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From the Rabbi

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

From the Rabbi - November 2019 PDF Print E-mail

Bulletin Article November 2019 Edited from 
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2019 

One of my favorite musicals is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Fiddler on the Roof.  In the song “Matchmaker” Tzeitel, the oldest daughter of the family, teases her sisters with the inevitable gap between the dreamy image they have for their future partner and the rather imperfect matches they can realistically expect as daughters of a poor milkman.  Taking on the tone of Yenta, the matchmaker, Tzeitel sings: ”I promise you'll be happy, and even if you're not, there's more to life than that---Don't ask me what.”

Being happy is what most of us want to be, what most of us expect to be if life is working out as it should.  And it is a central Jewish value and goal of Jewish life.  But while we can all agree that happiness is important it’s hard to define, and for many, even harder to achieve.  When we think about it happiness involves balancing lots of things which pull us in different directions.  We must balance what makes us happy now with what makes us happy in the long term, what gives us physical pleasure vs what gives us spiritual or emotional joy, the things that bring us an immediate rush and those things that bring more long lasting contentment.  

One important answer for how to balance these different aspects of happiness is suggested by Victor Frankl, for whom the real secret to genuine happiness is living a life of meaning.  Frankl was a prisoner in a Nazi death camp where he observed how people could maintain the will to live even in such a horrific situation by having a sense of purpose and meaning.  He said: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” He argued therefore that:  “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure…  or a quest for power… but a quest for meaning.”  Most importantly when we have meaning everything else falls into place.  “Happiness” he explained “cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.”  

By this he meant that searching after happiness as a goal would be unlikely to result in lasting happiness in and of itself.  But if we search for meaning and find it, then happiness will flow from that.  When we have a higher purpose we enjoy the immediate pleasures more.  They are more vibrant and significant because we experience them in the midst of a life of purpose and meaning.  And at the same time when we feel that we are living for something beyond the moment things that are not immediately pleasurable can still bring us lasting joy because we know they will lead to something greater. 

Frankl  therefore had an odd answer to the question asked by Tzeitel – What’s more important in life than happiness? The answer is… happiness!  Not the happiness of pursuing fleeting and momentary pleasures but the lasting joy of living a life of meaning, committed to the purpose of helping others and making the world a better place because you were in it. 

And our prayerbook tells us how best as Jews to do so.  It declares in the Torah service “[The Torah] is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy” When we live our lives in a way that is inspired by the values of our tradition – doing justice, loving mercy, being humble in the face of G-d and our fellow human beings, seeking opportunities to take action for the benefit of others, acting with kindness and compassion, generosity and honesty in all that we do, we will increase happiness for ourselves and for others. And happiness will ensue.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - October 2019 PDF Print E-mail
The Talmud teaches that welcoming the stranger is a greater mitzvah than welcoming G-d’s presence. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t welcome G-d’s presence (we should!) but that for us as human beings we start by welcoming the stanger, and by doing this the welcoming of G-d’s presence in our lives will follow. 

The Jewish ideal of welcoming the stranger begins with Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews.  Genesis chapter 18 opens with Abraham sitting in the doorway of his tent on a hot day. Three strangers appear to him and he “ran to greet them”, bowed down to them, and offered them gracious hospitality of food (prepared by Sarah), water, and shade. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, Abraham was sitting at the front of the tent in order to more effectively and immediately welcome any passing stranger.  Further he says that Abraham and Sarah made sure that their tent was in a central place in the camp and was rolled up on all four sides so that he could see travelers coming from any direction and all would feel welcome approaching their open tent.

This ideal is reflected in many aspects of Jewish tradition.  The traditional marital chuppah is open on all sides to inspire every wedding couple to follow Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming attitude in their own home.  One of the main mitzvoth connected to the festival of Sukkot is hachnasat orchim, showing hospitality to guests in our Sukkah. And on Passover, we declare: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share in the meal.”

As a community we do a great job welcoming people who walk through our doors.  So many have told me how they have felt immediately welcomed when they attend a service or other event at Congregation Beth Israel, how they really do feel that this family of families makes them feel like they are part of the family. 

But we can do better.  In particular we know that there are unaffiliated Jews out there who, for whatever reason, have not taken the opportunity to walk through our door or who are resistant to doing so.  While synagogue may not be for everyone we must do all we can to be at the door of our “tent” to share how wonderful this congregation and community really is to those who could appreciate it but have not yet chosen to do so.  To do this each of us must take on the role of Abraham and Sarah, being ambassadors for the congregation, sharing how the community has touched our lives, and how our programs and services have inspired us and engaged us.  If you know unaffiliated Jews, or people who have shown a genuine interest in becoming Jewish, share your stories with them about how wonderful the community is, encourage them to be in contact, and let us know if they are perhaps ready to take the leap but need convincing from a board member or a rabbi. 

We are all Abraham and we are all Sarah and all of us can be ambassadors for the congregation, welcoming all as guests into our congregational tent, our family of families. 

                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - September 2019 PDF Print E-mail

Most people who believe in G-d would agree with the idea that "G-d is everywhere."  But we rarely stop to think what we really mean by that.  In fact, most of us who are honest about it would probably admit that what we really believe is that G-d can be found primarily in our synagogue, church, mosque or other place of worship.  We go to such places and pray there precisely because, deep down, we think that G-d is more "concentrated" in those places and that we have to go there to connect with G-d.  And we often live our lives as if G-d's presence and the ethical and spiritual dictates of our religious traditions stop at the door of the place we worship.  The same person whose thoughts turn to charity, gratitude and humility when in synagogue or church can act very differently from these fine sentiments in their daily lives. 

But Judaism is famously a "way of life" that is supposed to inspire our actions wherever we are. It is a religion that places what we do over what we believe and is therefore as, or more, concerned with how we live our daily lives than with our inner life of the soul.  This is why Abraham Joshua Heschel said “Judaism is a theology of the common deed, of the trivialities of life, dealing not so much with training for the exceptional as with the management of the trivial…[T]he purpose [of Judaism] seems to be to ennoble the common.” This means that even the most trivial aspect of life can be an opportunity to connect with G-d and to live our lives in a spiritual and moral manner.

In his book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life"  Bill Bryson takes the reader through a tour of his house explaining the fascinating and often downright weird history of all the mundane items in our house that we normally take for granted.  Each room we walk through without paying attention, each item we use without thought, reveals stories of ingenuity, perseverance, and often blood and guts that made them what they are today.  If so much unexpected depth can be found in such seemingly unassuming places and objects perhaps spiritual and moral inspiration can too.  In understanding how Judaism can and should be part of our daily lives, we open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to experiencing G-d in the mundane and we can "ennoble the common" to find meaning and wisdom in the apparently trivial. 
We are about to enter the Days of Awe, a time which in many ways does involve us focusing our spiritual and ethical thinking at a particular time and in a particular place.  But we are reminded that the goal of these High Holy Days is to take the spiritual inspiration and moral self-reflection we experience at this time and continue to live according to those high and holy ideals every day and everywhere in our daily lives.   

     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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