves.They are each an embodiment of God’s image, a sacred act of creation.

Poet Hannah Senesh, who parachuted behind enemy lines and was tortured and executed at age 23 for aiding the Partisans who resisted Hitler, wrote, (Ashrei ha-Gafrur in the original Hebrew) “Blessed is the Match.”

       Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

       Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake. 

       Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

We offer our profound gratitude to all have risked or given their lives so that the flames in others will continue to burn.

Viktor Frankl, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and later wrote, Man’s Search for Meaning, taught: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of purpose and meaning.”

Yes, our lives have changed, and we feel frustrated and powerless to make a difference. But not being able to do all we wish to do should never stop us from acting as Frankl urged, with purpose and meaning to do whatever we can. So:

  • Let us do all we can to remain healthy.  Hand washing, sanitizing, and physical distancing, cannot be optional.
  • Drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods and try to get sufficient sleep. 
  • Seek new ways – in our enforced leisure — to keep our minds occupied.
  • Reach out with phone calls, emails and letters to those you know who are alone
  • Donate what you can to organizations that make a difference.

In recent weeks I have released $1000 of my Discretionary Fund to F.I.S.H. because my experience on the Island has shown me how efficiently and effectively they use the funds we contribute to them.

As a congregation, Bat Yam was the first on the Island to announce a switch from in person events to digital activities to remain connected and offer comfort to our members and the wider community.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to our technological wizards, Janice and Ron Chaddock, Garry and Beth Weiss, and Dave Waks and Sandy Teger for making possible our Shabbat Welcome,” Shabbat morning classes and our “Wednesday Coffee Hour.” I shudder to think where would be without them.

A special shout out goes to Dave Waks, who worked tirelessly for hours with Cantor Simon and me to ensure our Passover Seder would work well.

The effort paid off. Our Seder reached homes from Hawaii to Germany. Our other offerings reach far more people in more places than those who were able to attend in person before the current crisis.

Recently, many of us learned the famous song “Over the Rainbow,” was not just written to express a little girl’s hope to escape Kansas in the 1939 move, The Wizard of Oz. 

Rather, the song’s Jewish composers, Harold Arlen (nee Hyman Arluck) and Yip Harburg (nee Isidore Hochberg) had something greater in mind. Seeing the storm clouds gathering over Europe after Kristallnacht they were dreaming of land over “the rainbow” of their people’s suffering: Israel. 

As we confront the changes in our lives the Corona Virus has wrought, I am so proud that Bat Yam is looking “over the rainbow.” With people stepping forward to meet the current challenge with courage and creativity we shall soon “wake up with the clouds far behind” to embrace a bright and sunny future.

An Open Letter to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Dear Governor DeSantis,

So now WWE, i.e. professional wrestling is an essential business to the health and welfare of the people of the great state of Florida??

Seriously!?

Are you kidding me!?

Governor DeSantis, without even stopping to think I can come up with a hundred industries or businesses more central to the welfare of our citizens than pro-wrestling.

Please, Governor, tell us why a sport in which the object is to injure, maim or permanently disable one’s opponent (and whether it is staged or not, people get seriously hurt) is more essential to our welfare than restaurants or, for that matter, any other business or industry one can think of.

In fact, if I were given the power one of the first things I would do is ban all blood sports (wrestling, boxing, WWE and yes, even football which shortens lives, causes dementia and leaves almost all its participants with permanent painful injuries) from the activities of civilized society.

The fact that lots of people relish coming together to see two, or four individuals do all that they can to beat one another’s brains out should not make it OK for society to sanction such activity.

One day, I am sure, we will regard these spectacles with the same revulsion we feel for the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome

What is wrong with us?

In 2009 in my former home state of Connecticut, we witnessed the sorry spectacle of former WWE executive Linda McMahon investing millions of dollars in her campaign to try to run for Senator against former CT Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Her campaign unearthed the sorry spectacle of a video wherein, in her WWE role, she kicked one of the wrestlers where it would hurt the most. Really!

In 2012 she ran again and lost as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat now held by Christopher Murphy. But money talks! In December 2016 the President-elect nominated Ms. McMahon to head the Small Business Administration. For the past year she has served as Chairwoman of “America First Action,” a pro-Trump Super PAC.

So yes, I am admitting my bias. Professional wrestling and similar sports should be banned!

That is all the more reason why they should be considered anything but essential!

The Silver Lining in a Very Dark Cloud

The staggering number of deaths around the country and the world, and the horrible suffering endured by so many has us reeling.

The world will never be the same.

No one should minimize the human and economic cost of the current pandemic. Loved ones, friends and untold number of others have died and will die. Staggering numbers of people have lost their jobs and means of sustaining themselves and their families. Too many people have died and will die without loved ones nearby to say goodbye or to attend their funerals.

The description of horror and upheaval are endless.

And yet…

Instead of trying to get back to the old normal, maybe we can embrace the silver lining in the very dark cloud passing over us and create a new and better normal for ourselves future generations.

What is that silver lining?

The earth in these short weeks of shutdown has made a remarkable ecological recovery. Water is cleaner, air is purer and the tide flowing toward inevitable environmental destruction has slowed.

What a vital warning this tragic time is reiterating. It is the same warning our Sages issued to us in the name of the Eternal One (Kohelet Rabbah, chapter 7) at the time of creation:  “You are in charge of and responsible for this earth. But it is the only one you will get. So preserve and enhance it. Do not pollute or destroy it.”

Can we somehow embrace that valuable lesson before rushing headlong back to doing things exactly as we did before?

And speaking of rushing … is there nothing we can learn from the forced “slowing down” that has become the current reality of our lives? 

I for one do not wish to return to a normal that fills every waking moment of every single day with responsibilities and obligations that make every pause and every deep breath we allow ourselves a guilty pleasure or a costly luxury.

As Queen Elizabeth so eloquently reminded us in her address to Great Britain and the world, might we embrace the beauty of aloneness and the time for self-reflection and meditation this time allows even after we can return to our previous routines?

Also, might we not  — while forced to accept physical distance – give thanks for the virtual capabilities this crisis has enabled us to embrace?

Might the absolute necessity for physical distance inspire us to greater “social closeness” through emails texts, video chats, phone calls and letters?

For example, last year’s Bat Yam Temple of the islands Seder found more than 150 people straining the fire code limits of the Sanibel House, and it was wonderful to be together. Hopefully, we shall be again next year.

But should we not give thanks that while this year’s Seder found just a few close family members together in a room, our ritual was enjoyed by people not only from as close as Sanibel and Fort Myers but from as far away as Hawaii and Germany as well.

I believe that the secret to Jewish survival despite all the hardships and tragedy history has imposed on us is our ability to cling to the hope that things will get better.

The national anthem of Israel, unlike those of many nations, is not a militaristic march, but a soulful melody entitled Ha-Tikvah, “The Hope.”

And so in the presence of the dark cloud hovering over us, I cling to the silver lining of this hope:  When the cloud passes over, and it will, may we learn the lessons it teaches and create a calmer, gentler world around us and within ourselves.