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Between You and Me



At services recently, I shared that this is the third year I’m renewing the same New Year’s intention: to create more space in my life to experience joy. In these challenging times, experiencing an abundance of joy seems ever more elusive. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a well-known Chassidic personality who suffered from severe depression, some say bi-polar disorder, decided the medicine for his blues was joy. He taught, “Mitzvah g’dola l’heyot b’simcha. It is a great mitzvah to be b’simcha, joyful.” He also believed that some joy can be derived from looking into our own lives. But a more expansive experience of joy is also available to us. We can magnify our joy by stringing together the joys that are all around us.

Ordinary people do not find joy in all things at once, since there are many different sorts of joy. Take a wedding. Some people are happy because of the good food, meat and fish and all kinds of good things. Somebody else is happy because of the musicians. The parents are happy because their children are getting married. All sorts of happiness are present. But, no one is rejoicing in all those pleasures together; they’re just taking them in one after another. Then, of course, there is the one who really takes no pleasure at all in the wedding. This guest is busy suffering with jealousy that this person wound up with so-and-so.

But, the truly great and complete joy is when you can rejoice at all things together. This can only be done by looking upward to the root of joy, from which all good things come. There, in the root, all is one, and there you can rejoice at all of it together. That is truly great joy, shining with a very bright light. By joining things together, linking one joy to another, the light of joy itself grows greater. Its strength grows by the fact that each joy, as it touches the next one, gives forth an extra sparkle of light. The more joys are linked, the brighter those sparklings. So, when all of joy is joined together, the brilliance is truly incredible.
(Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan II 34)

This is what sacred community offers: a place where we find we can link simchas together and increase the brilliance of our joy. I’ve seen this happen before my eyes. Recently, I greeted a congregant before services and it wasn’t long before it became apparent she was distressed, worried and generally not in a good place. By the end of services, there was a visible transformation in her. If she had chosen to stay home, perhaps her worries and unhappiness might have eaten away at her even more. But at temple, she seemed to tap into the joy in the music, the gladness of the people around her, the possibility to connect to the Root of All Joy until her worry was replaced with lightness and light. May our Temple continue to lighten and enlighten all of us.

President’s Message



I sat in the back at temple on a recent Friday. Not in my usual spot near the front, and not on the bimah; someone else was taking a turn. We were expecting a call from one of our kids, who was coming home for the weekend and would need a ride, so we wanted to be able to slip out. It was such an unexpected pleasure.

I inadvertently ended up being surrounded by friends. I had a new friend on one side of me and my husband on the other, and I had old friends, from the temple and from life, behind me. It felt familiar and comfortable, and I found myself easily relaxing into the service, able to put the hectic week behind me. Billy and Sarah Kim helped by contributing their soulful music and Rabbi’s sermon about Israel moved me. I prayed and I meditated. I had a chance to observe how everyone else was enjoying the service. We were observing Ed’s father’s yahrzeit, and I felt the full force of community when we stood along with others who were doing the same, and the rest of the congregation stood to honor and recognize our loss. That is always so powerful for me. I laughed, along with everyone, when a visitor said he never thought he would hear a Beatles song in a synagogue. Were you there? We sang John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’—so beautiful. It was really just a typical Friday service, but it fed my soul. I felt so grateful for that quiet time of spiritual renewal.

Souper Bowl Sunday was that same weekend. Dave Hall was bustling with activity when I arrived with the Board’s soup entry. Everyone was busy warming up their soup and decorating their tables, and the friendly, competitive banter had already started. “Ice cream soup? No way, that’s cheating!” As the religious school kids started pouring in, it was clear how proud they were of their contributions. Families sat around at the center tables and talked. Everyone, young and old, tasted soup until they were just too full to take another sip. The space was filled with people talking and laughing and enjoying each other. The Souper Bowl is always one of our best social events, bringing people of all ages together. I felt so grateful for that boisterous time of socializing with my community.

Reflecting back on that weekend, I realize that we all have opportunities to find what we need from our temple. It may be spiritual or social; it may be learning or doing. It may be lifecycle events, but it is so much more. We are so fortunate to have staff and volunteers who make all of this possible!

For me, the best definition of community involves both giving and receiving. Have you found both at Beth HaTephila? I hope that you’ll take a look at the Engagement Committee (formerly known as the Membership Committee) article in this month’s Menorah and consider how you might get involved.

As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me to talk about this or anything else you want to share.

Shalom,

Karen

March, 2018

Between You and Me



Excerpted from a sermon delivered February 9, 2018

Thich Naht Hahn, a world renown Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, wrote: “The first time I tasted peanut butter cookies, I was in California, and I loved them! I learned that to make peanut butter cookies, you mix the ingredients to prepare the batter, and then you put each cookie onto a cookie sheet using a spoon. I imagined that the moment each cookie leaves the bowl of dough and is placed on the tray it begins to think of itself as separate”.

You, the creator of the cookies, know better, and you have a lot of compassion for them. You know that they are originally all one, and that even now, the happiness of each cookie is still the happiness of all the other cookies. But they have developed “discriminate perception,” and suddenly they set up barriers between themselves. When you put them in the oven, they begin to talk to each other:

“Get of my way.” “I want to be in the middle.”

“I am brown and beautiful and you are ugly!”

“Can’t you please spread a little in that direction?”

We have the tendency to behave this way also, and it causes a lot of suffering. If we know how to touch our non-discriminating mind, our happiness and the happiness of others will increase manifold.

We all have the capacity of living with non-discriminating wisdom, but we have to train ourselves to see in that way, to see that the flower is us, the mountain is us, our parents and our children are all us. When we see that everyone and everything belongs to the same stream of life, our suffering will vanish.”

In Buddhism and in mystical Judaism this is known as cultivating the non-self, letting go of perceiving ourselves as individuals in order to see we are part of one great whole. In Buddhism, this is a practice of letting go, of seeing the world through the categories of “me” and “mine” in order to conquer the accompanied suffering that goes along with such thinking: stories about what we deserve and don’t deserve and the persistent belief that someone else’s happiness or success means less for us and the like. In Judaism, seeing the world through the non-self is a way of pulling back the veil that perceiving separateness forms which keeps us from participating in the all-ness or oneness of God. After all, as Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl ultimately taught, everything is God and nothing but God.

But perhaps this caution around seeing separateness didn’t originate in the mystical or Chassidic evolutions of Jewish thought. I might argue it is embedded in something much more familiar to us that is mentioned twice in this week’s parsha: our obligation to the ger–the one who is other, separate. First, we are not to wrong or oppress him for we were considered “other” and separate in the land of Egypt. And second, in our quest not to oppress the stranger we must know the heart of being a stranger from our memory of being “othered” in the land of Egypt.

It’s easy to demonize someone who is different from us and to ignore what we share in common. But our memory of being foreign, our being intimately acquainted with feeling othered, is meant to help us blur the difference between us and who we—-or those around us—might see as “other.” As my teacher Micah Goodman put it, “Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, must have an anti-Egypt ethic. If Egypt is about separating and othering, then Israel must be about treating the foreigner as a citizen, knowing the heart of the stranger having been separated, made strange, made other. And by doing so, by perpetuating our identity as outsiders, the ethic of Israel actually erases the existence of an outsider among us.”

This notion is described beautifully by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who interviewed a Holocaust survivor named Yitzak, at a retreat for people with cancer, for her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Given his painful past, Yitzak was understandably uncomfortable with the exercise of making himself vulnerable with a group of strangers. When Yitzak met Rachel, he told her that before he agreed to come to the retreat, he spoke with God about his reservations. “I said to Him, ‘God is it okay to luff strangers?’ And God said to me, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’” To Yitzak, the fellow cancer sufferers were strangers. To God, no one is a stranger. In essence, what Yitzak came to terms with is what Torah says we all need to come to terms with: that a stranger is a human construct, not a divine one. We decide to make people close to us or to make them distant. We decide who to let into our world, into the circle of our concern, and who to keep away.

This is what makes what is happening in the State of Israel with regard to African asylum seekers so incomprehensible. Beginning in 2005, tens of thousands of refugees from East Africa poured into Israel from none other than the land of Egypt. All told, by 2012 about 60,000 African refugees had come to Israel, some fleeing genocide in Darfur, others fleeing forced national service in Eritrea that the New York Times has called “slave-like.” Then Israel erected a steel barrier at its border with Egypt’s Sinai Desert and the influx stopped.

As of this year, some 20,000 of the refugees have already left the country. “The mission now,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it bluntly, “is to deport the rest.” And so, the Israeli government is offering the remaining refugees a choice: jail in Israel or $3,500 and a plane ticket to a third country, like Rwanda, in Africa.

Thankfully, many citizens of Israel—a country built by those who fled Hitler’s ovens and the oppression of Arab countries where they were treated as second-class citizens—understand the injustice of the government’s policy which is why 36 Holocaust survivors wrote a letter to the prime minister begging him to “learn the lesson” of our history. It is why Israelis from all parts of society—doctors, diplomats, rabbis, artists—have opposed this policy. It is why some El Al pilots have announced that they will refuse to fly planes bearing Africans being deported…

I pray that the Prime Minister sits in schul this Shabbat and hears again the Torah’s unequivocal imperative that no one can be allowed to be a stranger to us. And I pray that people in our own country listen just the same with regard to refugees and the undocumented in our midst. The commandment was given when we were wanderers but applies even as we’ve come home- we are to be perpetual strangers in our hearts. We must know that this world, can be hell if we go around thinking we are separate, or heaven if we remember that the mountain is us, the flower is us, the person who dwells among us is us. We were all created from the same stuff by the same Maker. And God’s wisdom is found in our Torah that also reminds us that for God, there are no strangers. We didn’t become a nation in order to have a land where others would be strangers. We are here to create a nation where ultimately the ethic of separateness of the stranger is finally overcome. And the only way to get there is to cultivate Jewish hearts that don’t see strangers among us. Kein yehi retzoneinu– may this be our will.

Amen.

March, 2018  

 

Two Congregations – One Building – Creates Multiple Opportunities to Learn and Grow



 

“I know that CBI would make the same offer to us. And I’m so pleased we are in the position of doing such a mitzvah.”
                                                            Rabbi Batsheva Meiri

Rabbis and PresidentsFounded in 1899, Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) is transforming their space with a Capital Campaign “Giving and Growing Together.” After 50 years in the same building, an aggressive 11-month renovation is underway including changes to the sanctuary, learning spaces, social hall and common spaces. Della Simon, President of CBI notes, “We knew that during the construction phase of our project we would need to be in an alternate space. Our leadership considered multiple venues – primarily houses of worship. While CBI looked at renting space from several area churches, in the end it made the most sense for us to reach out to our friends at Congregational Beth HaTephila (CBHT) in leveraging our strong, long-standing relationship in hopes that they would be open to supporting our congregation during this year.

Rabbis Meiri and Goldstein were discussing at a morning coffee the plans for CBI’s renovation and temporary relocation. Rabbi Meiri noted, “I asked, what they were doing and why hadn’t they contacted us because we certainly had the space available.” Rabbi Goldstein added, “Yes, she said quite clearly and matter of factly that it only made sense for CBHT to host us during our year of renovation.  And she was and remains to be correct – it only makes sense!”

When CBHT President Karen Hyman heard that CBI needed a temporary home, she asked them to stop looking elsewhere and assured them that CBHT wanted to make it work for them to share their space. Karen said, “We had just recently built out the remaining space on our lower level, so it was perfect timing. Della and I met to work out the basic framework of the arrangement and then we were off and running. This is just the right thing to do for our friends at CBI, and it has been working out great.

Cohabitation of congregations began in the fall of this year. CBI calls Unger Hall the downstairs ‘home’ until the renovations are completed in time for the 2018 High Holidays.

“CBHT has been so generous with sharing space for us to be able to learn, pray, celebrate, and gather; the JCC has been so accommodating for our Sunday School needs, JFS has offered us use of their kosher kitchen to prepare our communal meals – all around and in every way the Jewish community of Asheville continues to show its true spirit of support and togetherness.”                 Rabbi Justin Goldstein

Continue reading Two Congregations – One Building – Creates Multiple Opportunities to Learn and Grow

President’s Message



It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam, striving to improve the world. The ancient command to seek justice has led to a long and proud tradition of political activism by the Reform Movement. But, here is a challenge –within this framework, how can we make space for and respect politically diverse voices in our Movement, and in our own congregation, including politically conservative Reform Jews? Several of us who attended the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial in December had a chance to hear how the Religious Action Center (RAC) and Commission on Social Action (CSA) address this issue and this allowed me to consider how we do the same at CBHT.

The CSA, a joint commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism, provides guidance to the Movement as it faces the challenge of applying our progressive Jewish values to public affairs. It oversees the work of RAC in Washington. At Biennial, the senior leaders of RAC and CSA spoke to the importance of consulting thoughtful conservatives who share our enduring Jewish values.

They regularly turn to politically conservative Reform Jewish leaders to vet position papers and resolutions on topics that are ultimately voted on at the Biennial’s General Assembly. In doing so, they ensure that the basis of our stance on any issue is religiously informed, not politically motivated. The resolutions adopted by the URJ do not bind the members of individual congregations, nor do they presume to speak for all.

Joining a Reform congregation does not mean that one subscribes to a particular political perspective. In any group, there will be divergent opinions.

How then, do we as a congregation assure that members with conservative views feel like they have a voice? One speaker suggested that equating community with homogeneity is flawed reasoning, and that the bonds of faith should be strong enough within a community to sustain disagreement. I personally have made the mistake of assuming that everyone in our temple community shares my progressive political views. In doing so, I found out that I offended people who deserve to feel as connected and supported in our community as anyone else. In fact, it is a community’s responsibility to make all members feel connected all the more when there is disagreement. Our rabbi’s right to “freedom of the pulpit” brings with it acceptance of our members’ right to respond, or their “freedom of criticism.”

Reform Judaism does stand for certain principles. Many members of our congregation take pride in our long history of “speaking truth to power. It should be expected that our congregation will bring our progressive, reform Jewish values to bear in the community at large. We will be engaged on issues of local, national and global concern; we will participate in interfaith coalitions and activities; we will speak out on behalf of the vulnerable.

This is who we are. Our politically conservative members have made a decision about the totality of the Reform Movement and about our congregation. There is something that draws them to Reform Judaism, despite the stance we take on certain issues. I have learned that, the way to respect those voices in our congregation is to be curious. Batting around issues with our conservative members will certainly result in a deeper understanding of all sides of those issues. And, approaching those discussions from a place of trust that our religious values transcend our politics will result in a meaningful, respectful discussion that will strengthen our community.

Karen

 February, 2018