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From the Rabbi - June & July 2016 PDF Print E-mail
Summer is here and many of us will take the opportunity to catch up on some reading.  Jews are known as the People of the Book, and so here are some suggestions for some (reasonably light) non-fiction summer reading on a Jewish theme.

For some history there is Thomas Cahill’s “The Gift of the Jews”, part of a series of books by Cahill on how relatively small nations had outsized influence on the progress of civilization.  The book traces how a marginalized desert tribe (that would be us!) influenced Western civilization’s most deeply held beliefs about God, justice and human nature.  In particular he traces how the Jews changed the world from one that believed that time was an unending cycle and human existence merely part of this cycle to one in which time had a beginning and an end and human action made a difference to the world.  

For those interested in learning more about Israel a great start is Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”.  While it is an older book much of what it sets out about the nature of the region and its conflicts stay broadly the same and Friedman describes his travels through the region in a way that is entertaining and insightful.  For a more up-to-date view of the Middle East there is Aaron David Miller’s “The Much Too Promised Land”.  Miller, a key player in the peace process for three administrations, traces the ups and downs of the peace process and the inner workings of the key players involved.  

On a more philosophical level Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, has written many wonderful books but two stand out.  “The Dignity of Difference” explains the importance of pluralism in religion and how we can effectively coexist with other religions by not just finding the similarities between faiths but by better understanding how to appreciate our differences.  On a similar theme, his most recent book “Not in God’s Name” explains the roots of the religious violence that plagues us in terms of sibling rivalry between faiths that mistakenly believe that God’s love is a zero sum game.  Closer to home, there is Rabbi Roseman’s most recent book “Of Tribes and Tribulations” in which he answers significant questions (the tribulations of the title) ofJewish life such as what it means to pray, the nature of covenant and who wrote the bible.  

We have had the pleasure as a congregation to hear a couple of times from Dr Joel Hoffman and his two most recent books “On the Bible’s Cutting Room Floor” and “The Bible Doesn’t Say That” are wonderful and engaging reading.  In the first he describes some of the fascinating books that didn’t make it into the Bible and in the second he looks at 40 different mistranslations and misconceptions that have caused us to misunderstand the Bible.  

Finally a couple of personal favorites. For those who like pirate stories, how about the Pirates of the Caribbean with Jews! In his book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” Edward Kritzler traces the true swashbuckling history of Jews who, in the aftermath of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, took to the open seas and made alliances with other European powers to to gain riches, ensure the safety of Jews living in hiding, and exact revenge against the Spanish for sending them into exile.  And for those, like me, who enjoy comic book superheroes there is Arie Kaplan’s “From Krakow to Krypton” an amazing history of how the Jews created and influenced not only the comic book industry itself but many of the most significant comic book characters we all know and love from Superman to Spiderman, Batman and the Fantastic Four and many others.  

Have fun over the summer and enjoy reading some (or all!) of these great books.  

From the Rabbi - May 2016 PDF Print E-mail
There is a Yiddish saying that says, “It’s hard to be a Jew.”  Judaism's history is rich and proud but is sadly also filled with persecution, exile and struggle. 
And yet, not only have Jews stayed firm over the ages, despite the difficulties, but we are today seeing a flourishing of interest in what Judaism has to offer.  In particular the 21st Century has seen more and more who were born in another faith finding their spiritual home in Judaism. It has been my great honor to teach many Jews by Choice in my years as a rabbi and in doing so have learned much about my own Judaism.  In particular teaching Jews by Choice provides a fresh perspective on what is great about Judaism, because so much that I had previously taken for granted is new and valued by Jews by Choice.  
What have I learned? I have learned how Judaism's age makes it more relevant to our modern world and not less.  Jews have been participants in thousands of years of history from ancient Greece to modern Europe and America; from the ancient Near East to the Modern Middle East.  We have been influenced by and been influential in every form of spiritual, social, political and intellectual movement of every era of human history. The collected body of wisdom and experience of the Jewish people in their wanderings across the globe is extraordinary in its depth and breadth, dealing with every facet of human life – from birth to death, from joy to tragedy, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The variety of Jewish experience and thought means that there is truly something for everyone and an aspect of Jewish life that relates to every conceivable question or yearning in our lives. 
Jews by Choice not only appreciate this in a way that can sometimes be forgotten by Jews by birth, but they also bring new perspective and new ideas that add to the rich diversity of Jewish tradition.  Jewish tradition is as varied and rich as it is because we have been willing and able to adapt to the changing tides of history and culture around us, while at the same time holding on to what is unique and special about Judaism.  Thus Maimonides embraced the concepts of Greek and Arabic philosophy and added invaluable insights to Jewish tradition and practice in the process; and thus we as American Jews have wholeheartedly embraced the ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy that make this country great.  In choosing Judaism, Jews by Choice contribute to bringing new perspectives into Jewish life while also approaching Jewish tradition with a level of passion and commitment that is inspiring.  
Indeed each one of us, whether we are born and raised Jewish, return to Judaism after a long absence, or choose Judaism on our own, brings new experiences and ideas to the enrich Jewish tradition.   The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot), asks – “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.”  We should likewise recognize how fortunate we are as a Jewish people to have so many people finding a spiritual home in Judaism, and who are willing and able to contribute their own understandings and insights to the rich tapestry of Jewish tradition and history.                 
                           Rabbi Ilan Emanuel
From the Rabbi - April 2016 PDF Print E-mail

In the Passover Seder we read that “even if all of us were wise, all of us discerning, all of us veteran scholars, and all of us knowledgeable in Torah, it would still be a mitzvah to retell the story of the Exodus.”  But in our modern world we tend to see study and learning as we do most other things – as means to an end.  We learn what we need to do to get the job done and no more.  When we have concluded the task or learned enough to carry it out, we stop learning and move on to something else.   

In Judaism however, learning is a lifelong task.  Thus, no matter how learned we are, no matter how much of Judaism we know, we are still commanded to continue learning and teaching about our tradition.  Indeed, in the case of the seder and the weekly Torah portion, we are commanded to learn about the same selection of laws and stories again and again every year, year after year.  This may seem strange to us.  After all, we may think, there is only so much to learn in any body of knowledge, and once we know it, why retread the same path again and again to simply learn what we already know.  The seder itself provides an answer to the question.  After the words quoted above, the seder continues to tell of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who admits that despite being a man of seventy he never understood a particular aspect of the seder until another rabbi explained it to him.  There is always more to learn, whether we are 7 or 70 and our tradition ingrains this in our thinking by commanding us to return to the same texts year after year.  

And beyond that our tradition reminds us that learning is not just about facts and figures.  There is a difference between having information and knowing what to do with it; there is a difference between knowing something and understanding its meaning; and there is a difference between having the facts and knowing how to apply them responsibly and morally in our lives.  That is the difference between knowledge and wisdom and an important part of our Jewish tradition.  On Passover we not only learn what our tradition tells us about the Exodus from Egypt but we contemplate what that means for us today and how to live according to the lessons of the Exodus.  

In learning about our slavery we are reminded to be humble. In learning about our rescue from slavery we are reminded to be grateful for what we have.  And in learning that we should consider ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt we are reminded that we should always be compassionate to those who are oppressed and downtrodden. 

No matter our age our tradition tells us that learning is always valued and ongoing.  As we look forward to our seders this year, be aware of what can be learned this year that we did not learn last year.  Even if we have done the same seder for many years there is always more to learn, both about the rituals and details of our tradition and about the deep and abiding wisdom that can be gleaned from that tradition if we are open to learning. 
    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - March 2016 PDF Print E-mail
It's been a few years since I was able to spend time in Israel and so I was delighted to be able to attend the conference of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Israel this year. Since my last visit Israel has changed in many ways.  We tend to focus in the western news on the conflicts with Israel's neighbors and the Palestinians. While this is in fact a significant concern and a difficult reality for life in Israel, this focus masks the amazing changes and growth in Israeli society that are transforming Israel and making it even more vital and vibrant as a country and cultural center. Where once Israel was growing but struggling it now leads the world in many areas of technology, innovation and culture.  Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are world class cities in every possible way and building continues apace as both cities continue to grow and become more and more vibrant.

Changes are also happening in important areas of Israeli society. We visited a center in Jaffa for Arab-Jewish cooperation, working through educational and cultural programming to bring Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs together and break down the barriers between the two peoples in Israeli society. And we spoke to people who are working for change within the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, a sector of Israeli society that has been an obstacle to many changes in Israel and that is a source of frustration for the secular majority. We spoke to women who are working to change their position in Haredi society, including the first female Haredi kashrut inspector, and men who are struggling as they move from being engaged in permanent study to being part of the mainstream Israeli workforce. Both these changes are likely to bring about profound transformation in the Haredi community in the coming years.

But the highlight was attending a Knesset (parliamentary) committee meetingon Jewish pluralism within Israel. As many are aware, the orthodox have been entrenched as the religious authority for decades. This has created a significant stumbling block for acceptance of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. That looks to be changing as in this committee one politician after an other, from almost every non-Orthodox party, testified to their commitment to religious pluralism in Israel as a central struggle for the soul of Israel in the coming years. This was a powerful moment and brought home the reality that, as we focus on the security of Israel from without, the future of Israel must also prioritize the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism and the expansion of Jewish pluralism within Israel.  The contributions of non-Orthodox Judaism to Israeli society are already being felt and look to become more significant to Israel's future in the years to come.

                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel
From the Rabbi - February 2016 PDF Print E-mail
As we all know when you get 2 rabbis together you get 3 options (at least!).  So imagine what happens when you get 30-40 rabbis together as happened this last month with the annual gathering of the South Western Association of Reform Rabbis!  

As you can imagine we had lots of opinions, and were eager to share them!  But more importantly we had lots of stories and ideas and experiences to share with each other as well.  We shared stories of our congregations and ideas that are being generated in our communities.  And we shared experiences from our congregations so that we could learn from our similar situations and understand the many different expressions of Jewish congregational life around our region.   It was wonderful to see how diverse and vibrant our region is.  We have congregations that are very Reform, some that are much more traditional and many like ours that span the range of Reform and more traditional Conservative practice and belief.  The diversity makes us a great and dynamic region with lots to learn from each other.  

We also got to connect with the larger Reform Movement through representatives of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbi), The URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) and HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinical school for the North American Reform Movement).  

All these connections confirm that there is a lot going on Jewishly in TX and around the country and much creativity to tap into for us as a congregation in South TX.  In particular I was impressed by The College Commons, a new multimedia way to connect congregations around the country with the Hebrew Union College and the wonderful  Jewish scholars who teach the rabbis.  Their great minds have been an untapped resource for most congregations outside New York, LA and Cincinnati where the collage has campuses.  Now they are creating educational programs and podcasts to share that wealth of knowledge with the rest of us!  I am excited to see what comes out of this and to see how we can enjoy these educational resources in our community.   
But most importantly this conference reminds me we are connected to a larger Jewish community in TX and nationally and that community is strong and vibrant and ready to do great things for our region and the Jewish world in general.  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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