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.


Melchizedek: Prototype of the Righteous Gentile

Book excerpt from ToraHighlights:


One of my objectives in ToraHighlights is to focus on aspects of some of the weekly Torah reading that I had not considered in other contexts. This weeks portion tells of the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s Covenant with God. Melchizedek offers invaluable assistance.Melchizedek is one of the characters to whom I have given little thought for many years.

As we welcome the final Shabbat that we will spend this year with our friends and hosts, Pastor Ursula Sieg and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening, it feels appropriate to share this reflection in honor of those who  like them are spiritual descendants of Melchizedek. They are not Jewish, but they do so much to promote and enhance Jewish understanding. As Melchizedek sustained Abraham, Ursula and Martin sustain Vickie and me in all of the activities we do in Germany.


On a hot spring day in Los Angeles 45 years ago, ten other rabbinical students and I gasped with horror when we opened our final exams for our Bachelor of Hebrew Letters degree in Bible. Why? Our beloved Professor of Bible, Samson H. Levey, z’l, was requiring us to translate chapter 14, the most complex Hebrew passage in Genesis.

In this passage Abram (not yet Abraham) does battle to save his nephew Lot who has been captured in a desert war. After Abram’s victory, we read, “And Melchizedek, King of Salem, brought forth bread and wine. He was a priest of El Elyon (God Most High). And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of El Elyon, possessor of heaven and earth. And blessed be El Elyon, who has delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him a tenth of all.’” (Genesis 14:18-20)

According to the Zohar’s (Cabalistic Midrash) comment on Genesis 14, Melchizedek blessed Abram with the letter ה (‘Heh‘) that changed his name from Abram to Abraham and made him a ”father of nations.” Of course Salem is ancient Jerusalem, and El Elyon, scholars say, was likely the chief pagan deity of that area. But El Elyon becomes one of the names Jews use for the one true God. In fact we call God, El Elyon, in the first benediction of the Amida prayer in our liturgy.

What’s in this story for us?

Melchizedek is the prototype of the non-Jew who practices the Covenantal values of Justice and righteousness (Melchizedek means, “King of righteousness”) that Abraham represents. We have much in common with people like this, and we should seize every opportunity to join hands and hearts with them in efforts to make our world a better place.


A Different Type Of God

When we were slaves in Egypt, the Pharaoh was not just the country’s king. Pharaoh was a god.  

That pagan god was afraid that we Hebrews were becoming too numerous. So he called in the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah and told them: when you help the Hebrew women give birth, if you see that the child is a boy, kill it. If it is a girl, let her live.

But the midwives ignored the instruction of that god-Pharaoh. They listened instead to the voice of the one true God, a different type of God, and kept the boys alive.

The pagan god-Pharaoh then ordered his soldiers to throw every Hebrew baby boy into the Nile. But Yocheved was loyal to a different type of God and would not give up her baby.

With a fervent prayer she set her precious child in a basket and floated him in the water. It was a desperate move by a desperate woman. When Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby, she knew it was a Hebrew. She knew that her father her king and her god ordered Hebrew boys drowned. If she were faithful to him she would have simply tipped over the basket and went on with her bath. But Pharaoh’s daughter heard and heeded the voice of a different type of God, named the boy Moses, and adopted him as her own.

For that reason the rabbis give her the name Bityah, which means “daughter of The Eternal One (B. Megillah 13a).”

Before the Torah introduced the world to “a different type of God,” people viewed their gods as forces that they presumed had power. The whole purpose of religion was to appease those gods –to keep them from using their power to hurt, or perhaps to entice the gods to use their powers to help, the worshippers.

So, if I were a farmer I would plant my crops and then make an offering to the agriculture god. If I had a good harvest I would assume the god accepted my offering.

But if there was a problem-–a drought, or a famine or a plague of locusts — then I would assume that the god had found my offering inadequate, and I would make a larger offering the next time.

Eventually and inevitably these escalating offerings to pagan gods led to human sacrifice.

Our God—the God the Torah introduces to the world—is completely different.

Our God is more than a dispenser of rewards and punishments in response to offerings.

  • Our God abhors and utterly rejects—as the story of the binding of Isaac teaches—the abominable practice of human sacrifice.
  • Our God created the world with one overriding purpose: For human beings to create a just, caring and compassionate society.

In pursuit of that goal, God made a Covenant with Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. That Covenant underlies everything we do today as Jews.

In our Covenant God promises to protect us, give us children, make us a permanent people, and give us the land of Israel.

In return God charges Abraham and all of us: Be a blessing, walk in God’s ways and be worthy, and use our talents to establish a society filled with Tzedakah Righteousness and Mishpat, justice!

Several generations later we found ourselves enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. The value systems of Pharaoh and God were so different that they could not coexist. Pharaoh was a typical pagan god. He enslaved us to build his monuments and pyramids for no greater purpose than to glorify and exalt him. If his taskmasters beat us so that we would work harder that was fine. If they threw our baby boys into the Nile as a sacrifice to their river-god, they saw nothing wrong with that.

But God, the Torah teaches, remembered our Covenant, went to war with the pagan god Pharaoh and got us out of there.

Because God freed us from Egypt and brought us to Mt Sinai to renew our sacred Covenant, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. But we should spend our lives trying!

 Are these biblical stories true?

I honestly do not know. But the truth of these stories does not depend on their historical veracity. The truth of these stories lies in the world-changing ideals and values we learn from them.

At Sinai our narrative teaches in much greater detail of God’s hopes that we worship no other gods, keep the Sabbath holy, not murder, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness or covet. We learned not to spread false rumors and to treat the poor, the widow and the stranger with dignity and respect.

Later on we adopted the ideal that study and learning were vital ways of worshipping our God.   We were to study and learn, our tradition taught, not just so that we could be successful, but also so that we could use our talents and training to worship God by making the world a better place.

All of our Jewish practices—Shabbat, Holy Days, Chanukah, Passover, weddings, Bar or Bat Mitzvah, all of them, even funerals—have one main purpose: to inspire us to work toward the ultimate goal of creating the type of society God wants.     

Tutoring kids in reading or math, conducting food drives, becoming a big brother or sister, healing the sick, teaching and philanthropy are some of the ways we fulfill our covenantal responsibilities. We do these things because long ago our ancestors became partners with a different type of God, who wants us to use our talents and abilities to make the world a better place.



Why Trump Won

There was a plethora of things Clinton’s camp and the media miscalculated:

  • The fear for their safety with which so many live
  • The economic hardship under which so many suffer
  • The resonance of Trump’s simplistic promises which Clinton could not effectively refute
  • The backlash the derisive dismissal of Trump’s supporters by an overwhelmingly pro-Clinton intellectual and media establishment would cause.
  • The smugness so many discerned in Ms Clinton’s demeanor.
  • The smugness with which many in Ms. Clinton’s base dismissed any criticism of her at all.
  • The scent of scandal that has dogged her on so many fronts for so many years
  • The feeling many held that she was unduly influenced by sinister foreign interests.
  • The feeling that the Clinton Foundation was—despite whatever good it  did—primarily fraudulent enterprise to enrich the Clinton’s and further their political goals.

Many will find these realities hard to read.

For many, myself included, Mr. Trump’s liabilities and scandals far outweighed Ms. Clinton’s debits, but the Clinton camp—for all their technical skill and political experience—could not make their case at the end of the day in a way that resonated with the overwhelmingly red stripe of middle America.

By portraying Trump as a buffoon and his supporters as in large measure “deplorables” the Clinton camp mobilized the sentiment against her to a degree her camp grossly underestimated.

There is also, for certain, the pendulum factor.

In ugly terms it was indeed a “white backlash” against  America’s first Black president. But it is also a consistent factor in American politics. Pendulums swing and after eight years of Bush, the country was ready for eight years of Obama. After eight years of Obama the pendulum swung back.

When congregations pick a new rabbi, they so often choose someone they perceive does not possess the traits or way of doing things that they did not like in the rabbi who is leaving or retiring. The retiring or leaving rabbis strengths, they feel, they can do without.

The American electorate choosing a new president is much like a congregation choosing a new rabbi. There is a natural tendency to choose a candidate unlike the retiring incumbent. Clinton’s camp underestimated the impact of Trump’s contention that, “Electing Hillary would be like another eight years of Obama.”  Again for Clinton’s base, who largely revere Obama, that would have been fine. But many were ready to forego Obama’s skillful statesmanlike style for the blustery “Tell it like it is” Trump.

The desire for change is especially important when people perceive their economic future is not bright, that their streets are not as safe as they should be and that a significant foreign threat looms with which the incumbent did not deal to their satisfaction.

Like many, I am frightened by the prospect of President Trump. I pray that our democracy will withstand the challenge ahead, and that our nation will find a way to move forward in a manner that promotes “liberty and justice for all.”


A Ray of Light that Pierced the Darkness


Memorial at the site of the Great Synagogue of Kiel, Germany, that was destroyed on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. I will speak at the Kiel Kristallnacht commemorative, sponsored by The Organization for Christians and Jews Working Together, the evening of November 9, 2016

Tomorrow, is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, known to Germans as Pogromnacht, the nationwide pogrom perpetrated by the Nazis against Germany’s Jews on November 9-10, 1938. Historians consider this event the formal beginning of the Holocaust.

As we commemorate this somber anniversary, I want to share an act of heroism by a German citizen, a ray of light that momentarily pierced the darkness of Nazi terror.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner recounts:

A Jewish woman was riding home from work on a city bus when storm troopers boarded the coach to examine the identification papers of the passengers. The SS men ordered all of those with Jewish papers to leave the bus and get on a big truck waiting nearby.

As the soldiers made their way through the bus, a Jewish woman began to sob softly. When the Gentile man next to her asked her what was wrong, she answered that she was Jewish and the soldiers would surely take her.

All of a sudden, the man shouted at her, “You stupid wretch! I can’t stand being near you!” The SS men asked the man what all the shouting was about.

He pointed to the woman and sneered, “My dumb wife has forgotten her papers again. She does this all the time. I’m fed up with her.”

The SS men laughed, shook their heads, and moved on.

The woman never learned the name of the German stranger who had saved her life.


Lessons from … A ZERO!

I was absent from Hebrew School the day we got back our final exams, but my friend Rich told me all about it.

“And you should have seen how red the teacher’s face was when he handed back the papers,” Rich said as he ran toward me. “He was foaming at the mouth, and said, ‘and you can tell your friend Mr. Fuchs he got the lowest grade in the class, A ZERO!’ And then he ripped up your paper and threw it in the trash.”

What great sin earned me this public excoriation from my seventh grade Hebrew teacher? On the final exam, I wrote in answer to the question: Who are the three patriarchs? “Abe, Ike and Jake.”

The B part of my punishment was an angry phone call from the teacher to my mother informing her that I need to return during summer vacation to retake the exam. She was mortified, and I can still hear her telling me about it.

I laugh when I think back on that day. Today I would be quite content if our religious school students could identify Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I would not be at all angry if they decided to use nicknames.

While I certainly think the teacher went way over the top, I came to appreciate the message he was trying to send. While we Reform Jews do not take the Torah literally, we do take it seriously. It is not OK to treat it derisively

I do not know if the Abraham of the Torah really walked the desert sands 4000 years ago. I do know that the character of Abraham the Torah presents has had a profound impact on my life.

  • I marvel at the courage of this Abraham in leaving everything behind to make a Covenant with God in a still ongoing effort to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.
  • I admire the way Abraham stood up even to God until he was clear that God was not acting unjustly in destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • And yes, I admire Abrahams’s willingness to risk the censure of many modern thinkers because he followed God’s command to Mount Moriah to teach humanity the still unlearned lesson about the abomination of human sacrifice.

No, I do not take Torah literally, but it is the central focus of my life.

And I hope my seventh grade teacher would be pleased that I have learned–we should treat it reverently because the lessons it teaches can help us to make this world a better place.