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From the Rabbi - August 2019 PDF Print E-mail

A story is told of Rabbi Baroka of Huza who went often to the marketplace near his home. One day he met the prophet Elijah there (as you do!) and he asked the prophet:  “Is there anyone in the marketplace, who will  have  a  share  in  the  world  to come?” Elijah answered that there was not.   Later, two people entered the marketplace, and Elijah said to Rabbi Baroka, “Those two will have a share in the world to come!” Baroka, wanting to know what was so special about these two asked: “What do you do for a living?”  “We are jesters,” they replied.  “When we see a person who is sad, we cheer them up. And when we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”
The world is filled with difficult, sad, dangerous, and scary things, things that lead many of us to want to turn off the news because it’s too much to bear.  Many argue this all suggests our world is in a terrible shape. Many others argue, however, that this impression is distorted by the tendency of the news to focus on the worst parts of human experience for the sake of spectacle and ratings.  Perhaps both positions have some truth and in a way they both lead to an interesting Jewish answer to facing such a difficult world. 
The world can be a difficult and troubling place filled with dangers and sadness.  It can also be a beautiful place filled with joy and laughter.  The story of Rabbi Baroka and the jesters points to a very Jewish answer to these two realities – Recognize the things that are awful in world but be a person that brings joy and laughter to that world nevertheless. 
One of my favorite books by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is one on Jewish humor.  Telshkin explains that while he enjoyed writing the book he initially thought of it as one of his less important work .  But then he met a Jewish psychiatrist who told him that it was, in fact, his most important book.  Why?  The psychiatrist had a cousin who was dying.  As Telushkin explains: “The psychiatrist used to speak to his cousin on a daily basis but found their talks were becoming increasingly depressing.  So he challenged the man:  ‘I will continue to speak to you daily but every day I want us to tell each other a joke.’ For the ill man searching each day for a joke helped him to realize that his life was more than just pain.  The book became the source for the many jokes the psychiatrist told his cousin.”
Yes, the world can be hard.  And yes, it can be filled with much that is scary and sad, much that causes frustration, anxiety, and despair.  But that makes it even more important that we be the bringers of joy and levity to the world.  Each of us can, in our own way, be the source of joy for another human being, with a helping hand, a well-timed joke, or a simple smile.   In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – “There are people who suffer terrible distress and are unable to tell what they feel in their hearts and they go their way and suffer and suffer.  But if they meet one with a laughing face they can revive them with their joy. And to revive someone is no slight thing.”

     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - June & July 2019 PDF Print E-mail

In his book “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” Robert Fulgham noted that in pre-school he had learned the following lessons: “Share everything, play fair, don't hit people, put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess, don't take things that aren't yours, say you're sorry when you hurt somebody, wash your hands before you eat, live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.”

Looking towards the summer I am reminded that much the same can be said about the experience of Jewish summer camp.  For many years I have had the pleasure of being on faculty at Jewish summer camps and have enjoyed seeing my daughter and other Jewish kids learning and growing as a result of being there.  Many, if not all, of the same lessons from kindergarten can be learned at summer camp, if for some reason you missed them in kindergarten, as well as some new ones like: You never know if you like something until you try it, at camp you can be who you want to be not who everyone tells you  are, and you have to fall off the waterskis a lot before you get it right, and that’s part of the fun!

There is an important lesson in all this that is vital to Jewish tradition.  In many places in the Torah and rabbinic tradition, important things are repeated – the Ten Commandments, the commandment to teach your children about the exodus from Egypt, the requirement to not oppress the stranger, the widow and the orphan because we were strangers in the land of Egypt etc.  Sometimes we hear these things so often that we could be forgiven for thinking that we don’t need to hear them again.  “We got it! We know!” We think these things are so obvious and basic we have no need to repeat them and should move on to deeper life lessons. 

But any clear look at our world shows that maybe the real problem is that we haven’t learned the basic lessons that we should have learned in kindergarten and summer camp at all.  As our society becomes more and more complicated it actually becomes more important than ever to remind ourselves of the basics, of the core human values we so often forget.  If we all actually lived by those apparently basic and simplistic laws we learned at Kindergarten, or in summer camp or in the Ten Commandments, or in the story of the exodus from Egypt, how much better would we act towards our fellow human beings. If we did more than give lip service to these basic values of kindness, honesty, moderation and more, and really made them a part of how we live our everyday lives, how much better would the world be for it. 

So as we look towards the summer let’s remind ourselves of the basics and continue to work on them until we get them right – Share everything, play fair, say sorry when we hurt someone, be kind and truthful to all, live a balanced life full of play and work, joy and obligation, and hold hands and stick together as we face whatever the world may throw at us, strengthened by the presence and support of neighbors, friends, family and community. 

Have a great summer!
 Rabbi Emanuel 

From the Rabbi - May 2019 PDF Print E-mail
I was recently honored to be appointed to the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission.  The commission was established in 2009 with 15 appointed commissioners. The commission works in many spheres and with many organizations to educate and raise awareness about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Why is the work of the commission so important?  In short, because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. By learning about the Holocaust and other genocides, we hope to ensure that people today learn to be the kind of people who will stand up and prevent such horrors from occurring rather than stand by and let them happen, to be up-standers rather than bystanders.

As part of its educational programming the Commission provides important guidance on how to teach about holocausts and other genocides. One of these guideline is of particular significance to us today:

Do not teach that the Holocaust was inevitable - “When teaching and learning about genocide, individuals may fall prey to helplessness or acceptance of inevitability because the event is imminent or in progress. The magnitude of the event and seeming inertia in the world community and its policymakers can be daunting, but actions of any size have potential impact. Numerous episodes from the Holocaust and other genocides illustrate this point. History does not have to repeat.”

That last phrase is the most significant - History does not have to repeat.  When learning about the Holocaust and other genocides it’s easy to think that nothing could have been done, that the  weight of history made these and other events as inevitable as they were horrifying. This is a time when we see the rise of so many hatreds, so many people finding ways to dehumanize others because of their differences, and in which we see, in particular, a very troubling rise in antisemitism, even attacks on Jews in America.  It would be easy to think the forces of history are inevitable and beyond our control and to despair of changing its course for the better. 

But learning about history teaches that all these things happened because individuals, groups, and nations made decisions to act or not act in certain ways. Recognizing the significance of those decisions leads to a better understanding of history and human nature and how to make better decisions for people and nations today. Each of us can learn to see signs of prejudice and hatred, to stand up to the  inhumanity of human beings towards those who are different, to be up-standers not bystanders in our own time.  In this time of rising antisemitism each of us can be part of the solution, each of us can play a role in ensuring these events do NOT repeat themselves for us or any other group.  The more we learn, the more we know,  and the more we understand, the more hope we have to prevent the the events of the Holocaust and other genocides from happening ever again, in our lifetimes and for generations to come. 
                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - April 2019 PDF Print E-mail
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be. (Whitney Houston)

This  month we will be celebrating Passover and in doing so we see how important it is to our tradition to teach our children and include them in our religious ritual.  Much of what happens in the Seder revolves around engaging the children and making sure they, more than anyone, understand the meaning and significance of the Exodus from Egypt.  We start with the Four Questions in which children ask why this night is so different from other nights.  The rest of the Seder is essentially an attempt to answer those questions: the passage about the Four Children (Wicked, Wise, Simple and Who Does Not Know How to Ask) is a rabbinic interpretation of the four times the Bible commands us to teach our children about the Exodus; the afikomen search ensures that as the meal comes close the children are engaged in a game of religious ”hide and seek”; and the closing songs, such as Who Knows One and Chad Gadya, are clearly children’s songs to keep their attention and help them learn the themes of the festival. 

But engaging children in religious life is something that is important all year round and not just for Passover.  As I write this we are looking forward to having our children literally “lead the way” as our religious school will be leading services tonight.  After lots of practice and preparation they will be taking front and center and leading the prayers tonight.  But engaging them in prayer and ritual is also not just about the occasional religious school led service but about making sure that we have a regular service that is welcoming to children and in which they feel comfortable.  That is not an easy task.  Children can be rambunctious and spirited (or at least those were the words used to describe me as a child!) and that can be a challenge  to creating an atmosphere of sanctity and decorum that many seek in religious services.  And of course it can be challenging for parents to ensure that their children behave in a way that does not disrupt services for others.   On the other hand we want to encourage parents who wish to bring their children to feel comfortable in doing so and we want those children, as much as possible, to feel comfortable in services so that they can become accustomed to Jewish prayer and community from an early age.  In particular our family services are designed to be services in which the expectation, within reason of course,  is that “kids will be kids” and that’s OK.  The style of the service at those times is itself more rambunctious and spirited and that, we hope, allows for a more relaxed feel for both parents and children alike as well as for all others who attend and enjoy those services. 

In the Shema and Ve’ahavta prayer we are told that the words of the Shema,  and by extension the teachings of Judaism as a whole, should be “impressed upon our children.” The best way to ensure that Judaism is impressed upon our children is to create a culture in which all, adults and children alike, feel comfortable, welcomed, and engaged in all that we do and in particular in the Seder and our Shabbat services all year round. 
                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - March 2019 PDF Print E-mail
We were recently honored to have a wonderful scholar in residence, Steven R Weisman, who shared stories and wisdom based on his book “Chosen Wars” and his years of experience as a political and economics journalist for the New York Times.  Thanks to the Grossman fund we were able to bring in a speaker of such caliber and I was particularly fascinated by his discussions of his book, which describes the founding years of American Judaism in the 19th Century.  He painted a fascinating picture of a turbulent era in which Judaism was faced with the need to adapt to a dizzying array of cultural and practical changes in their lives and how different movements of Judaism in America struggled, adapted, and innovated in reaction to those challenges. It was a history in which arguments over music in temple went to secular court (who said it was none of their business!) and in which debates over theology led to recriminations and in some cases even physical violence.  

There are many important lessons to learn from this history.  One is a lesson which Steven Weisman himself focused on in his talks.  As we again live through turbulent times in which there is great debate over morality and culture in both the secular and religious world, it is important to see that while turbulence and argument is unpleasant to live through it can lead to greater understanding, wisdom and innovation.  It is easy and understandable to feel that when we are living through turbulent times that this is all bad but American Jewish history shows that debate and struggle not only brings challenges but also creativity and dynamism which, Weisman argues, has been both the hallmark and the greatest strength of American Judaism of all streams.  Or in Weisman’s words: “Jews did more than outwit the pessimists and survive. . . . They effectively redefined what it is to be a Jew, and what the purpose of a Jew in America should be.”

But there is another lesson that is equally important.  Weisman notes: “The thesis of this book, is that the Judaism of America today… bears witness to a spirit of dynamism and change similar to what had existed among the rabbis and Jewish scholars throughout Jewish history...” The key word here is “change.” The history of American Judaism is one of adapting to and reacting to change.  The world was changing and they could not simply stay put.  Many people love change.  Many people fear change.  But what should be clear to everyone is that change will happen whether we like the change or not.  American Judaism faced that change head on, sometimes in positive and creative ways , sometimes in messy and contentious ways.  But they faced it because to not face it, to not struggle and embrace that change would have been to ignore reality and let Judaism down.  

As Americans and as American Jews we continue to face new and different changes to our world, culturally, politically and spiritually.  The lesson we can learn from our American Jewish predecessors is that such change brings struggle but if we face it with an open mind and a willingness to adapt, that change can be a great opportunity and bring about great things.  

          Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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