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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

From the Rabbi - January 2019 PDF Print E-mail
I recently had the opportunity to visit an amazing place called Community First Village, just outside of Austin.  I went as part of a group of Corpus clergy and city leaders to see how this program was working to help the homeless in Austin.  The main aspects of this program are that it provides tiny homes for homeless people at a very low cost, provides opportunities for them to earn their keep (such as a car shop and a community garden), and perhaps even more important, the founders of the community realized that to truly help the homeless of Austin they needed not just to help them physically but to provide for their emotional needs too.  They realized that they needed to listen to them rather than judge them and they needed  prioritizes providing community and connection for the residents, referred to as Neighbors.   

This approach reflects both Jewish values and the realities of homelessness in America.  It reflects Jewish values in focusing, as does the Jewish law of  tzedakah (charity), on the significance of not just giving money to those in need but giving dignity.  This is a theme that appears throughout rabbinic discussion on charity that tells us that helping the poor is not just about helping them materially but helping them to experience the dignity that is due all human beings, made as we are in the image of G-d.  And it is in keeping with what most experts now know about the plight of the homeless, that most people are not homeless because of laziness or because they have chosen to be but because they are dealing with serious underlying issues of mental illness or addiction.  For people in that situation providing a place where they can have shelter and community is the most effective way of providing them a life of dignity and meaning.

And it is also increasingly clear that it is the most effective way of dealing with the problem of homelessness both for the homeless and for everyone else.  Far too often we try to deal with the problem of homelessness by moving homeless people somewhere out of sight and out of mind, but not only does that not help them, it generally doesn’t help solve the problem.  People who have been moved will just move somewhere else in the city and will often move back to where they started eventually.  It is becoming increasingly evident that an alternative kind of approach is better for everyone involved.  

I was inspired by the Community First Village, as were the other clergy and city leaders who were with us.  It is a powerful reminder that human beings, no matter how rich or poor, have the same needs for security, community and connection.  That is universal.  And it is a reminder that when we stop judging others  and start listening and treating others with dignity we can open our minds to so much more and make the world so much better.

There are plans to build something like this village in Corpus and I hope we take the opportunity as a congregation and as individuals to work to make this a reality. And once it is a reality in years to come there will be much to do and many opportunities to engage in the work of Tikkun Olam as part of such a project.  I hope others will be as inspired as I was to be part of such a project of helping not only give shelter but dignity and meaning to so many in need.  

  Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - December 2018 PDF Print E-mail
In his book “It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It,” Robert Fulgham tells a story about the meaning of life.  He was attending a seminar and the speaker asked: "Are there any questions?" and Fulgham asked “What is the meaning of life?" After the inevitable  laughter the speaker stilled the room and said: "I will answer your question." He reached into his wallet and took out a very small round mirror and told the following story: "When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light truth, understanding, knowledge is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world into the black places in the hearts of men and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of life."
Chanukah is a festival of lights, both literally and figuratively.  Literally it is represented by the lights of the Chanukah menorah, which we light every night of Chanukah and present in our windows to share our joy and our pride in our Jewish tradition. But the light of Chanukah is also figurative, representing the light of truth and freedom, the light of joy and family, and the light of meaning.  We are not the light or the source of the light.  But, in a world with so much darkness, it is for us to shine that light into the dark places, to share our light with others and, hopefully, bring light and joy to all we meet.  And, in doing so, may we find meaning and inspiration for ourselves and others this Chanukah and beyond. 

                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel
From the Rabbi - September 2018 PDF Print E-mail
One of my favorite musicals is "Les Miserables" and one of the most memorable songs is "Who am I?" In it the hero, Jean Valjean, sings of a significant personal and moral struggle. Valjean is a reformed criminal but  and then it continues where i left off the crossing out on his path to reform he took on a new identity to avoid being trapped in the expectations of the people who would not let him be anything other than a criminal.  This technically makes him a fugitive and he is faced with a terrible dilemma when a person who looks a lot like him is arrested and may go to prison in his stead.  He asks “Who am I? Can I conceal myself for evermore? Pretend I'm not the man I was before?... How can I ever face my fellow men?  How can I ever face myself again? Who am I?”  He must decide to face up to who he really is and accept the consequences, or pretend to be this new person who has built a good and righteous life for himself, but let it be based on a lie that causes another person’s suffering.  

This may not seem like a dilemma that relates to the daily lives of most of us today but at its core it is very much the dilemma we all face on a regular basis and which is at the heart of the High HolyDays.  That challenge is that as human beings we are very good at knowing who we WANT to be but much less able or willing to know who we really ARE. We become enamored of an image of ourselves and then become invested to protecting that image against all critique, however true. If we don’t like what we hear we find ways of dismissing it, minimizing it, or simply ignoring it so that we can continue to see ourselves how we want to see ourselves, and not as we truly are.  

And this is what the High Holydays come to change in our lives.  The prayers and readings of the Days of Awe, if we take them seriously, remind us that to improve ourselves we must first be honest about ourselves.  They force us to be realistic about the gap between who we want to be and how we actually live our lives.  They challenge us to not reject such critique but to embrace it so that we can truly start the work of becoming who we truly hope to be and not just imagining ourselves that way.  

Our tradition understands that this isn’t easy and won’t happen all at once.  That is why the High Holydays come around every year, so that every year we can measure our progress and judge ourselves based on how far we have come and far much further we have to go.  And our tradition understands that if we keep our minds open to the words of the prayers, and our hearts and souls open to the presence of G-d in our lives we will be pushed ever forward to improve ourselves, morally and spiritually.   

The song “Who am I?” ends with Valjean singing: “My soul belongs to God, I know, I made that bargain long ago, He gave me hope, when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on. Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!” The Jewish people made a bargain, a covenant, long ago to strive towards the higher angels of our nature no matter how hard it might be to face up to hard truths we might have to face about ourselves  and we are reminded at the High Holydays that our self-critique at this time of year is not to bring us down but to give us hope to journey on from year to year and strength to strength.  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - August 2018 PDF Print E-mail

Summer camp has always been a place which encourages innovation in worship but I’m not sure anything can beat the scene at Greene Family Camp while I was there on Faculty in July. The week I was there was a week of extreme heat even for Texas.  Traditionally , Friday night services at camp are in a beautiful , outdoor synagogue with a view over the camp’s lake.  Praying there on Friday night is a truly special experience.  But this year, anticipating temperatures of 110F, it was decided that this usual set up simply would not work.  But we still wanted to have services outside.  The solution? Shabbat ShaPOOL! We were all instructed to go to the pool in our swimming clothes at the time of services and were greeted by a cantor in a dingy in the center of the pool singing Jewish songs as we all sat by the side of the pool.  The service continued as we immersed ourselves in the pool, physically immersing ourselves in prayer as we would spiritually and feeling the  soothing coolness of the water as we might otherwise have experienced the soothing of community and prayer. 

This was an amazing experience which could only really have happened at camp (although we do have the JCC pool, so who knows!) But thinking about the experience there are some important lessons to learn.  As Reform and Conservative Jews we are especially keen on innovation and creativity in our religious life.  We are committed to tradition but we continue to adapt to new realities and new spiritual needs and new approaches to Jewish prayer and practice.  We understand that the world changes and new situations require new approaches.  Sometimes that means adding a piano or guitar to services and sometimes it means having services in a pool when it’s 110F!                   
But there is a larger lesson that is important to the upcoming High Holidays.  Life changes and so must our responses.  The world throws new and different situations at us all the time – some good and some bad – and we must adapt and change to deal with them.  Every year at this time, as we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, we are called to look at our lives and how they have changed over the past year.  We are given the opportunity to see how we dealt with the inevitable changes that life throws at us.  Sometimes life will allow us to continue on as we have always done but often it will expect us to be like the cantor in a dingy – being creative and innovative in dealing with situations we could never have expected.  When faced with those challenges, as we will inevitably be, we hope that we will find ways to stay true to who we are while also adapting to new realities and being flexible and creative and in how we deal with the challenges of the present and our hopes for the future.

     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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