Barbara Merchant

The Hebrew month of Elul begins this year on September 1.

During this month our tradition calls upon us to scrutinize our actions to prepare for the intense period of repentance and soul searching from Rosh Hashanah through the full day fast on Yom Kippur ten days later.

Soul Searching

Looking back over my life I find myself regretting the all too many times that selfishness supplanted kindness and intensity pushed concern for the feelings of others out of my consciousness.

Our High Holy Day prayerbook urges us to think of others and how we have treated them in the past. This year my interactions with one person from high school come to mind: Barbara Merchant.

Barbara and I

The high point of my high school academic career came when our Guidance counselor, Miss Jane Perry, came into our English class after the first six-week grading period junior year to announce that I stood first in the class academically for the grading period.

As Miss Perry left the room Barbara followed her out into the hall. Two minutes later Miss Perry returned to announce that Barbara and I had tied for first in the class. Somehow Barbara knew that our report cards that period were identical.

Barbara Merchant! Typing her name fills me with regret.

She was very bright and very kind. We should have been friends, but we were always rivals in the classroom and on the school newspaper. Sadly, each of us was denied the position of Editor-in-Chief our senior year because of fear that neither of us would take direction from the other. So she became Feature Editor, and I became Front Page Editor.

It is well over half a century too late, but it is clear to me now that Barbara absolutely deserved to be Editor in Chief more than I. If our rivalry denied her that honor, I am truly sorry. But, things look differently at 73 from the way they looked at 17.

I have Googled Barbara without success, and I do not know what became of her. I want to apologize to her. I know that I did not treat her with the respect and admiration she deserved.

A couple of times we had meaningful conversations, but it was rivalry and envy that marked the way we regarded each other most of the time.

As the month of Elul approaches, and our season of introspection and repentance begins, I want you to know, Barbara, that wherever you are, I am truly sorry.

Is there someone to whom you should apologize? If so, I urge you, do it before it is too late.

Pervasive Fear

The prophet Micah (4:4) succinctly and eloquently articulates God’s ideal for humanity with the words ואין מחריד  – “nothing or no one shall cause fear. The verse envisions or dreams of a wonderful time, “when everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.

In Psalm 54 (verse 6) we read a garbled Hebrew verse that might read:  “There they are in great fear, where no fear was.”

In his masterful commentary on Psalms, Robert Alter interprets the verse as referring to a time when the Israelites “were afraid, but it turned out there was no reason to fear.”

Mass shootings over the past several years and particularly the most recent ones (at least the most recent ones as of this writing) in El Paso and Denver bring to my mind a different interpretation of the confusing verse:

There is NOW pervasive fear when previously there was once no reason to be afraid.

  • Just days ago residents of El Paso felt they could shop at Wal-Mart without fear. Now they have learned differently.
  • Just days ago people in Dayton, Ohio blithely went out for a night on town. Now things are different.

So it is all over this country. Places considered safe are no longer safe. No one considers herself or himself safe anymore. We all are acutely aware that the next attack can happen at our synagogue, church, mosque, shopping center or entertainment venue.

It is a horrible way to live.

When I went to school, shooting drills were not part of the curriculum. Now they are.

How has this great country, become a place where the fear of random violence lingers over all that we do?

How did the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” become the “Land of Pervasive Fear?”

The thought of living in constant fear sickens me, and when I look at my six beautiful grandchildren, it sickens me even more.

  • Gun control
  • Reduced violence spewing out of media outlets
  • Better mental provisions for those with emotional disorders
  • Improved public schools
  •  Health care that is the right for all; not the privilege of the wealthy
  • Swift punishment for cops who cross the line 

All of these are agenda items for our society to address yesterday if not sooner if ever we hope to roll back the cloud of once unnecessary fear that hovers over all of us.



And Now Dayton

There is an old country song that the late Lynne Anderson (of Rose Garden Fame) used to sing on the Lawrence Welk Show. It is called, “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man.” Singing it requires a prodigious memory of hundreds of place names sung at (excuse the expression) Machine Gun Speed.

The next name on the seemingly endless list is Dayton!

Will it ever end?

Will we as a nation ever come to our senses?

Yes, I know, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. How many times have we heard that one? Of course it is true. But it is a lot easier to kill large numbers of people with a machine gun than with a knife.

No, it won’t solve the problem, but it will make a dent if we make a license to own and discharge a firearm as difficult as the process of obtaining a driver’s license.

It is not that tough, but you have to prove that you are capable of operating a vehicle. Still automobiles have killed and will continue to kill millions of people. But how much higher that number would be if anyone could simply buy a car and hit the road?

No, gun control will not eliminate wanton violence.

But it sure would make a difference!

El Paso Today

עד מתי (Ad Ma-tie)

How long?”

In different ways the authors of the Bible’s Book of Psalms ask this question over and over again:

How long will wickedness, violence and terror reign on the earth?

The Psalmist’s question 3000 years ago is my question today. Vickie and I were in a Wal-Mart in Fort Myers when hell descended on a Wal-Mart in El Paso. So I feel more connected than usual to this latest outbreak of hate filled terror.

It was easier today than in other shootings to envision my wife and I mowed down by machine gun fire as we vainly scrambled for refuge in a crowded store.

How long will we allow the NRA to allow people with AK-47 rifles to unload their magazines on innocent people? How long will we allow lives and dreams to be destroyed in an instant just because someone feels like doing so?

Mass shootings are no longer unexpected. Each subsequent tragedy raises the questions not if there will be a next one, but where and when will the next one be?

So twenty more people are now dead. Scores of others are seriously wounded because the Congress of the United States is content with our nation having the highest rate of deaths to gun violence in the world.

Stricter gun control will not stop all the shootings, but they will stop many. Background checks for all, licenses for all and a ban on assault type weapons are necessary – no brainer really –steps our nation must take.

 Rabbi Sarah Hronsky wrote that we must never become numb to the carnage that the NRA fights for the right to occur and too many Senators and members of the House of Representatives condone by their failure to act.

The second amendment to our Constitution speaks of the rights of states to arm and train a “well-regulated militia.” The second amendment does not say that anyone or anybody should be able to possess and use a weapon capable of killing dozens of people in little more than an eye blink.

Our gun laws are a national disgrace!

Health care should be a right not a privilege for those who can afford it. Owning a gun by contrast should be a privilege like driving a car, for which one must prove oneself worthy and capable.

We Americans need to have the guts to vote for politicians who will stand up to the NRA and pass gun laws that will save lives.

We need to vote for a President who will lead the way to a safer United States.

How long? How long until this country finally comes to its senses?


A Trip to Savor 


pcFDkOwqSp26zqpFc0MYLQPastor John Danner and I at the Peace Wall at the border of Gaza comparing our messages of hope that this troubled part of the world may one day know harmony and cooperaton.

Our congregation’s joint trip to Israel with Sanibel Congregational UCC exceeded my fondest expectations!

The only previous interfaith journey to Israel I had undertaken was one that I co-led with an anti-Israel Arab Professor from the Hartford Seminary twenty year ago.  It was not a joyful experience.

While I tried to present and model an open-minded, “let’s listen to both sides of the conflict,” perspective, the professor took us to a Palestinian village where his selected panelists heaped venomous attacks on the very existence of the Jewish State as we sat in a beautiful auditorium community center built for that Arab village by the Government of Israel.

When the Professor begged off our visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Va-Shem, claiming he did not feel well (he was absolutely fine that evening), I truly regretted having agreed to co-lead this “journey of understanding.”

By contrast our joint trip this summer was an absolute joy.

There were 42 in our group, almost equally divided between Christians and Jews. My UCC counterpart, Rev. Dr. John Danner was a model of sensitivity, open mindedness, wisdom and pastoral concern.

For me one of the true highlights was accepting the invitation of Rabbi Ada Zavidov to deliver the D’var Torah at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kehilat Har El in Jerusalem, the oldest Reform synagogue in Israel. On this visit to Har El, I spoke in English for the benefit of my wonderful group of fellow travelers about the vital principles of human conduct found in the Holiness Code, Leviticus, chapter 19.  It warmed my heart to know that every idea I expressed was an ideal that Dr. Danner and his congregants could wholeheartedly affirm. Our religious differences are real, but we share common moral values and a fervent desire to use our respective faiths as springboards to help repair our broken world.

It was the second time in 5779 that I had the privilege of preaching at Har El. The first time in October I spoke in Hebrew about the lessons of the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel. Then I was visiting my son Leo, who at 42 made the decision to begin rabbinical studies and spend his first year of the five-year graduate program at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. His address to our group this spring was a genuine highlight of the journey.

Leo has an extensive Jewish background, but he knows well there is no shortcut to becoming a genuinely credentialed rabbi. The day-in, day-out, interactions with Professors and other students are absolutely essential to a rabbi’s legitimacy

A shortcut course and a bit of flair and charisma may help one become an effective leader of worship, but to become a rabbi, worthy of that venerable title, takes years and years of full time concentrated study. Anything less is akin to calling an EMT a physician.

On our recent trip it was just as important to me and my fellow Jews as it was to the Christians in our group to visit the holy places of their religion. Worship at the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, visits to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the opportunity for our Christian friends to re-experience baptism in the Jordan River were moving experiences for us Jews to better understand Christian roots and practices.

Pastor Danner, while scrupulously respecting boundaries, offered loving and Jewishly affirming explanations that enhanced all of our understanding. I’d go with him again, to Israel or any other place of mutual interest.