Little Things Mean a Lot


For nine weeks in 1954, Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean A Lot” was the number one song in America. Miss Kallen died last January at 94, but her message endures. Little things do mean a lot, and they can make a difference.

“Secular it is,” would begin the last Bulletin column in December by my Rabbi, Charles A. Annes, of blessed memory, “but I wish all of you fulfillment,  joy and meaning in the New Year”

“Secular it is” but whether we are Jewish or not, we can make something Jewish out of it.

“Secular it is” but no matter what our faith, or even if we profess no faith, we can make something more of the beginning of the New Year than just an occasion for revelry.

The contrast between the significance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the secular New Year is striking.

The Jewish New Year is a time for intense self-examination and introspection. Ideally we prepare for it the entire month before the New Year arrives. We examine our deeds, ask those we have offended for forgiveness and resolve to not repeat our wrongdoings in the year ahead.

Something of that process does reflect itself in the secular custom of “New Year’s Resolutions,” but we can enhance its significance.

The beginning of the secular year is three to four months after Rosh Hashanah. It is a good time to bring ourselves in for a spiritual “tune up.” It is a good time to ask ourselves how we are doing with the “little things.”

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the values in Genesis’ Creation Story.

Most significantly we remember that we are created in God’s image. That does not mean we look like God because no one knows what God looks like.

It does mean that of all the creatures on earth we have the most responsibility. We more than any other being shape this world, physically and morally, for better or for worse.

The beginning of the secular New Year is a perfect time to ask ourselves, how are we doing?

How are we using the powers and abilities with which God has entrusted us? Will the world be better or worse because of what I do in the year ahead?

I have often said: We will not all cure cancer or bring about peace between warring nations. But we all can do the little things that make a difference.

We can be kinder to those we love and to those with whom we interact. We can be more conscious of our impact on the environment. We can be on the lookout for things we can do that will make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Yes, as Kitty Kallen sang so beautifully way back in 1954, “Little Things Mean a Lot.”

“Secular it is” but the new year provides a perfect opportunity to examine the little things we do or don’t do that can help to make ourselves more just, caring and compassionate reflections of “Gods image” than we were last year.

Treasure Beyond Measure

(Top) Library empty; (Bottom) Library in progress

When I retired from the pulpit of Congregation Beth Israel in 2011, David Ward packed all of my books.  Most of them have remained in boxes in our basement since then.

To tell the truth, I did not really miss them.

The ones I use all the time are in my home study, and almost everything else I wanted to know I could find on line. That is still the case.

Nevertheless I felt ill at ease. My older son Leo contributed to that feeling when he pointedly remarked, “Those books in your basement are treasures, and they will eventually rot in those boxes.”

In Germany this past fall, our host, Pastor Ursula Sieg, challenged me to rescue one book a day from the basement dungeon where I had imprisoned them. I did not know how to do that as my study upstairs already overflows its bookshelves.

When we returned from Germany, the challenge from Leo and Ursula finally impelled me to action. Since our younger son Ben moved out from the finished portion of our basement several years ago, we really have not used the space very often.

So I asked Vickie if we could hire our wonderful handyman/carpenter, Glen Tracy, and ask him to line the wall with bookshelves. She agreed, and Glen and his helper installed the shelves in one long day. “Now,” he said when he finished, “comes your job, to unpack and shelve all those books.”

An arduous task but infinitely rewarding

I have begun to do so. I have been at it a week. Leo and his family were here for several days, and he was an immense help. Still carrying the books from the storage area of the basement to the finished area, organizing and then shelving them has been far more tiring than I ever imagined. It has also been very rewarding.

I still have a long way to go, but the library is definitely beginning to take shape.

I am amazed at the number of books I own. I am also amazed at how many I had forgotten and am rediscovering anew. Among them are some inscribed with touching words from the authors. Inscribed books have their own special section.

I am organizing the rest into Biblical Studies, Talmud, Midrash, Commentaries, Jewish History, Contemporary Jewish Thought, Study and Research Aids, Pastoral Counseling, Christian Thought, Islam and Other Religions, Classical literature, Humor, Hebrew Literature, Prayerbooks and Life Cycle, Children, Adolescent, Anti-Semitism, Novels, Paperbacks, Israel, Biographies, Sports, and Miscellaneous.

The hard truth is that I probably will not read or study many of these books again, and with so much on line, there was no place to which I could have donated them. Clearly, the practical thing to do would have been to get rid of most of them. But I just could not bring myself to do it.

They are the story of my life, and it has been an amazing experience to handle them anew!

I think back on the hours I pored over many of them. I think of the places I read them and the people I associate with them. So many memories come flooding back with each book that I rescue from the boxes and restore to a dignified home.

And while, it is true, there are many I probably will not read or even handle again, one thing is sure. The fact that they are now accessible means that I will certainly study and read some, and  will learn new things.

In addition, with each book I shelve I silently pray: May it be Your will, Eternal One, that one day my children and grandchildren will peruse the collection and find something of enduring value calling to them from the once empty walls.







A Chanukah Miracle

Cindy Stowell's inspiring journey continues as four-day "Jeopardy!" champion

For me this year, Chanukah is all about Cindy Stowell!

2300 years ago a small group of loyal Jews defeated those among our people who cared so little for our faith that they were willing to give it up to “be just like everyone else.”

Only after civil war broke out among the Jews of Judaea did the Assyrian-Greek army of Antiochus IV invade Judaea, pollute the temple and outlaw all Jewish observance.

A small army of Jews took to the hills and fought the invaders, eventually driving them out of Jerusalem. They rededicated the temple that the Greek soldiers had defiled with idols and the sacrifice of pigs.

The story of Chanukah is about the first armed struggle for religious liberty in history.

The festival symbolizes of triumph over impossible odds. So does Cindy Stowell.

Cindy Stowell died on December 5, but as of this writing she has just won for the fifth day on Jeopardy! The breadth and depth of her knowledge are most impressive.

Because Jeopardy never allows the results of shows to air before the telecasts, no one outside of the program staff knows when her streak ended.

As the lights in our Chanukah lamp increase each day of the eight-day festival, so will the memory of Cindy Stowell’s intellect and courage.

Yes, Ms Stowell died on December 5. How long will she remain “alive” on TV’s most popular quiz show? A day? Two? A week?

It does not matter! To me she is Jeopardy’s all-time champion.

Those of us who have watched all of her episodes that have aired so far and that were taped in August are not surprised to learn that she was battling a high-grade fever and was on painkillers during her shows’ tapings. We can see she is growing weaker and her voice is growing softer each day.

In my heart it will never be stilled! The courage of this woman who played so brilliantly while battling stage-four colon cancer is my Chanukah miracle!

One of the reasons we celebrate Chanukah at this season is to kindle light during the darkest season of the year.

The light of Cindy Stowell will last much longer than the eight days of Chanukah. She embodies all that is precious about the Festival, and her light will shine forever.

Guest Blogger: Greg Marcus, “My Moment of Truth”

Only rarely do I invite guests to share my blog, but the excerpt from Greg Marcus’ The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions below struck a deep chord in me. Why? The experience Greg describes in this essay is a perfect example of what I mean by “Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.” It is a wonderful example of a moment when we see the Torah not just as an ancient text but as spiritual instruction that speaks directly to us. Greg finds spiritual enlightenment and a greater sense of self-worth through Mussar. I find those things through intense wrestling with the stories in the Torah. Jewish thought offers many paths to greater self-awareness that can benefit us whether we are Jewish or not.   Thank you, Dr. Marcus, for allowing me to share your wisdom with my readers.
                    —Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

 My spiritual journey started about ten years ago, at an unexpected time and place. At the time, my focus was almost entirely secular. I had my dream job, and I thought I was living a dream life. I had a great wife, two young daughters, and I was working at a Silicon Valley company that was literally revolutionizing human genetics research.

At first, the fact that I was working 90 hours a week did not bother me, and I took pride in my toughness. But my devotion to the workplace left me vulnerable, and I came to a place where despite my Ph.D. from MIT, I felt worthless. I felt like a bad husband, a bad father, and a bad employee. I was like an eggshell with all of the egg sucked out, hollow, dark, and empty inside. It started at the apex of my career – I was marketing the flagship product, and was leading the team developing the fourth generation, with the scope and features that everyone wanted. As luck would have it, this project was the first one with major technical hurdles and setbacks. We made our launch date because I was not going to let us fail. We worked every weekend and through almost every vacation for an entire year. We got to launch, we shipped the product, and it flopped. It flopped in every single customer’s hands. And management blamed me.

A few weeks after launch, I was sitting in a meeting with the top company leadership. None of the VPs and directors would make eye contact with me. Someone very senior started peppering me with questions: How much until this, how long until that, how many of this? I fumbled with my spreadsheets and she asked,

“Don’t you know how important this is?”

I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants and said in a quiet voice, “Yes.”

“Well, it is time to start acting like it.”

I walked out of that room with my shoulders down and said to myself in the hall, “Wow, I have really let the company down. I was the person in charge. This happened on my watch.”

The following week, I was at the largest human genetics meeting of the year. I was in a room full of our best customers and prospects when our featured speaker presented the product in a very poor light. I spent the rest of that afternoon at our booth in the trade show hall explaining over and over again that things would be just fine because we would have fixes for all of the issues.

That night, a bunch of us were walking to a bar to blow off some steam when my cell phone rang.

“Greg, it’s mom. Grandma died today.”

I stood on the corner with an umbrella in one hand and my cell phone in the other watching my colleagues file into the bar. My mother said to me,

“Surely you are not thinking of skipping the funeral.”

She was right. I was on the verge of not going. I walked back to my hotel room, and burst into tears, thinking how proud my grandmother had been of me. When the meeting was over, I flew directly to the funeral. They waited an extra day so I could make it.

A few weeks after the funeral, I was still really down. Now it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. The key thing on Yom Kippur is that, we fast from sundown to sundown, we don’t go to work, and we spend the day in prayer and reflection. It was 3 in the afternoon, and I was sitting towards the back by myself. My head was back, and my eyes were closed. I was conserving my strength because I hadn’t had any food or water since the night before.

At the front, they were chanting from the Torah in Hebrew. I opened my eyes, and looked down at the translation: Don’t turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods. My immediate thought was, Idol worship, that ancient statue-worshipping thing is no longer relevant in the modern world… And then this phrase popped into my head. It was like a clear quiet voice saying, “You need to do what is best for the company.” My stomach clenched, and I started sweating.

We only used the phrase, “Do what is best for the company” to justify something that was unpopular, like a layoff, a canceled project, or asking someone to skip a vacation. I thought about the nature of the company, an amorphous entity with a brand logo. I thought to myself, “Doing what is best for the company is not the same as doing what is best. My God, have I turned my company into a false idol? I guess I can’t really be a family first person when I’m working 90 hours a week.”

I realized that my priorities were upside down, and I decided right then and there that I had to stop doing what is best for the company, and start putting people first. I needed to take care of myself, and I needed to take care of my family.

Within a year, I had cut my hours by a third without changing jobs. Not a single person at work noticed. In fact, my career was thriving because I was no longer strung out and exhausted.

My life at home became a joy. One afternoon, I walked past the door of the living room, and stopped to watch my preschool daughter play with a friend. The scene was different from the wild rambunctious play that was the norm. They were sitting on the floor cross legged, talking quietly to each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were so intense and serious. My eyes teared up as I saw this part of her I had never seen. I thought to myself “If I hadn’t been home, I would have missed this irreplaceable moment.”

The moment of change

For years, I looked back and wondered where those words that popped into my head came from. If you are of a certain spiritual bent, you may be thinking that those words came from God. The collective view of how God speaks to us has been influenced by the movie The Ten Commandments – a powerful deep voice, booming in a way that we can’t deny. While that makes for good Hollywood, that is not how these things actually work. Today, I have no doubt that God spoke to me, but it certainly was not what I believed back then. And you don’t need to believe it now to keep reading.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a actually a message from the Divinity, because whatever the cause, that moment of quiet changed my life. I began to act differently, and because I was acting differently, I began to feel differently.

Spending less time working greatly improved my life, but it did not answer what inside me was driving me to work so much in the first place. I am a bit of a seeker, and I wanted answers to some of the bigger questions about myself, and life in general. Unexpectedly, the answers came from Judaism.

Judaism, as I perceived it at the time, was largely focused on rituals and traditions. I had not yet been exposed to the richness of Jewish thought that has developed through debate and scholarship over the last few millennia. Sages and scholars puzzled over great philosophical questions, AND how Jewish values can be applied in everyday life to answer those questions. It was the practice of Mussar that brought it all together for me, and helped me find the answers.

From The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions by Greg Marcus, PhD. © 2016 by Greg Marcus, PhD. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd. Greg is a practitioner, facilitator, and innovator of American Mussar, a 21st century spiritual practice for an authentic and meaningful life. To learn more, please visit Greg at


Jacob Becomes Israel

After twenty long years of exile Jacob decided to travel home even though he knew Esau had vowed to kill him and was on his way to meet him with a regiment of 400 men. As he prayed to God for help, Jacob acknowledged that he was “unworthy of all the kindness” that God had showed him (Genesis 32:11).

On the night before he met his brother, Jacob struggled with everything he had been and hoped to be.

It was a life-altering struggle. After he wrestled with God, his conscience, and all he had done to Esau, he emerged a new man with new determination. He resolved to reconcile with Esau and to ensure they could cooperatively co-existeach in his own land. He also limped on an injured hip to teach us that truly coming to grips with God–and the way God wants us to live–involves pain as well as progress and reward.

With whom did Jacob struggle on that eventful night?

Was it an angel, his conscience, or did he struggle with God? Perhaps it was the spirit of his brother Esau, or a combination of the above. We cannot be sure. We can be sure that after the struggle, Jacob awoke a new man with a new name. He became Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” Only after that night did Jacob begin to realize his full potential as a covenantal partner with the Almighty.

Note that the name Israel does not mean to believe in God or to understand everything about God. It means to struggle with the idea that despite all the evil and immorality we see in the world, there is a good, caring God who implores us to use our talents to make the world a better place. The invitation to that struggle–to and the way each of us can use our talents to make a better world–emerges from the Hebrew Bible, but is open to all of us whether we identify with a particular religion or not.

After the struggle, Jacob knew that Esau prepared to wage war (Genesis 32:7), but he prepared to make peace. He sent his brother a generous offering (Genesis 32)an abundance of cows, bulls, goats, camels, ewes, rams, and donkeys. Through this gesture, Jacob endeavored to return to his brother the material value of the birthright he had wrested from him long ago (Genesis 25:29).

With this offer Jacob, who is now Israel, was saying, “I acknowledge and regret the pain I caused you.” The gift was so substantial and so sincere that by the time Esau and Jacob met, Esau abandoned the course of violence that he had planned for twenty years. The two brothers embraced, as brothers should.

Jacob’s growth and development make him worthy to bear the name Israel.

In his transformation, he becomes a worthy role model for us. The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws. Jacob grows through the mistakes of his youth and becomes the responsible leader of our people. He blesses Joseph’s sons and brings them into the Covenant of Abraham. Although he lives as a pensioner in Egypt for seventeen years, he makes his son Joseph swear that he will ensure his burial not in a foreign country but in the land God promised to his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, the land that Abraham purchased at an exorbitant price in the sight of all the people of Heth long ago.




My Thanksgiving is November 29

presurgerySurrounded by Leo, Ben, Vickie and Sarah before my surgery, November 29, 2012

Thanksgiving this year was wonderful. Sixteen relatives filled our house with laughter, mutual empathy and joy. Vickie made a fantastic meal, and it was a very special day.

Thanksgiving falls each year on the fourth Thursday in November, but for me—since 2012 and for as long as I live—Thanksgiving will always be November 29.

On that day in 2012 I was not sure whether I would live or die.

On that day Dr. Lars Svensson and his skilled surgical team at the Cleveland Clinic opened my chest to repair an ascending aortic aneurysm and at the same time replace a malfunctioning mechanical aortic valve with a tissue valve.

My Connecticut cardiologist, Dr. Robert Chamberlain, of blessed memory, did not overstate the case when he said, “You will feel like you have been hit by a truck.”

In addition to the physical pain and the prospect of a long recovery, there was nothing whatsoever on my professional calendar.

I was physically and emotionally devastated.

  • I could not have imagined on that painful but life-saving day that four years later Vickie and I would have spent three months working in Milan and more than half a year—over a three year period—teaching and speaking in schools synagogues, churches and universities in Germany.
  • I could not have imagined that I would finally publish the book I have been thinking about since 1975 and that it would be translated into German and Russian or that I would record it as an audio book.
  • I could not have imagined that I would have published a second book as well.
  • I also could not have imagined that I would publish 375 web page essays that thousands of people would read.

Many people held my hand and guided my steps from November 29, 2012, to today. I pray that they know who they are and that they know how deep my gratitude is.

While I am so very grateful for the opportunities given me, I realize that I have not ended world hunger, cured cancer, made peace between Israel and the Palestinians or solved any major world problems.

Still, I will always cherish the day in when I began my journey back from the physical and spiritual abyss.

I pray that there will be more days and more opportunities. And I pray the Eternal One will grant me the strength and the wisdom to use those opportunities to make this world—in ways however small—a more just, caring and compassionate place.


Where is the line?

Where is the Line? When will we know that we must leave?

These are serious questions asked by serious questioners.

The election of Donald Trump has turned the world upside down.

At a lesson for adults at the Reform synagogue in Kiel, Germany last week, a highly respected and caring OB-GYN raised this question because of her concern about what might happen in next year’s German elections. She is proud of being Jewish and makes sure that the many Syrian refugee women she treats in her home city of Flensburg know of her heritage.

Shortly after we arrived home, my older son Leo asked the same question, “Where is the line?” Leo helped found a college preparatory elementary school—which he continues to serve as Principal— to give disadvantaged students a better chance at life in the inner city of Oakland, California.

Both of these individuals work tirelessly to make the world where they live a better place. Now both ask, “When is it time to realize that we cannot make our world better any more, and when should we leave our homeland for another?”

My response to both is, “Not yet! Let’s wait, watch vigilantly and see what happens.”

As a government major in college I learned the importance of giving a new administration every opportunity to succeed before manning the barricades in opposition.

I believe that we should follow President Obama’s wonderful example of facilitating a graceful and gracious transition. Nobody wanted Trump to lose more than our president. But his high road approach to the defeat of his candidate should be an example for all of us.

A disappointing number—to my mind—of Jews and other Clinton supporters are wasting their time and energy by trying to convince the electoral College to do something it has never done in the 240 years of the American Republic: Elect as president the candidate who by the established rules of the election suffered a decisive defeat.

Just imagine the turmoil and violence that will result if they succeed in this effort!

I believe there is much to be gained by Jewish leaders trying to meet with Trump and help him see the light about some of those his campaign has attracted. Engagement is always preferable to estrangement until we are quite certain that engagement will get us nowhere.

“Who is the greatest of all heroes? The one who turns his enemy into a friend (Tosephta to Chapter 4 of Pirke Avot)

It is a worthy goal, and before we organize demonstrations and protests, we should try that with the President Elect!

With Trump’s election  many are raising alarming comparisons to Germany in 1933 when that country legitimately elected Adolph Hitler as Chancellor

When Hitler came to power in Germany, there were two responses in my family. I call them the “Judith Response” and the “Dad Response.”

Dad and Judith were first cousins. They lived close to one another in Leipzig and loved each other deeply. When Judith left Germany in 1935, Dad drove her to the train station.

Judith must have been one of the first female dermatologists in Germany in the early 30’s. She paid close attention to what was happening there. When she saw the writing on the wall, she safely settled and re-established herself with her Husband Lazer and her infant daughter, Devorah (who also grew up to become a physician specializing in nuclear medicine) in Tel Aviv.

Dad—and there is no other way to put this—waited too long to leave. He was arrested on Kristallnacht and taken to Dachau where Nazi soldiers beat him and shaved his head.

But my father was fortunate. His brother and uncle already in the United States petitioned Governor Herbert Lehman of New York, a Jew whose father immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1848, whose office secured his release.

If I could ask my father one question, it would be why did you wait so long?

I do not think it is time yet for American Jews to leave the USA because of fear of Trump, but I do think it is time for us to:

  • Keep a sharp eye on all that Trump and his administration do. We must not become the lobster who does not realize he is being boiled before it is too late.
  • And we should weigh our options: where would we go if we do want to leave?

Yes, we must be vigilant, and we must weigh our options.

But the crucial question, “Where is the line?” is one that each of us must answer for ourselves.



The Feminist Leaning of the Hebrew Bible

Over and over again in the Bible it is the woman who gets it and the man who is clueless.

Eve has been maligned for generations for the so-called fall of man, but really she is the heroine of the elevation of humanity. It was she not her husband who perceived that life in Eden –while idyllic – was sterile and essentially without meaning. It was she who saw (Genesis 3:6) ונחמד העץ להשכיל the tree of knowledge was desirable as a source of wisdom; she took of its fruit and ate.

Other examples abound.

Rebecca, though her actions are morally questionable, understand’s God’s will while Isaac is literally and figuratively in the dark. Judah evolves from the man who sold his brother to the man who would not leave his other brother behind through the tutelage of his daughter-in-law Tamar. Hannah is savvy and aware. Her husband Elkanah and Eli the high priest of Israel just don’t get it. Rahab, Vashti, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Yael…the list of female heroes is long, and their influence is substantial.

Moses is unquestionably the Bible’s most important figure, but he owes his entire career to the vital intervention of no fewer than six women:

Shifrah, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah all play crucial roles in our people’s signature story: The Exodus from Egypt. Without them Moses never would have become our liberator, lawgiver and leader. Through their stories and commentaries the rabbis of the Midrash embellish each of their roles.

The task of our generation is twofold:

  • Underscore the vital role women play in biblical stories and give them the enormous credit they are due but do not receive in traditional circles.
  • Continue the forward progress in women’s rights until society views women and men as completely equal.







God Picks Abraham Purposefully

In chapter 12 of Genesis, when we meet Abram, who later in the portion becomes Abraham –God has tried three times to encourage human beings to create a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth. From the time of creation, such a community has been God’s highest goal.

But the societies in Eden, after Eden until the flood, and after the flood all have failed.

Even though God is frustrated and disappointed, God does not give up.

In a fourth attempt, the Eternal One chooses Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants to be God’s “special agents” in the ongoing quest to make the world a better place.

Early in my career as a rabbi, a Protestant minister said of Abraham. “He was like a random lottery winner. It was just a mysterious act of God’s grace that God chose him.

From a Jewish perspective, nothing could be further from the truth.

True, the Bible says nothing about Abram until he is 75, at which point God tells him, “Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I will make a covenant with you, God continues, and I expect you to “be a blessing” so that all the nations of the earth will find blessing through you and your descendants.

A Golden opportunity for the rabbis!

For Jewish tradition, the choice of Abraham is not random at all. The sages saw the Torah’s silence about Abraham’s earlier years as a golden opportunity to illustrate why God very intentionally chose Abraham as a covenantal partner in the quest to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.

Two classic midrashic stories illustrate the rabbinic outlook.

  • When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter. Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born who will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. To protect his son, Abraham’s father, Terach, hides him in a cave.

At the age of three, he wandered out of the cave and being a most precocious child asked what could hardly be considered a typical question for a three-year-old: “Who created the heavens and the earth – and me?” He looked up at the sun and, imagining that it was the creative force, he worshipped it all day. That night when the moon came out, he thought it must be stronger than the sun. So he worshipped the moon all night. When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that there must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation. So, according to this story, Abraham – at a very young age – chose God, which helps explain why God chose him (Bet ha-Midrash, chapter 2).

  • Another story – one of the most famous of all midrashic themes – tells that when Abraham was a boy, Terach was the proprietor a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods. One day, Terach went on a business trip and left Abraham in charge of the store. While he was cleaning up, Abraham accidentally broke one of the idols. Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.

“How did this happen?” asked Terach.

“Oh,” Abraham answered, “the broken idol was misbehaving and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.”

“Fool,” said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything?”

“If so,” Abraham, responded, “why do you worship them?” (Bereshit Rabbah 38:13, retold with variations many times)

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry, and further explains why he was God’s choice as a covenantal partner.

Four thousand years later we who claim to be Abraham’s descendants should still be hard at work – each in our own way – to make a righteous and just society on earth. When the task seems overwhelming, we should remember Rabbi Tarphon, a second-century sage who famously taught:

“It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it!” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Back to Kaltenkirchen


Broken Cross

(L to R) Pastorin Martina Dittkrist, artist Hannelore Golberg, me, and Vickie standing in front of Ms Golberg’s painting of “The Broken Cross” symbolizing the ongoing atonement of the community of the Michaeliskirche in Kaltenkirchen for the crimes of the one time Pastor Ernst Biberstein who became a Nazi tried and convicted at Nuremberg of mass murder.


Vickie and I among the students we taught at the Gymnasium Kaltenkirchen


Kaltenkirchen was one of the first places Vickie and I visited on our first extended trip to Germany in 2014.

Then we visited a tiny Concentration Camp site and noted the stately houses just across the street where people lived their lives and said nothing.

Two weeks later I became the first rabbi to  preach at Michaeliskirche in that village. Their wonderful Pastor, Martina Dittkrist was eager for me to do so because the church’s history was marred by a previous Pastor, Ernst Biberstein, who served during the thirties. Biberstein left the church and became a Nazi officer who was convicted of atrocity war crimes at the Nuremberg Tribunal and held responsible for the deaths of 2000-3000 Jews.

In the Social Hall of the church, a painting by Hannelore Golberg symbolizes the impact of Biberstein’s ministry on the church. It depicts a cross that is uprooted from the ground and tilted on its side. There is also a tasteful plaque in the main sanctuary expressing the church’s sorrow that they had once trusted such a man as their spiritual guide. I named a previous essay about that experience, “The Church of the Broken Cross.”

That sermon was the first time that I used what has become in many speeches in Germany since, my catch phrase:

We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.

It was a gratifying but gut wrenching experience!

Those words could also describe our recent visit to the Gymnasium Kaltenkirchen.

There we met for 90 minutes with a group of combined classes totaling some 80 students. They listened with rapt attention—some had tears in their eyes—as Vickie spoke about her mother and I spoke about my father. We emphasized how her mother and my father were among the truly lucky one’s to escape the inferno before it engulf Europe’s Jews. Still both Vickie’s mother and my father suffered, and it is important for students to understand their history.

Although the message of these two experiences was similar, our mood in the respective settings was quite different.

During the church service people looked back and realized the horror of the era with genuine regret. There was visible emotion, but most of those in the congregation had lived most of their lives.

By contrast the teenagers at the Gymnasium present a different picture. They are part of the group that will shape the future of Germany and Europe.

We left with a feeling of great hope. They seemed as determined as any group we have ever seen to insure that they want to create a better future for themselves, their children, grandchildren and generations to come.

Their responses to the lessons we taught made us very glad that we were there.