Darnella

Vickie and I do not watch a lot of television, but we were glued to our set, hands tightly intertwined, while waiting for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial.

The trial was unique.

Millions of people were eyewitnesses. There was not a sudden burst of activity that one could either miss or misinterpret.  The world watched in horror as Derek Chauvin choked the life out of George Floyd for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.

 When the judge announced that the jury had found Derek Chauvin guilty on all three charges, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Much credit must go to Darnella Frazier, the seventeen-year-old woman who filmed the entire episode for the world to see. Her courage enabled us to reach a turning point in American history.

I am proud to have been present on that historic day in 1987 when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion honored Rosa Parks. The citation for the Roger E. Joseph Prize presented to Mrs. Parks reads: “who …with total conviction and courage, launched a boycott, changed a law, and helped reform a nation. Her indomitable spirit was the life force and catalyst for what has become the civil rights movement of this country.”

My hope is that it will not take HUC-JIR 32 years to honor Darnella Frazier in a similar manner. Her courage has sent a message across the cities, towns, and villages of the United States that people of color suspected of misdemeanor crimes are not subject to summary execution by the police.

Make no mistake! The overwhelming majority of police officers are dedicated professionals, who risk their lives daily to truly protect and serve all the citizens of our country.

Growing up, I was always proud of my cousin, Stanley Ferber, and his distinguished career as a member of the New York City Police Department.

Recently, I read the account of LaVonte Dell a black man pulled over by a white officer, Joshua Scaglione. When the officer asked why, Mr. Dell’s daughter was not in a car seat, he replied that it had been a tough year, money was tight, and he could not afford one. Officer Scaglione took Mr. Dell to Walmart where he purchased a car seat for him with his own money.

When asked why, the officer said: “I’m just doing my job.  What good would giving you a ticket do besides putting you further in the hole?”

Yes, Officer Scaglione felt he was just doing his job.  In a similar way, so did Darnella Frazier. 

In each of the five years preceding the pandemic, my wife Vickie and I spent between five and ten weeks each year in Germany teaching high school students about the Shoah. In our lessons we stress that the Holocaust did not happen only because of the unspeakable evil of Hitler and his lieutenants. It happened because too many everyday people were willing to look the other way.

So, we emphasize, when you see evil — let’s say a group of students bullying another — you can do one of three things.  You can join in and be popular. You can pretend it’s not your problem and walk away. Or you can have the courage of Darnella Frazier and call out the evil you are witnessing.

The Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:16) demands that we “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  In other words, in Jewish thinking there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.

Clearly Darnella Frazier understood the importance of this vital principle of Torah.  The world will be a better place if all of us do as well.                                                                                                                                                                                     

Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder to express the hope that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in all of the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories then there are stories about Moses (and more than the character who has the second largest number of Midrashic vignettes, Solomon). This phenomenon is due in large measure to the work of the prophet Malachi who at the end of his book transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian c. figure of might and courage to the one who in Jewish longing would return one day to announce the coming of the Messiah and with him bring an end of war and bloodshed.  With the coming of the Messiah an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth.  Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents.  For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.

But the ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and low that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty yet – like many who selflessly give of themselves – he has fallen into a deep depression of self-doubt.  Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught and will have no lasting effect.  And worse, the wicked Jezebel still has a price on his head.

God tries to encourage him and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses — whose career Elijah’s parallels in many ways – Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  There he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives.  Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real!  God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind.   Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire.  But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.

Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts.  It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others.  But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours.

As profound and wonderful as it was, though, not even God’s voice could completely lift the cloud of despair from Elijah, and God knows the time has come for him – as it came for – to relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative.  The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.

This should not be perceived as punishment.  At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel  — despite his eager desire to do so – into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah we must all some day relinquish our hold on the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.

Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty like Moses and Elijah can find valuable instruction here.  Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever.  That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have.  And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Still, Thankfully, Looking Ahead: Thoughts on Reaching 75

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

If you attended Shabbat Eve worship at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland on March 19, 1976 you heard me deliver a sermon titled: “From the Top of the Hill Looking Down: Thoughts on Reaching Thirty.”

For those of you who could not make it that night I said:

Getting up early for morning Squash is not so easy as it once was, and each day the bathroom mirror testifies to the presence of an additional gray hair.  Age has been creeping up on me, and last Tuesday it tapped me – not at all gently – on the shoulder.

“celebrated,” I continued, “is hardly the appropriate word to associate with my thirtieth birthday…’endured would be more descriptive.

The trauma of the completion of my third decade lies in the passage of youth.  I am not old – just older –and not really young anymore. I am at the height of my physical strength, but I can expect my strength only to diminish. I feel like one at the top of a hill.  All that is left is the descent.

Then I recalled attending a lovely celebration on my birthday a few days prior at Tio Pepe’s, one of Baltimore’s finest restaurants to celebrate the retirement of Rabbi Abraham Shaw who was completing forty years as Rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.

After drinking just one margarita that night, it was easy for me to close my eyes and imagine the celebration was not for Rabbi Shaw but for my thirtieth birthday. I began to wonder what my reflections would be 40 years later when I looked back, hopefully with the same satisfaction as Rabbi Shaw, on my rabbinical career.

I looked around our private room that night and formulated my perceptions of the older colleagues  (I was easily the youngest one there) with whom I sat:

One I labeled, “a bookworm rabbi,” who so immersed himself in Jewish study and writing of which most of his congregants understood and cared little. Yet they basked in the reflected glory of “their rabbi’s” scholarly achievements.

I classified another celebrant as “the businessman rabbi,” who, conducted his rabbinate like a corporate executive. He was a cracker-jack administrator and a great PR person with a ready smile and the knack for running from place to place and getting lots and lots of things done.  Unfortunately, I judged, that way of life allows little time for in-depth study, family life and intense personal involvement with the joy and sorrows of those he (and they were all he’s rabbis in the room were he’s at that time) serves.

There was another rabbinic colleague I considered an “acquiescent.” He just seemed to roll with the punches, does his best to give people what they want while seeming to have lost the desire that might have once burned inside of him to really challenge his congregants from the pulpit.

As I look back today, perhaps I judged my colleagues too harshly. After all, each was considered a success, but on that night forty-five years ago I resolved I would not become like a bookworm, the businessman or the acquiescent with whom I dined.

I promised myself that I would never lose my idealism, my desire to really make a difference in people’s lives or my personal integrity for the sake of popularity or position. 

I have tried my very best to keep that promise. 

But I wonder how a young colleague at my 75th birthday celebration would judge me.

I feel so blessed to have landed \in Sanibel where you inspire me to realize that 75 doesn’t have to be old. Those of you who are five, ten, fifteen and 20 years older than I have been such a blessing to me. You have made me realize that with God’s help I can still be productive and still make small differences in people’s lives. Jeanette Keyser, who died this past Shabbat at age 94 inspired me every time she trundled or wheeled herself into this room. Her body was frail, but her eyes shone with curiosity and the desire to learn.  She never lost her sense of wonder, and that is what I want for myself.

As I arrived at the tennis court on my birthday, Peter Danford wished me a happy birthday and friends asked me, “How do you plan to celebrate?”

“I am celebrating,” I answered, “by being here in the sunshine to play the game I love so much.”

Oh, I have seen enough and heard enough and experienced enough in my life personally to know that things can change in an instant. 

When they cracked my chest open for the first time to replace my congenitally defective aortic valve when I was fifty, I could not imagine my 75th birthday. There have been other significant bumps in my road including the need to open my chest a second time in 2012 to replace the replacement valve and sheath a life-threatening ascending aortic aneurysm. So, believe me, I know robust good health will not last forever, and it can vanish at any moment.

As I stand before you tonight the words I just read from the Torah, the exact words I read for the first time as a Bar Mitzvah 62 years ago resonate more than ever. I know that too many times (and once is already too many times) words I have spoken or things I have done have caused hurt and pain to people I love or people who depended on me in other ways. I never meant to. I was not aware on those occasions that I had given offense. But the Torah starkly reminds me that ignorance is no excuse. I am still guilty and must take responsibility for my actions as must we all. 

So, my sermon to myself at 75, which I invite you to apply to yourselves if you deem it appropriate comes from the third verse of Psalm 141:  

Set a guard, O Eternal One, to my mouth. Keep watch at the door of my lips.”

With that important admonition in mind, now that I am 75 I redouble my desire to live every day as fully as I can, enjoy what pleasure life affords me and try my best to fulfill the charge God made to Abraham 4000 years ago as he launched the new way of life, we now call Judaism:  והיה ברכה

“Be a Blessing,” to myself, my loved ones, to all of you, and all of those whose lives I may yet touch.

Amen

Hatach’s Story

I am Hatach, but I bet many of you have never heard of me.  Well, I am here to tell you that I am the unsung hero of the Purim story. Oh, I am easy to forget. In fact, I am so good at being unobtrusive that even Esther and Mordecai sometimes forget about me.  

But at the end of the day, I am the one who you should thank for Esther’s foiling Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. 

You see Esther was locked away in her sumptuous palace. Mordecai, a commoner had no access to her. He could only sit in the outer courtyard, and sometimes even then he breached protocol by dressing in sackcloth and ashes.  Of course, as Iwas to find out, he had good reason. Only because I took his message to Esther and successfully conveyed its urgency did Esther find the courage to risk her very life to see the King.

Do I make too much of my role? Hah! If I do, it is only because for two thousand plus years people have forgotten all about me. So, I want to set the record straight,

But then I am getting ahead of myself.  We have a story to tell

It takes place in imperial Persia long long ago …

Join us at the ZOOM link below to hear the story at 7:30 this evening!

 CLICK HERE TO JOIN OUR PURIM/SHABBAT CELEBRATION FRI 2/26

Why God Chose Abraham and All of Us

This is a much longer essay than I usually post. It expresses the essence of how I view the Bible and how I see our connection to God and our role on this planet. I welcome your comments.

In contrast to the gods worshipped by the pagan peoples the God of whom the Hebrew Bible speaks wants more than anything else for human beings to create on this earth a just, caring, and compassionate society.

In the pagan world gods were forces presumed to have power, and the purpose of religion was to appease these gods.  For example, if I planted my crops, I would make an offering to the “agriculture god.”  If I had a successful harvest that told me the god had accepted my offering.  If I had a poor harvest, or if there was a flood or drought, that proved that the god had rejected my offering.  

If I feared an invasion from a neighboring country, I would make an offering to my war god. If I won the war, my offering had been accepted.  If I lost I either concluded that my offering had not found favor, or I abandoned my war god and began worshipping the one of the nation that had conquered mine.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is very different.  Not only is our God indivisible and incorporeal, our God ahs a completely different agenda.  Our God creates humanity in the Divine Image.  That means not that we look like God, but that of all creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers.  

As the Midrash teaches, we human beings share characteristics with both the terrestrial animals and with God.  Like the animals we eat, sleep, eliminate our waste, propagate and die.  But our powers of thought, creativity and self expression are so far above the other earthly creatures that they are considered more God like than earth bound.

Put another way we are neither as swift as the cheetah nor as strong as the rhinoceros, but neither of those creatures is going to build a room like the one in which we worship or perform delicate surgery to repair a damaged heart.  Only humans have that power.

That means – for better or worse — that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for this world.  

We are the only creatures that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore form the mountain and turn that ore in to steel with which to perform the delicate operation referred to above.  At the same time, we are the only creature that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore, turn into the same iron and forge steel with which to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or to maim.

In other words we possess awesome power, and the abiding hope of the God of the Bible is that we shall use that power to create a world of equity, justice, compassion and peace.

When I began to take religious studies seriously, I pondered a perplexing question.  If the book of Genesis is the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, and if Genesis has fifty chapters, and if Jewish history starts when God calls to Abraham to leave Haran and journey to the promised land, and if that call comes in chapter twelve of the book, then what are the first eleven chapters doing there?

If I wrote a paper for one of my professors at Hamilton, the Hebrew Union college or at Vanderbilt, and the paper had fifty pages, but I didn’t get to the subject of the paper until page twelve, then the professor would justifiably demand that I get to the point sooner.

So, we might ask about Genesis. If we don’t get to the subject of the book until the twelfth of its fifty chapters, what is the point of the first eleven?  

The first chapter of Genesis is a glorious account of creation.  It is not a scientific attempt to explain how the world got here.  It is a religious attempt to explain why.  That is why if people ask if creationism should be taught in science class, my answer is a resounding “no!”

The story of creation is a marvelous poem which sets forth the basic assumptions about life under which the Bible and all of subsequent Jewish thought operates.  It teaches four main points.

First, God is the initiator of creation.  Second, creation is not an accident.  It has purpose and meaning.  If life has purpose and meaning, then our lives have purpose and meaning.

Third, in the Creation story.  Everything prior to humanity is created by simple declaration or divine fiat.  God says “let there be, and there was…’  Let there be light…let there be dry land… let there be vegetation…  Only when the story describes the creation of man and women do we read, “And God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, in the very image of God and they shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and everything that creeps on earth…”  In other words, God created us to be in charge of and responsible for this earth and charged us with the awesome task of creating the just caring, compassionate society.  Note well, nowhere does it say that God creates that society, or that God makes us create that society.  It is only clear that God want us to create that society.

Chapters 2-11 delineate three attempts on the part of the Almighty to have us humans do just that.  They are the society in Eden, the society after Eden until the time of the flood, and the society following the flood.  None of these societies work. None becomes the type of society God yearns for us to create.   Let us take a closer look at them.  Each has its own set of ground rules—operating principles under which the societies function.

Eden for example was a place of no birth, no death, (I would argue though some may differ) no sex) and no need to work hard.  I argue for no sex because sex leads to procreation.  And really you can only have it one of two ways, a world like Eden with neither birth nor death or a world like ours with both birth and death.  A world with birth and no death would quickly be overrun, and a world with death but no birth would quickly die out.

Now whatever our religious conviction, it is clear that society in Eden did not work.  For traditional Christianity the eating of the forbidden fruit represents the Fall of Humanity.  

According to that interpretation, we had it made!  God gave us everything we 

 could possibly want asking only that we not eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  We blew it! We ate from the tree and God expelled us from paradise.  In our act of disobedience, we separated ourselves so far from God, that we are powerless on our own to repair the breach.  But, according to traditional Christian doctrine, God gave us a second chance.  He sent us his only begotten son and if we believe in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven, we can overcome the chasm created by this original sin.

For traditional Judaism it was also a sin that the first couple ate the forbidden fruit.   We suffer because we do not live in Eden anymore, but we can under our own power and through our own actions approach God on our own.  We need no intermediary, and Jesus plays no role in our theology.

A third way to look at the story is more radical.  Life in Eden was pristine but dull.  It was boring.  There was no challenge, no purpose.

After a long year of work I am so very eager to take a vacation.  I can think of nothing more enticing than to lie on a beach with no worries or responsibilities, be able to reach up whenever my heart desires and pick a piece of non pesticide infested fruit with which to nourish myself and lie on the warm sand and let the clear blue waters lap against my toes.  I would enjoy this immensely—for about a week.  Maybe this past year I could have used ten days.  

But then I would start to look— as I suspect most of us would – for something meaningful to do something that would make a difference.  This is how I can imagine Adam and Eve felt in the Garden.  What I am suggesting is that the eating of the fruit—far from being the fall of man—represented the elevation of man into a creature ready to accept the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in life.

But however we look at the story, the Eden society did not work.  So out went the first couple to live with new ground rules outside the Garden.  Those new ground rules thrust them into a life where people had sex, were born, people died, and people had to work to earn a living.  Unfortunately, that society went quickly downhill with the murder of Abel by Cain.  The descent was rapid until God decided to destroy the world because it was filled with lawlessness and violence

 By the way there are many flood stories in the literature of the ancient near east.  Of them all, though, only the biblical flood story is cast in moral terms.  Only the biblical flood occurs because a good, caring God, desiring humanity to set up a just, caring, compassionate society is frustrated y humanity’s inability or unwillingness to do so.  Only in the biblical flood story does God choose the hero because he alone was righteous in his age!

So, Noah builds the ark, takes the animals and his family aboard, and survives the flood.  The flood ends and the curtain rises on society number three—a new society with new ground rules.  Like society number two the third society was a place of work, sexuality, birth and death.  

In addition, though, God adds three new ground rules in this third attempt to make the world work.  For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat.  God charges humanity with responsibility for brining to justice and punishing those who shed blood.  In other words, human beings must hold other human beings accountable for their actions.  And finally, God forswears the option of destroying the physical world again and starting over.  God says: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gn 8:22)

Unfortunately, the third society works out little better than the other two.  Noah immediately gets drunk.  Ham his youngest commits some unmentionable act against his father that brings a curse upon him.  

Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel—which depicts humanity’s seeming attempt to overthrow God.  Yes, society three is working out little if any better than the other two.  But now God has a dilemma.  God still cares about the world.  As much as ever God wants to see humanity create a world of justice, caring and peace, but God is still dissatisfied.  Furthermore, God has promised not to destroy the world again.  So, what is God to do?  The answer is: that God picks one individual one family and says to Abraham: “Go forth form your native land, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  (GN 12:1) And that begins the Covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants.

From a Jewish perspective God’s choice of Abraham is neither whimsical nor unexplained.  God chose Abraham because of his suitedness for the task.

Two Midrashic stories illustrate.

 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 that will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. Abraham’s father hides him in a cave.

At the age of three he walks out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?”  He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force.  So, he worshipped it all day.  That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon 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 their 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, and that helps explain why God chose him

Another story tells that when Abraham was a boy his father Terach was a merchant who had a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods.  One day, Terach had to go on a trip and left Abraham in charge of the store.  While he was cleaning up, he 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.

When his father came home, he demanded that Abraham tell him what happened.

Abraham answered that 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,” answered Abraham, “Then why do you worship them?”

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why God chose Abraham to begin the fourth society and present an entirely different idea of and approach to God.    

God tell Abraham “Go forth from your native land and from Your father’s house to the land the I will show you.” (Gn 12:1) Then God makes a Covenant with Abraham in which the Almighty promises to Abraham and his descendants:  Protection, progeny, permanence as a people and the land of Israel.  

In return, Abraham and all of us have to as God said to Abraham, “Be a blessing,” (GN 12:2) “Walk in My ways and be worthy” (GN 17:1), and work to create a society and teach your children to create a society based on “justice and righteousness.” (Gn 18:19)

That is still our charge today.  God chose Abraham and all of us his descendants because the world before him did not live up to God’s hopes and dreams.  Will the world of the future?

  The answer is in our hands!

For Jews “Earth Day” is (at Least) 1800 years Old

After Chanukah the next special occasion in the Jewish year is Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees. This year Tu B’Shevat corresponds to January 28. 

It is first and foremost a holiday to remind us of our responsibility to care for the environment.

In the United States we began celebrating “Earth Day” in 1970. Earth Day responded to a need to recognize and take cognizance of our human responsibility to protect our environment. Here on our sanctuary Island of Sanibel, there are, thankfully, many different initiatives that promote environmental awareness and care. 

Last year young Greta Thunberg became TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for focusing the world’s attention on our neglect of the environment.

Our festival of environmental awareness, Tu B’Shevat, is first mentioned in the Mishnah, compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  That means we Jews began observing our “Earth Day” and publicly focusing on environmental awareness for at least 1800 years. 

.  In chapter seven of the Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read:  “After the creation of the world God addressed the first couple, Adam and Eve, and told them to take care of this world and all of its beauty and abundance.  Beware, though, God reminded them, of destroying or polluting this earth because it is the only one we shall have. “

In the late 1980’s, when I served as Rabbi in Nashville, Albert Gore, then a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, began convening seminars which led to his book and movie about the environment which eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007.  At the first of these occasions Senator Gore invited me to share a closing homily that concretized this concern.  On that occasion I shared the following story:

Once upon a time — long ago –there was a goat with horns so long that when he stretched his neck, they grazed the sky and caused the stars to sing the most beautiful melody anyone had ever heard.  One day a man was walking through the forest thinking of buying a gift for his wife’s birthday when he encountered the goat.  Seeing his beautiful horns he thought to cut a small piece off of one to make a jewelry box for his wife. He asked the goat if he could do so, and the goat being a friendly sort agreed.  When friends saw the lovely jewelry box, everyone wanted one.  Then many people each took just a little bit of the goat’s precious horn for his or her own use.  As a result the stars no longer sing.  

For me this story conveys the essential message of Tu B’Shevat:  If we destroy it, we shall never have another one.

Jack Boshak

(In loving memory)

“Sunrise, sunset.” How quickly in retrospect the years have passed.

Jack was the brother I never had.  I was 15 when we met, and he took me under his wing.  He taught me a lot about how to act around girls, and I credit his tutelage for refining my approach enough that – years later — I could attract and win the love of someone as wonderful as Vickie.

When I first met him, I thought his name was French and would be spelled Jacques Beaushaque. It did not take me long to realize that the straightforward American way, Jack Boshak, far better suited his personality and character.

When “Chelle met Jack, her whole life changed. Almost from that day to this her life revolved around him. I marvel at the way she anticipated and took care of his every need. In turn his love for her knew no bounds through 57 years of marriage, laden with so much happiness, and yes, some tears. Most notably, Jack and ‘Chelle shared with Leah and Scott the searing pain of the death of their son Simon.

From a very young age, Jack knew the value of hard work. From selling Good Humor Ice Cream on Rockaway Beach on torrid summer days to his “business ventures” like those absurd pedal cars in the garage and the Heidi Vending machines, which he thought every candy store in New Jersey should have. I still remember visiting some of those stores with him.

Jack graduated from Rider College and passed his CPA exam on the first try.  No mean feat! 

He was a mathematical whiz, and I always marveled at his facility with numbers. I thought of him as a human calculator.

And he was a marvelous accountant.  Jack was fiercely independent; I could never imagine him being happy working for anyone else. Jack was a no-frills CPA, as symbolized by what I liked to call the “Boshak Building” that once housed his office on Route 9.

Jack had a gruff exterior — and God help you if you were a client who missed an appointment — but his heart was as tender as that of anyone I have ever known.

When Jack and ‘Chelle married I was 18, and they honored me by inviting me to be Head Usher at their wedding.  I should have been thrilled, but I was 18, immature and stupid. I thought I should be Best Man even though Jack’s older brother Howie, of blessed memory, was appropriately accorded that honor. But Jack went the extra mile to soothe my feelings and made us “co best men.”  He always had my back.

One of the very worst days of my life occurred 50 years ago when, while studying in Jerusalem, I got the news in the middle of the night that our father had died. The long flight home from Israel was exhausting and excruciatingly sad. But I still remember how the cloud began to lift when I saw Jackie waiting to greet me at Newark Airport.  I can’t describe how, but just seeing him made me feel better.

Jack’s character is best reflected through the prism of his four wonderful daughters. They are each so different. Yet Jack nurtured and understood each of them according to their unique personalities and needs.

Jack was a very proud Jew. It was who he was, and he and Rochelle infused that essence into the souls of Toby, Heather, Leah and Danna.  His daughters’ B’not Mitzvah were high points in his life.  Instead of a fancy celebration he and ‘Chelle gifted each daughter with an unforgettable trip to Israel with just her parents following her Bat Mitzvah.

A few sunrises later Paul, K. Paul and Scott became his sons.  His grandchildren, Libby, Sadye, Jocelyn, Maya, Eli, Liam and Felix were his delight. His crowning glory was the privilege and the blessing to share the joy of all of their B’nai Mitzvah celebrations. I can still see his beaming face and the tears of joy that streamed from it as he sat in the front of the three sanctuaries where these seven ceremonies took place.

Jack loved the fact that his daughters and their families remained close by as adults. Oh, it did not thrill him last year when Danna moved so far away from the family compound on Tuscarora Circle to study the behavior of large apes.  But it gave him comfort that his baby had found an outlet for her formidable intellect and considerable talents about which she is passionate. 

After these last few years of declining health, the sun has set for the last time on Jackie’s earthly journey. As a brother I worry about what will happen to Rochelle whose soul has been bound up with his for nearly sixty years. 

But I also know – for longer than anyone – how strong my sister is and that — strengthened by her wonderful daughters, sons in law and seven amazing grandchildren — she will endure. Yes, I know she will endure just as Jackie’s memory will endure in all of our hearts, for a blessing.

Amen

If They Accused You of Being Jewish, Would There Be Enough Evidence to Convict You?

When I addressed the Kristallnacht commemoration of the Sarasota-Manatee Federation in November, a couple was in the Zoom room who belonged to the first Congregation I served in Columbia, Maryland. They contacted Vickie and me, and the outdoor lunch we enjoyed together was the first time we had seen them since 1984.

As we ate, the woman shared, “I remember very few of the hundreds of sermons I have heard over the years, but I distinctly remember one of yours. You asked, ‘If they accused you of being Jewish, would there be enough evidence to convict you.’”

Flattered by and thankful for the memory jog, I remembered that I envisioned an investigator examining our homes and our lifestyles to determine whether enough about us would convince a jury that we were indeed Jews.

Some of the things the investigator would look for are: Is there Jewish art on the walls? Are there Jewish books on the shelves? Is there a connection with the Jewish community through synagogue, federation, JCC and/or Jewish charities?

Looking at our tradition, the great first century Sage, Shimon Ha Tzadik postulated the balanced tripod of Jewish living: “Al Shelosha Devarim — Upon three things the world stands`: Torah, worship and deeds of kindness and compassion.” (Pirke Avot 1;2)

Recently my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin shared a modern iteration of Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s famous teaching that he learned from, Rabbi Neil Gilman, of blessed memory, renowned former Professor of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The idea is that there are “Three H’s” of Jewish life, “Head, Heart, and Hand.” The head stands for intellectual engagement with Judaism or serious Jewish study. The Heart represents prayer, worship and liturgy, and the Hand stands for Social Justice initiatives and other acts of kindness and service to others.

Taking the analogy of a college student Rabbi Gilman’s thesis is that a “good Jew” must “Major” in one of the three H’s, and minor in another. If he or she has some familiarity with or connection to the third, so much the better.

I find the Three H model very useful as we navigate our identity as Jews in the secular world.

Fortunately, the Torah presents us with excellent role models of highly successful Jews who enjoyed high station in the secular world, but who did not forsake their Jewish identity.

Joseph and Moses, of course, lived long before there was organized Jewish learning or worship, but their “Hands” – their actions—clearly indicated the primacy of their connection to the covenant of their ancestors.

For all his success in Egypt, Joseph made his brothers swear that his ultimate resting place would not be in Egypt, but in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses was an Egyptian prince, but, as tradition has it, his mother Yocheved inculcated in him the Jewish Covenantal values of justice, caring and compassion which emerged when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Later, when he had established a new life for himself as Chief Shepherd over his father in law’s vast flock, Moses could not resist God’s call to return to Egypt and take up the task of freeing his people from bondage.

These examples bid us to ask: How do our Jewish soul’s call to us? Is it through the study of our text and traditions? Is it through regular worship and participation in synagogue life? Or is it through Social Action or acts of kindness to others. If we “major in one of these, minor in another and hopefully, have some involvement with the third, then, without question if they accused us of being Jewish, there would be ample evidence to convict us.

Please Join Us!

As this unprecedented year comes to a close, we all pray the coming year will be better. Still it is good to note that technology has enabled us to connect with one another in ways we never imagined previously.

At Bat Yam Temple of the Islands our services and classes have reached far beyond the beautiful Island on which we are privileged to live.

People from as far away as Australia, South Africa and Hawaii have participated in meaningful seminars, lectures, services and classes.

No one pretends that these opportunities are nearly so satisfying as being together in-person, but technology has opened new doors and enabled us to make lemonade out of the bunch of lemons that have fallen on us.

Personally, neither my wife Vickie nor I have travelled further than local stores since November 2019. We will continue to be very careful and urge all of you to do the same. 

Hopefully the unconscionable snafus that have made the rollout of the vaccine more part of the problem than part of the solution will resolve themselves soon.

Still the prospects are that for the next few months, at least, prudence will dictate staying safe and socially distanced. Of course, that means avoiding large crowds and public events. So, let’s get together virtually.

A cordial invitation

We at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands extend a cordial invitation to all those interested to join us for our Shabbat Eve Service each Friday evening at 7:30, our Shabbat morning Study of the weekly Torah portion, each Saturday morning at 9:30 and for our exciting array of lectures and seminars each Wednesday at 11:00 AM.  On Wednesday, January 6, 2021 at 11 AM we shall hear from Lenny Hochschild of San Francisco on, “The Economics of Climate Change and Its Importance to Judaism.”

In addition, our “Sacred Clergy Partner,” Dr. John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC Church and I will present a three-session class, January 13, 20 and 27, at 9:15 AM on the “Life and Legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.”

If you would like to participate in any of our events, please send an email to batyamsanibel@gmail.com, and a member of our amazing Tech Team will provide you with the necessary links. We would love to have you.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Bye 2020! Don’t Let the Door Hit You in the …

Is anyone sorry to see 2020 come to an end? If so, I have not met them.

When Vickie and I visited Tokyo in 2012 we noticed a smattering of people in trains stations and on the streets, who wore masks. Why, we wondered, do they need to do that? Never did I imagine, I would live in a time when medical masks would be an essential part of all of our wardrobes here in the United States.  

If you are like me, you thrive on hugs. But since my last birthday on March 16, I have not hugged anyone except my beautiful wife Vickie who is an incalculable blessing in my life.

We are blessed with three wonderful children, three wonderful spouses of our children, and six wonderful grandchildren. I have a wonderful sister and brother in law and many nieces, nephews and cousins. It has been many long months since I have hugged or been in the same room with any of them.

Our oldest grandson celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in November.  Since the day he was born, I dreamed about what that day would be like. But when it arrived, he was in San Francisco, and Vickie and I were in Florida watching the ceremony on a computer screen.

I am very grateful for Zoom technology, but, even though it allows people who could not have come in person due to distance or frailty to participate, it is a poor substitute for interacting with people face to face.

As a rabbi I feel the void at not being able to look my congregants in the eye and read their reactions as we pray and study together.

As disorienting and unpleasant as the pandemic has been for me, I know full well, how piddling my hardships are compared to so many others. Who have:

  • lost their lives
  • lost their jobs
  • lost their homes
  • lost their loved ones
  • suffered from hunger

The pandemic has hit so many millions of Americans and people around the world with the full force of the combined plagues we read about in the Book of Exodus.

My prayer is simple and unoriginal:

May the new year dawn with hope for worldwide immunization against the horrible Covid-19 virus!

  May we return to our normal way of living with greater appreciation for the many blessings we enjoy!

And may the Eternal One bring comfort and healing to those who have suffered devastating losses and may we all be blessed to face the future with hope and courage!

Amen