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From the Rabbi
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

From the Rabbi - January 2020 PDF Print E-mail

I have just returned from a week visiting family in London.  As we lit the candles in the last few days of Chanukah I was aware of the great joy of being able to face a new secular year with such love and support.  But at the same time, I was seeing in the news much that was dark and ominous.  In New York a rabbi’s house was attacked by a knife wielding anti-Semite and people were seriously injured for just being Jewish.   And in London, not far from my family’s home and in an area I had spent much time when I lived in the UK, a spate of antisemitic graffiti was left on many buildings, threatening the safety of Jews in the area and beyond, who wondered if they were as safe as they had previously believed themselves to be.  This is a reality that is being experienced all around the world as hatred of Jews is rising, making all of us feel less safe than we had before.  

Why is this happening now?  That is a question beyond the scope of a bulletin article but two recent and insightful books, “How to Fight Antisemitism” by Bari Weiss and “Antisemitism: Here and Now” by Deborah E Lipstadt are essential reading to explain the modern causes and reality of this worrying rise in anti-Jewish hatred.  They both make it clear that this is not an issue of only one side or group, not a problem exclusively of the left or the right, or of the Western world or the Islamic world alone, as so many have tried to argue.  Sadly, blaming this antisemitism on just one source or as being as a result of just one reason is too simple and comes from an understandable desire to have easy answers.  The current threat is not simple and will not be resolved by easy answers.  What is clear is that many in the world have found themselves distressed, confused and frustrated by the perceived collapse of previous cultural, ideological and economic certainties, and these frustrations are being exacerbated and made more hateful by social media and the dark side of other modern realities.  On the internet, age-old conspiracy theories are spread like never before straight to peoples’ computers and phones encouraging hatred in far too many.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “When bad things happen, good people ask, “What did I do wrong?” They put their house in order. But bad people ask, “Who did this to me?” They cast themselves as victims and search for scapegoats to blame.” That scapegoat isn’t always just the Jews but the Jews are always among the list of scapegoats.  

And what do we do in response.  It is meaningful that these recent attacks on the Jewish people were over Hanukah, a time when Jews fought back – physically and spiritually - against hatred, and won. Like our ancient ancestors we can fight back in a variety of ways.  First, we must do what we can to strengthen the physical security of Jewish sites.  We have had armed professional security at our congregation for many years and we are grateful for those who contributed to our High Holy days appeal to further secure our building and protect our people against attacks we dearly hope will never come.  We are immensely grateful to Mike Trimyer for all he has done to keep us safe for many years and for continuing to lead efforts to make us more secure in the future. Secondly, we must recognize that, unlike many Jews of past ages, we have friends as well as enemies.  Unlike in previous eras, each of the hateful acts in recent years has been responded to not only by Jews, but by Christians, Muslims and others who act to protect Jewish sites, repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and raise money to help the victims.  We are not alone but we must continue to do more to foster these friendships and to explain how what happens to the Jews never ends with the Jews and how it is everyone’s best interest to quash anti-Jewish hatred whenever it raises its ugly head.  

We must remember the message of Chanukah – to fight for our Judaism not just physically but spiritually, to be proud of our Judaism and to redouble our efforts to create places in which we can be Jewish without fear. And we must learn from the festival to show the light of Judaism publicly and in all we do, the light that has ensured we survived every empire and mob that has sought to destroy us and kept hope in the darkest ages. 

In the words of Rabbi Chaim Stern – “When evil darkens our world, let us be the bearers of light… When the earth and its creatures are threatened, let us be their guardians. When bias, greed, and bigotry erode our country’s values, let us proclaim liberty throughout the land. In the places where no one acts like a human being, let us bring courage; let us bring compassion; let us bring humanity.”
Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - December 2019 PDF Print E-mail

One of my great honors as rabbi of this congregation is the opportunity to give blessings at community events such as the City Council, County Commissioners Court, and the Metro Ministries Poor Man’s Dinner.  A couple of weeks ago at the Poor Man’s Dinner I was blessed to not only give the benediction but to hear about the inspiring story and work of Kevin Adler of Miracle Messages. 

Kevin  told of his uncle Mark who was a beloved member of the family but also suffered from schizophrenia, and lived on-and-off the streets for 30 years. In thinking about his uncle’s life he wondered if there was anything he could do for the people still living on the streets each day, whose lives we forget or ignore. And so he decided to do something about it.  He went out to the streets and started talking to people and realized something important.  As one person told him: “I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends.”  So many of the people he spoke to were on the streets not because they had lost their house but because they had lost connection with their family, their friends, and their community.  Kevin  notes: “This loss of a “social home” is overlooked by nearly all service providers, but is a primary concern of people living on the streets. Without social supports, homeless people tend to stay homeless.”

So he came up with a plan to help them that was both simple and brilliant and involved using something we all have in our pockets every day – a smart phone.  He and others started filming videos of homeless people to their families and put them on social media.  And the response was amazing, connecting many to their long lost families and in many cases allowing them to return and be helped out of homelessness as a result.  Just on the day of his speech here in Corpus he and his team had gone out and recorded several messages of people living on the street here and already by the evening he already had a couple stories of families reunited.  

This approach is in keeping with Jewish sources.  In Deuteronomy we are told:  “If, however, there is a needy person among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.”  The rabbis understand the phrase “sufficient for whatever he needs”  to mean not just physical and material help (which is vitally important) but to help by giving dignity to those in need and treating them as all people should be treated, as children of G-d.  

Kevin’s work in Miracle Messages makes providing dignity a central aspect of helping our homeless neighbors.  And it’s something that we can all do in a meaningful way. We are discussing with other groups in the interfaith community who are interested in this way of helping the homeless and with Miracle Messages to find the best way of allowing our members to find meaning in this work here in Corpus Christi.  

We hope that this will allow members of our Jewish and interfaith community here in Corpus to engage in this meaningful work and help fix the world one person and one reconnected family at a time.   

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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