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From the Rabbi

From the Rabbi - June 2020 PDF Print E-mail
“Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.” ― Joni Mitchell

As we begin to emerge from our isolation it has become clear that this crisis has resulted in much innovation in how to maintain religious life virtually.  That innovation and the creative use of technology, social media etc. will undoubtably change how we interact with religious life for many years to come.  

But it’s also true that our collective experience in the lockdown wilderness has also given us an opportunity to consider how we appreciate things that we have always had but maybe had taken for granted.  As the scope of many of our lives has been narrowed, many of us have realized how much we have not focused enough on the simpler things in life that we tend to take for granted as we rush around in our regular life.  It may not have been our choice but we have all, in one way or another, had to slow down and appreciate many of the simpler joys that we probably didn’t appreciate enough before.  

From a Jewish perspective it has also been a reminder of the depth and breadth of Jewish tradition and wisdom.  Jews all around the world have had to face a calamity like nothing we have ever seen before. And we have all been amazed and comforted by the extent to which we have found that our tradition holds meaning, insight, and inspiration for our age as much every other age.  As we read in the Torah of our ancestors wandering in the wilderness we can learn from their experience of uncertainty and doubt and know that just as they made their way to the promised land, so will we.  And we have learned in our Torah study (over Zoom!), in the stories of the Talmudic sages, what it means to live through difficult times (as many Jews have) and how to act morally and spiritually, maintaining our commitment to doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with G-d, in the midst of the most challenging times and despite great tragedy.  

But perhaps the greatest aspect of “you don't know what you've got till it's gone” for synagogues and churches has been the realization that we really miss being with each other. In the past decades  many temple and churches have noticed a downturn in attendance and involvement in activities. But when we are unable to meet in person we have begun to realize how important community really is. 

As much as we have been able to keep places of worship “open” even while the buildings are closed, we all miss the experience of being able to connect in person.  Engagement in community is a fundamental part of what it means to be Jewish. Virtual community has been a creative and inspirational revelation.  So many have found it wonderful to connect with each other online, especially those who are less able to get to temple or church in the regular course of things.  And much of this will continue in one way or another as we emerge from isolation.  But its also clear how much people yearn for in-person community, how much people feel, now that they have not been able to attend their usual activities in churches and synagogues for a few months, that they feel that loss greatly. As we emerge slowly but surely from our isolation and as we begin to reconnect more and more in person, we can hope that we will not forget how it felt to be unable to to do so. 

No one wanted this unfortunate experience but hopefully it will inspire us to a greater appreciation of the wisdom of our tradition and act as inspiration for us to recommit ourselves to creating real human connection as part of synagogue life and in all aspects of our lives.  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - May 2020 PDF Print E-mail
In memory of Rabbi Kenneth Roseman
I have had many friends in life, many teachers, many colleagues, and a few mentors.  Rabbi Kenneth Roseman may be the only person I can truly describe as all of those things and more.  He was a towering intellect and a towering physical presence, who brought all his many years of varied and rich experience to the life of the congregation and to the wider Corpus Christi community.  He leaves an unforgettable legacy in the lives of so many who he taught, whose lifecycles he made holy, and with whom he connected in the many communal roles he played.  
Rabbi Roseman was committed to learning and teaching in every form, with a unique ability to share his great knowledge and intellect in a way that was accessible and welcoming to all levels of learners and full of wit and wisdom.  Whether he was teaching in Torah study, speaking to the City Council, engaging in interfaith work, or selling pickles at Food Fest in his trademark pickle hat, he was able to make everything into an opportunity for questioning, teaching, and sharing edifying stories, so that all who met him felt they had learned something from the experience.  

In keeping with the fact that, in Hebrew, his name “Ken” means “yes”, he was dedicated to leading in a way that helped others access Judaism and justice.  When Rabbi Roseman was the dean of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he was known as Coach, not just because of his physical stature but because the students considered him their supporter, their mentor and protector and not just the dean.  He was particularly proud of having led an effort many years ago to build a wheelchair accessible ramp in the sanctuary of his temple at the time so that a Bar Mitzvah who was in a wheelchair could access the bima with dignity, and with a broad grin.  

But, in keeping with the biblical prophetic call for justice, he was also more than willing to say “No” to injustice and to speak out against those who ignored the oppression of the modern equivalents of the stranger, the widow and the orphan.  He was unfailingly the first and most insistent voice at our clergy alliance meetings to insist that we hold the powers-that-be accountable and speak out for those who have no voice and no power of their own.  

He did all of this serious stuff with a sense of humor and joie de vivre, always there to make people laugh as well as think, and always ready to share his trademark puns (which he would allow to unfold with the utmost seriousness until the punchline!).  
And, perhaps even more than teaching, what gave him the greatest joy was his family, as we could see from the pleasure he showed whenever he had the opportunity to share good news about his family, especially the achievements of his grandchildren. 
Ken was a rabbi, a coach, a teacher, a mentor, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a colleague, a friend and so much more to so many people.  No amount of words can describe what he meant to this community and what we have lost with his passing.  Traditionally we say after someone dies “may their memory be a blessing.” In the case of Rabbi Roseman, there is no question of “may”.  His memory WILL be a blessing to all who had the honor of meeting him and learning from him. He was a great man, a great Rabbi, and a great mensch.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - April 2020 PDF Print E-mail
There is a poem online, written in response to the current situation of shutdowns and self-isolation brought about by the COVID 19 virus, that makes a comparison with Shabbat.  It says: 

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world
different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life. (Lynn Unger)

When I first read this I was not sure what to make of it.  It bothered me to compare what we were going through to Shabbat because Shabbat is a joyous time, something we choose, something that comes from a good and divine source. What we are experiencing now is none of those things.  We are being forced to isolate and physically distance because of a pandemic.  

But I realized that the comparison is not in why this is happening but in how we can react, how we choose to face this and what opportunities we find in the midst of the current hardship. We have no control over the sad fact that our regular activity, our usual hustle and bustle, is being closed down but we can take the opportunity to appreciate those simpler joys we often ignore the rest of the time. And when this is over we shall emerge different, hopefully more appreciative of what we have.

Another poem on Facebook made this point well: 
When this is over, may we never again take for granted
A handshake with a stranger, Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors, A crowded theater
Friday night out, A routine check-up
The school rush each morning, Coffee with friends
The stadium roaring, each deep breath
A boring Tuesday, life itself. (Laura Kelly Fanucci)

None of us chose to be in this situation and none of us want  to be experiencing what we are dealing with now. But, while we are, we have an opportunity not only to be more appreciative of the simple things we have now but to hold on to that feeling into the future after we have come out the other side of this.

At that time we hope we will be more engaged in life as we experience it, having felt what it is to not be able to experience life as we would like today. As this second poem concludes:

When this ends may we find 
that we have become more like the people 
we wanted to be 
we were called to be 
we hoped to be 
and may we stay
that way – better
for each other.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - March 2020 PDF Print E-mail
On Friday night and Saturday evening at URJ summer camps everyone gets together to sing and dance and share in a joyous sacred community.  There’s even a song called Kehillah Kedoshah – Sacred Community by Dan Nichols that says: “Each one of us must play a part, each one of us must heed the call, each one of us must seek the truth, each one of us is a part of it all.”
What does it mean to be a sacred community, for each of us to be part of it all? We live in a world in which we are all interconnected but in ways that are often shallow. So many people have hundreds of online friends but few truly genuine relationships.  In our increasingly individualistic and consumerist society it is harder and harder for many to create genuine community. And yet community is what we all yearn for and what we all need as human beings. 
This is why a synagogue community is so important. It is the ultimate Jewish answer to what it means not only to be in community but to be in a community with a purpose and meaning. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life (2006), writes: “The synagogue is a place for pursuing Torah, worshipping God, sacralizing relationships, healing the sick, and feeding the poor. It is a place where we know the presence of God among us and honor each other as made in God’s image (b’tselem elohim)... It is where we celebrate each other’s sacred stories.  It is where we emulate God.  Synagogue... is the set of sacred relationships that constitute the community and the equally sacred acts that flow from it.”
God does not dwell in a building any more than anywhere else.  But a synagogue building and synagogue community can bring the presence of God closer to us by connecting us to each other in a way no other place can.  A synagogue provides the opportunity to act together with holy purpose and with sacred meaning - in acts of tikkun olam as we help those in our community with mitzvah meals and those in need in our city with our social action work, in services, in learning, in sharing times of sorrow and joy with each other.  In all these ways and many more we connect to our higher selves and help others to do the same, bringing God’s presence into the world through those connections.  As we know from so many aspects of life the more we put into something the more we get out of it.  The more we do at temple, the more effort and support we expend in engaging in temple life, the more we feel a sense of ownership and the more we feel connected to God and each other.
As the Dan Nichols song concludes: “Each one of us must sing the song, each one of us must do the work, each one of us must right the wrong, each one of us must build the home, each one of us must hold the hope.”  May we all find greater purpose and meaning in our family of families as each of us heeds the call and work together as a sacred community to build our sacred home here at Congregation Beth Israel.  
Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - February 2020 PDF Print E-mail

I have had the honor for the past year to serve on the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, a commission set up “To bring awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides to Texas students, educators, and the general public by ensuring availability of resources, and in doing so imbue in individuals a sense of responsibility to uphold human value and inspire citizens in the prevention of future atrocities.” As part of this important work I was honored to attend a ceremony at the Texas Capitol at the end of January in honor of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  This ceremony included the declaration of the new “Never Again Education Act” intended to expand the “US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s education programming to teachers across the country to improve awareness and understanding of the Holocaust and educate individuals on the lessons of the Holocaust as a means to promote the importance of preventing genocide, hate, and bigotry against any group of people.”

The question raised here and in much of the discussion and ceremonies on the anniversary of the liberation is what are the lessons of the Holocaust.  Much has been written and said on this, but I was struck by the testimony of one survivor who spoke of her experiences on the BBC.  Anita Lasker was taken to the camp when she was just 18 but escaped the gas chambers because of her ability to play the cello. Lasker recalls: "I was led to a girl...she asked me what was I doing before the war. And like an idiot, I don't know, I said 'I used to play the cello… She said 'that's fantastic. You'll be saved.' I had no idea what she was talking about....[but] that was my salvation." As a result of this fateful conversation, Anita and other musicians  were tasked to perform music at the camp to entertain the SS guards.  

Anita survived Auschwitz, moved to London, and became a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra. What is remarkable, and what is so powerful about the message she continues to teach to those who hear her story, is that in all this time she has never given up hope and the joy of music.  When asked how she could continue to not only play music but to make it her life’s work despite all the horrific associations and memories she must have of playing music in the camps, she answers: "Hitler destroyed endless things, but music... you can't destroy it."

This is a powerful lesson, that no matter how hopeless things may be, some things are true and beautiful and eternal no matter how much evil people try to destroy them.  Like music, Hitler and those who seek to follow in his footsteps seek to blot out what is true and good today, and we should learn from Anita and always maintain hope in the darkness. That way hope will win and thrive as has Anita’s music. 
     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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