Category Archives: Rabbi Message

Between You and Me May, 2020

During my month of meditation, I was plagued with gut wrenching homesickness.  If I had only known how large a dose of home I was going to get a few short weeks later!  At the heart of my homesickness was a palpable awareness that all my habitual strategies to self-soothe were not available to me.  I couldn’t turn my attention to work for an infusion of the deep sense of meaning I receive from serving others.  I couldn’t flip the switch on a device in order to watch Netflix or shop on Amazon or take in an audio book to distract me from painful thoughts or uncomfortable feelings that visited me.  I couldn’t jump into my car and run to Whit’s for an ice cream sandwich to drown out the tension or insecurity I was feeling.  And worst of all, the beloveds in my life were far away, unable to offer me the comfort of their loving touch or kind words.  I was stripped naked to face each moment and each day just as it was.

In this time of extended quarantine in our homes, I imagine that many of us are finding ourselves feeling similarly off-kilter, pining to resume the life we carefully curated, a life we enjoy or at least feels predictable.  And maybe you’ve noticed, your usual strategies to experience pleasure and avoid pain are fairly flimsy in the face of the collective trauma of a world pandemic.  After all, binge watching Netflix and eating copious amounts of chocolate or (fill in the blank) were always distractions at best, never making the sadness, loneliness, or fear go away permanently.

Pain and discomfort are inevitable.  But here’s the good news, friends.  Right now, we have a rare opportunity to practice reprogramming the way we relate to it.  I’m reminded of an early Chasidic tale wherein a wealthy man from a neighboring town invites the Baal Shem Tov to tutor his son and offers to let him live in his spare house.  He accepts the invitation and upon entering the house discovers it is full of demons wreaking havoc, overturning furniture and breaking dishes.  The Baal Shem Tov speaks to the demons, telling them they are welcome to stay in the house with him, but they have to live in the attic.  Instead of trying to drive them out, he gives them a room where they can do no harm.  Could the same be true of the “demons” that visit us?  Instead of attempting to ignore or rid ourselves of them, a battle we will surely lose, is it possible to welcome them?  Is there a place within us for them to stay where they can do no harm?

Next time you notice you are checking out, think about checking in instead.  Identify what feeling is arising and where in your body you can feel it.  You may notice that just acknowledging worry, anger, or sadness is present lessens its grip.  And then, if it is available, can you surround that painful feeling with love and concern, or just be ok with it until it subsides (and it will).  Challenge yourself, because you may find a deeper sense of stability and ease becoming intimate with the “demons” than you ever did by eating or drinking or distracting yourself to avoid them.  Wellbeing will come with your wholehearted acceptance that contingency and fragility is built into the system.  Certainty and predictability are an illusion though you may not have noticed it before.  Life’s transience makes for its preciousness.  Let us never take our eyes off that prize.


Tu B’Shevat (February 10th) and the Importance of Sabbatical

Dear Congregation, Can you believe we are already 3 weeks into Rabbi’s sabbatical? We have two months to go, and she will be back with us. As she meditates and hikes and studies and engages in serious renewal, we, the Clergy Renewal Team, want to challenge you to consider thinking about renewal for yourself.

As you open up this Menorah, we are in the Hebrew month of Shevat, the 11th Hebrew month counting from Nissan. Shevat is originally from an Akkadian term that means heavy rains. The month of Shevat is the core of the rainy season in Israel. Israel is a country very much dependent on seasonal rains. When the rains are lighter, drought is a real possibility. With drought comes famine, with famine comes starvation, death, war, and the origins of the Book of Lamentations. When the rains are heavy and robust, there is abundance. There is water in the streams, in the water table, in the cisterns, and in the wells. With full wells, there is green grass, vegetables, full mikvahs, and abundance. With abundance comes feasting, ease, joy, song, and restoration.

As individual humans, we are also dependent on water. Without physical water, we die in just several days. However, the Torah is full of references to another kind of water. You can think of it as a life-giving force, as spiritual energy, as a kind of living water that connects us with the Divine. Psalm 36 talks about it as a “fountain of life.” The Prophet Isaiah talks with joy about drawing “water from the wells of salvation.”

As you go into this month and start preparing for Tu B’Shavat, the birthday of the trees, think about whether you are getting enough water. As you are intentionally drinking your 8 glasses of water today and blessing your kidneys, consider thinking about what are the things that you’re doing to replenish your spiritual wells. It is impossible to draw water out of an empty cistern. Many of us can accidentally run our spiritual wells dry as we work and travel and over-commit and run ourselves ragged. We can dip into our inner resources so much that there seems like nothing is left. What are you doing to rest, to renew, to nurture yourself? What would a day of Shabbat look like where at the end of it you felt as if you could say “my cup runneth over?”

What you do for rest & renewal is likely very unique. You may discover, over time, that some things that filled your cup ten years ago no longer work – and while others that felt painfully boring now feel soothing. We as a clergy renewal team all have different practices that help us renew. Some of our favorites:

  • Geri: Communing with water, like soaking in a hot bath, swimming at the JCC, watching the rainfall, and combining the water experience with singing and humming.
  • Tikkun: Early morning coffee in a quiet house, steam room relaxation.
  • JoAnne: Traveling, lunch with friends, walking the neighborhood trails, and being in our beautiful Blue Ridge mountains.
  • Channah: Walking up to Sunset Rd, meditating, singing, baking, shabbat services, and having tea with friends.
  • Seth: I find that a clean-living environment is very soothing. When appropriate moments avail themselves, I like to turn on some Crosby Stills and Nash and Swiffer away my daily stress. When the task is complete, I feel relaxed, reinvigorated and often times achieve a sense of clarity.

Between You and Me – January, 2020

It takes time to integrate the experience of spending five days with 5000 Jews learning from our movement’s thought leaders and encountering our talented artists, collating wisdom from session after session offered by experts in Jewish text and culture, organizational psychology, and education.  However, I can already say that this year’s Union for Reform Judaism Biennial was jam-packed with jewels.  And while I’m not yet sure how all this will translate into an infusion of new spirit and action into our congregation’s life, I can share with you some personal highlights.

I was invited to participate in a training offered by Resettling the Table, an organization that has developed a highly structured technique for helping communities engage in difficult conversations.  They observed that in the highly networked world in which we live, we rarely learn what personal experiences led a person to hold a position on a given issue.  More likely, we are confronted by their deeply held beliefs before we ever know what events in their life mapped their coming to their particular viewpoint.  Taking the time to find out why someone feels so deeply that immigration policy needs to be addressed, or why they feel so out of touch with Israel, is the route to creating receptivity on both sides of the table to having a deeper conversation, especially when we disagree.  Consider inquiring after someone’s personal connections to an issue and when they came to understand what they do about it and see where the conversation goes.

In a Shabbat program, AJ Jacobs, author of “Walking the Bible”, spoke about his latest book, “Thanks a Thousand,” his quest to thank all the people responsible for his cup of morning coffee.  While his five pieces of advice about becoming more grateful were sweet, the best part came when he invited us to share something for which we may not have offered enough gratitude.  Suddenly the audience wasn’t hearing about what gratitude is, we were experiencing it.  A woman from Hong Kong stood up and said, “I can’t ever say thank you to him, but I am grateful to the police officer who picked me up off the street and brought me to the orphanage.  I’m literally a foundling.”  In the sharing, a sixth lesson emerged for me: we can get the benefits of gratitude not only first hand by offering it, but second hand, too.  I look forward to finding more opportunities to cultivate our collective gratitude.

Deborah Lipstadt, who spent forty years studying and fighting Anti-Semitism, was cautionary.  After Pittsburgh, Poway and Jersey City, what we do as Jews should never be shaped by those who hate us.  Rather, Jewish life should be determined by quality and merits of our rich tradition.  It would be a shame, offered Lipstadt, if we cowered behind armed guards or worse stayed home altogether, but it would be equally wrong to become more “Jewish” in protest of those who hate us.  We should be Jewish not because of what they do to us, but despite it.

As with all Jewish gatherings, there was the requisite handwringing about who we aren’t yet reaching (millennials), and who in our midst needs more or different attention (baby boomers).  These remain the most challenging questions that our leadership will continue to address in the coming months and years.  We welcome your continued partnership in building our temple into a home where all can nurture their highest aspirations, confront their deepest beliefs in community with others and shape their lives to be bearers of light and peace.

Between You and Me December, 2019

Last month, I was one of 30 people Carolina Jews for Justice gathered to make pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama.  Among the sites we visited were the Rosa Parks museum, Freedom Riders Museum, Dexter Street Baptist Church and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, all living testimonials dedicated to the process of truth and racial reconciliation that I believe are essential to our country’s healing and our collective future.

Here are a few immediate reflections:

Montgomery lives in infamy as a hub where the horrors of the slave trade thrived and the ugliest of segregation prospered.  Today, the streets are filled with markers and museums telling that story, a credit to the city in and of itself.

At the Legacy Museum, I meandered broken-hearted and teary through exhibits tracing the progression of racial violence that began with slavery and then continued on in the practice of convict leasing and then morphed into Jim Crow segregation and then evolved into the practice of mass incarceration that persists today.  Part of the experience is that no matter where one stands in that space, one can hear voices raised up in song, reminding us that music is one of the deepest and most powerful forms of organized spiritual resistance and survival.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice is an extraordinary memorial for the 4,075 documented victims of mob lynchings from 1877 to 1950.  Eight hundred and five casket sized steel pillars stand or hang, engraved with the names (when known) of victims from the 805 counties in twelve southern states in which known lynching crimes took place.  Sadly, a pillar with the names of John Humphreys, Hezekiah Rankin and Bob Brackett, who were brutally lynched in Buncombe County stands among them.  The sheer size and scope of this monument to people who were murdered for asking for a drink of water, leaving work without permission or looking at a white person, dispelled any notions I may have held previously that this form of gruesome racial terror was perpetrated on the fringe and out of public view.  In most cases, the opposite was true.  In fact, there were lynchings that were planned spectacles and drew as many as 15,000 onlookers.

Some of my fellow pilgrims are hard at work in our county fulfilling the Equal Justice Initiative’s larger vision for their monument: to engage communities in which lynchings took place in a process of education and racial reconciliation after which time they will send a duplicate pillar to them to remember this painful shared history.  I hope that we in Buncombe County will rise to that challenge and aspiration.

As if by design, the Dexter Street Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King started his civil rights career alongside Rosa Parks with the bus boycotts, left a final, hopeful impression on me.  I’ll not soon forget the enthusiastic hug with which the docent welcomed us at the door and then how she sang and preached her own King-inspired gospel about love and service to others.  I couldn’t have agreed more when she said, “Love…is a way life.”  Deep in my heart I must believe, we shall overcome…someday.  We still have work to do.

Between You and Me- November 2019

“It is impossible to do deep Rebbe-work if you have to be the shammes (caretaker) at the same time.  If you are expecting deep teaching from someone, you have to give them the time to get there, to connect with the shalshelet, with the chain of their transmission; you have to support them in their spiritual practice, providing an atmosphere and a situation supportive of the result you want.”

I stumbled on this quote in my file from four years ago entitled “sabbatical,” and to my chagrin, I don’t have an attribution for it.  Nonetheless, it speaks to me at this moment, the eve of my leave taking in January for eleven weeks of clergy renewal time which the congregation has extended to me (aka Sabbatical).

First, I’d like to express my gratitude for the chance to step away from the day to day caretaking of the congregation – so as to get still enough to reconnect with the “shalshelet of my transmission.”  What this means to me is the precious chance to first and foremost rest and renew my mind, body and soul.  There is a pace and intensity to rabbinic life.  Once my nervous system has a chance to slow down, I am confident I will be able to engage in the work of clarifying the character and shape of the next chapter of my leadership of the temple and recharge my batteries in preparation for returning to it all.

My hope is to take a significant amount of time on silent retreat, which has been a staple of my personal spiritual practice for the last eight years.  I believe it would be accurate to say that the opportunity you all have afforded me to do that over this time has enlarged my capacity to be present and attuned to the myriad needs of the congregation.  And I expect it will be no different this time around.  While sitting quietly with oneself is a challenge in and of itself, I’m also hoping to take on some kind of physical challenge or go on some kind of adventure that will stretch me out of my comfort zone.  I feel that every time I get to challenge my muscles, be they my emotional, spiritual or physical muscles, I get stronger.  This too, I believe, will serve all of us well.

Finally, as I take this intensive time to pursue my personal spiritual practice, it is a blessing to us all that so many talented and resourceful people have stepped up to serve the temple in caring and concerted ways in my absence (see clergy renewal team members on the website).  As Tikkun said at Rosh Hashanah, it is a wonderful time for anyone who’d like to offer their service or deepen their involvement, to do so as well.  It is a joy for me to know the congregation will truly be in good, loving hands.