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From the Rabbi

From the Rabbi - August 2016 PDF Print E-mail
Growing up I was that mythical creature that loved both Star Wars and Star Trek but I will admit to having a special place in my heart for Star Trek.  Star Wars was an adrenalin fueled rush of action telling a rousing, if simplistic, tale of good vs evil.  Star Trek, on the other hand, was always more cerebral.  Sure there was action, but baked into its DNA by its creator Gene Roddenberry was a sense of social conscience, presenting stories that were allegories for real world issues such as racism, drug addiction and war, that could only get through the 1960’s TV censors if the stories were set on other worlds. So, while Star Wars was lots of fun, Star Trek was always my example to skeptics of why sci-fi was not just escapism but a means of expressing moral lessons in a creative way. 

Watching the new Star Trek movie I was reminded of one of the most enduring lessons of the Star Trek series and one that has great relevance to synagogue life –the importance of community.  The central message of Star Trek has always been the importance of belonging, of supporting others, accepting support from others, and finding meaning in being part of something larger than yourself.  Or as the character of Scotty says in his thick Scottish brogue in the recent movie: “You canna break one stick in a bunch.”

In days gone by community was essential because, in the face of the many dangers of the world such as prejudice and pogroms, it was in fact safer “in a bunch.” Today, while we still sadly live in a dangerous world, most of do not rely on our community for safety.  But, in an atomized individualistic world we still need community to give us a sense of belonging and meaning beyond ourselves.  Where our ancestors bunched together for physical security and support against our enemies, today we bunch together today for emotional support and spiritual security. In a congregation we support each other, in good times and in bad.  We are there for each other as we celebrate our joyous occasions and to help heal and comfort each other in times of sadness and struggle.  In a synagogue community we are able to find greater meaning in our lives through connection with God when we pray and study, through connection with each other as we engage in communal activities, and through connection with the world with social action and involvement in the larger community. 

All congregations fulfill this function but our congregation does so especially well.  We are a wonderful place filled with wonderful people, that welcomes all and makes all feel included.  May we long continue to be a place to connect to community, to meaning and to purpose for all those who walk through our doors. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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
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