For your Thanksgiving tables this year

Ever since Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony initiated the festival of Thanksgiving in 1621, it has been part of the American experience, belonging to this nation and to all “The inhabitants thereof.” It is envied by cultures around the globe, many who do not have as much to be thankful for as do we. While President Washington declared a national holiday on Thursday, November 26, 1789, the holiday was observed intermittently. Finally, President Lincoln made it an annual event on the last Thursday of November, and then President Roosevelt put it on the fourth Thursday, as an American holiday for people of all faiths or of no faith, and the property of none of them.

“Only the sensitive, the civilized give thanks. The brutish, the barbarous, take for granted. They take. They take from God. They take from nature. They take from humankind. They give nothing. There are people slightly less sensitive who give token thanks, verbal begrudging. There are people half-sensitive who give formal thanks, lest others doubt their breeding. And there are people, the sensitive, the civilized, who give whole thanks: with tongue, with mind, with heart, and with hand.” (Rabbi Ely Pilchik)

When Mark Twain was at the height of his career, he was paid five dollars a word for his essays. An admirer wrote a letter explaining his career plans and requested that Twain share with him his choicest word, and of course included five dollars with the note. Twain responded, “Thanks.”

Tradition teaches that we are obligated to say the word: “Thank you!” (Talmud, Berachot 54b)

An old Jewish proverb teaches “K’she-yehudi shover regel, hu modeh L’Adonai…When a Jew breaks a leg, he should thank God that he did not break both; and when he breaks both legs, he should thank, God that he didn’t break his neck.”

In the time to come all prayers of petition will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled. (Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 9:7)

A chasid once was asked: “What is stealing?” He thought for a moment and then replied, “A person steals when s/he enjoys the benefits of the earth without giving thanks to God.” (Bechol Levavcha by Rabbi Harvey Fields, p. 94)

“How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

“Ingratitude to a human being is ingratitude to God.” (Rabbi Samuel Hanagid, Ben Mishle)

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself. (Native American Prayer – Techumseh Tribe)

“I offer thanks to You, Sovereign Source and Sustainer of life, Who returns to me my soul each morning faithfully and with gracious love.” (The daily morning service)

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At ballot box, in new poll, American Jews reject Trump’s policies and ideology – Times of Israel Blog

[My op-ed appeared today in The Times of Israel Blog – link below]

In last week’s mid-term elections, we learned a lot about the state of our divided nation. We in the American-Jewish community learned a lot about ourselves as well.

For many of us, the choice this year was different than in previous elections. The fact that it came only days after the worst attack on our community in US history made it deeply personal. The Pittsburgh massacre brought home to us, in the most dramatic way possible, that President Trump’s racism, constant lying and demonization of minorities, women, asylum seekers, Muslims and immigrants in general also have direct consequences for us as Jews.

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/at-ballot-box-in-new-poll-american-jews-reject-trumps-policies-and-ideology/

Living amidst evil and resisting the stain – Jacob’s dream and post-election reflections

“Jacob’s Dream” by James Coker

When our kids were little, my wife and I paid close attention to the character of their friends and their friends’ families. If we thought that a child was inherently mean-spirited we discouraged the friendship.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, we read:

“Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field where his flock was and said to them – I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past.” (Genesis 31:5)

Jacob explained that Laban had repeatedly cheated him, that their father was a trickster, duplicitous, and a conniver.

Most commentators note that Laban had always been manipulative and cunning. Though Jacob and Rachel wanted to marry each other, on their wedding night Laban switched daughters and Jacob ended up marrying Rachel’s sister Leah and then had to work an additional seven years to marry Rachel.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi in early Palestine, put these words into Jacob’s mouth as he spoke to his two wives:

“We have to leave this place because when I first came here, I looked at this man Laban and saw how he lived, how devious he was and I was appalled; I was repelled. I couldn’t stand the sight of him and I hated the way he did business. But now that I have been here for twenty years, I’ve gotten used to him. I’ve reached the point where I think that what he does is what one is supposed to do, that it’s normal and proper to be devious. I look at him and I am no longer shocked or offended. Therefore, we better leave this place quickly, because if we stay much longer, I’ll get so accustomed to him and to his ways of doing business that I’ll eventually become like him.”

A story is told about Rabbi Stephen S. Wise when he first visited China. Wise found that the only means of transportation was by rickshaw that was pulled by weak, old and feeble men who coughed as they dragged the wagon through the streets. At first, Rabbi Wise couldn’t stand the sound of their coughing and groaning. It gave him a guilty conscience every time he hired one to take him around. After a while he had become so accustomed to the coughing that he no longer heard it. Shocked by his own callousness, Rabbi Wise realized that it was time for him to leave China.

The moral lesson is clear – we dare not allow ourselves to become so hardened, callous, and accustomed to evil that we take it for granted, become resigned and say “That’s just the way it is. That’s the way it always was. That’s the way it’s going to be.”

We may take the position that we can’t change world! But, we can prevent the world from changing us.

There’s a slippery slope that permits us to accept evil much like a frog that sits passively in slowly heated water until it boils and dies.

Sin dulls the heart” teaches the Talmud (Yoma 39a-b). We may lie or cheat on a small scale and know as we do it that it’s wrong, but when we do a second time we think it isn’t so bad. Soon we do wrong so frequently that we may not even be aware that our moral paradigm has shifted.

The Zohar sums it up this way: “A sin leaves its mark; repeated it deepens; when committed a third time, the mark becomes a stain.”

The mid-term election is over. Our nation is preparing for a new Congress and very soon we’ll begin to focus not only on the next two years in government but on the 2020 election.

As Jews, as Americans, as moral human beings, the most immediate challenge we face is to avoid becoming indifferent to the corruption, cruelty and lies that have assaulted us these past two years and that likely will continue to assault us every day. It is our moral duty to prevent the stain of immorality from spreading more than it already has.

That was the challenge that Jacob realized in his relationship with his father in-law Laban that Rabbis Cook and Wise understood as well.

Whenever we conclude the reading of one of the five books of Moses or a Talmudic tractate, we say aloud as a community:

Chazak chazak v’nit’chazekbe strong and together we will strengthen each other.”

That is our charge now after this important mid-term election. May we have the fortitude to resist the corruption and maintain our purity of heart and conscience.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

Good News for Jewish Candidates After US Midterm Elections, Jerusalem Post

The following is an edited segment of a Jerusalem Post article reporting on a survey of the American Jewish community’s vote in the recent mid-term election:

“Beyond being a good night for Democrats, who took control of the House of Representatives and won several governorships, Tuesday had good news for Jewish candidates. According to a spokesman for the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), all 23 Jewish incumbents who ran for reelection – 21 of them Democrats – won. In addition, eight Jewish candidates entered the House, two Jews won governorships (in Illinois and Colorado), and one, Jacky Rosen, won her Senate race in Nevada. All are Democrats. The next House of Representatives will have a total of 28 Jews, and there will be nine Jewish senators….According to Jim Gerstein of GBA Strategies, a Democrat-aligned pollster commissioned by the liberal Israel lobby J Street, Jewish voters’ strong preference for Democrats was driven by their disapproval of President Donald Trump, and their blaming him, specifically, for helping influence the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue two weeks ago. Seventy-five percent of Jewish voters disapprove of Trump, versus 25% who approve, and 72% of Jewish voters hold Trump very or somewhat responsible for the Pittsburgh shooting, in which 11 people died, a GBA poll found….J Street PAC, the political action committee affiliated with the liberal Mideast policy group, spent $5 million in midterm contributions and saw 128 of its 167 endorsees – all Democrats – win their races, including 22 new House members and 14 of 17 senators they endorsed. Forty-seven of the 58 candidates endorsed by the JDCA won. ‘We like to think of it as pulling the emergency brake on the out-of-control administration and president we’ve been under for the past two years,’ Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, said on the conference call. He noted that more than half of the House’s incoming class is endorsed by J Street.”

For complete article – click https://bit.ly/2DApd0q

Celebrating a small Torah scroll saved 80 years ago on Kristallnacht – November 9, 1938

On November 9, 1938, Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum and their five year-old daughter Hannah stayed behind locked apartment doors in their upper-middle class Berlin neighborhood while Nazi-backed rioters wreaked havoc on the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria and the Sudentenland. The Nussbaums could not have known that anti-Semitic rioters were setting fire to more than 1400 synagogues that destroyed totally 267.

Nor could they have imagined that the Germans threw hundreds of Torah scrolls into bonfires and murdered hundreds of Jews while Nazi authorities stood passively by. That night Nazi authorities arrested 30,000 Jewish men and incarcerated them in concentration camps. Jewish homes, hospitals, schools, and 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged.

That day came to be known as “Kristallnacht” (“The Night of Broken Glass”) and is considered the beginning of the “Final Solution,” the planned murder of 6 million Jews between 1938 and 1945.

Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum learned in the middle of the night on November 9, 1938 that their own synagogue, The Free Synagogue of Berlin, was on fire. Max walked the short distance from his apartment to the building, entered through a back door, went to the Sanctuary Ark, and took into his arms the smallest of the congregation’s Torah scrolls. He and Ruth kept it safe in their apartment until they escaped Berlin in the middle of the night in 1940 just ahead of the Gestapo coming to arrest them.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a leader of American Jewry and a Reform Rabbi, had sought and secured positions in synagogues throughout the United States for a group of young German liberal rabbinic students and rabbis (including Max), but Max and Ruth felt they had to remain in Berlin as long as possible to offer comfort to their congregants and to assist them if they could in attaining visas. They already had visas for themselves but were unable to attain visas for little Hannah and Ruth’s parents.

Once they learned that the Gestapo was coming to arrest them, Ruth and Max took the scroll, left hurriedly in the middle of the night and escaped to Amsterdam. From there they made passage to New York, were interviewed by the New York Times about what was happening to the Jews of Germany, and traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry (Hans) Morgenthau, who arranged visas for Hannah and Ruth’s parents.

Max and Ruth traveled from Washington, D.C. to Muskogee, Oklahoma where Rabbi Wise had secured a position for the young German Rabbi who had yet to learn English. Hannah and Ruth’s parents joined them in Oklahoma six months later.

In 1942, Temple Israel of Hollywood sought a new rabbi and Max, now a fluent English speaker, was encouraged to apply. He traveled to Hollywood, fell in love with Los Angeles and our community that was founded in 1927 by early heads of Hollywood film studios. He was offered the position and served with distinction until his death in 1974.

Max sent for Ruth, Hannah and Ruth’s parents and they brought with them the small Torah that Max had snatched from his burning Berlin synagogue ark on Kristallnacht. That Torah scroll ever since has occupied a special place in our ark at Temple Israel.

The small Torah’s calligraphy is exquisitely beautiful graced with tiny crowns on many of its letters. It is about 150 years old.

The scroll suffered some damage from the fire in the synagogue on Kristallnacht. A sofer (scribe) told me years ago when I asked him to restore it that any effort to do so would likely ruin the parchment. So, he advised that we leave the scroll as it is. In its current state, though much of it is in tact and readable, tradition considers it to be lo kasher (not permitted for use during services) as every Torah scroll must be in perfect condition during worship.

Like the broken tablets that Moses shattered at the incident of the Golden Calf but which rested in the Tabernacle beside the whole second tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai, so too does our iconic small “broken” German scroll occupy an honored place in our synagogue’s sanctuary ark along side our other scrolls.

Our community affectionately refers to this small Torah as “The Nussbaum Scroll.” We use it every Shabbat in a Torah passing ceremony from grandparent to parent to child (l’dor va-dor – generation to generation) before the young bar/bat mitzvah carries the Torah through the congregation.

There is a mystical tradition that teaches that every Jew that touches a scroll, a part of his/her soul attaches to it and the scroll becomes a part of that Jew’s soul. I imagine as the young bar/bat mitzvah carries the scroll through the congregation that thousands of Jewish souls accompany the child on his/her Jewish journey and links that bar/bat mitzvah not only to Torah but to all of Jewish history and the Jewish people.

The breastplate on the Nussbaum scroll is made of silver and gold and was forged by the Possin Silversmith foundary of mid-19th century Germany. The finials are late 19th century German. Both are part of the Briskin Family Fine Judaica Collection of Temple Israel of Hollywood.

On this 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we at Temple Israel celebrate the memory of Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum (z’l) who led our community from 1942 to 1974. We mourn the losses of Kristallnacht and the six million. And we mourn this yer the deaths of the eleven Jews who died al kiddush ha-Shem (Sanctifying God’s name) at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Zichronam livracha – May the memory of the righteous be for us and the entire Jewish people a blessing.

 

 

America is still America!

As we move towards the mid-term elections next week, I think of all the dark moments in our nation’s experience these past months; the Muslim ban, the Charlottesville violence and murder of a young woman, the national abandonment of Puerto Rico after its devastating hurricane, the separation of children at the border from their parents, the fixation on political refugees fleeing for their lives from Honduras and hoping for political asylum based on a well-founded fear of persecution should they return to their home country, the rise in anti-Semitism, the murder of eleven Jews at prayer in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white anti-Semitic nationalist, the threatened pipe-bombings of many of our nation’s leaders and Democratic activists, the murder of two African Americans by a white nationalist, the relentless dog-whistling to racism and hate, the personal attack on political enemies and the media, and on and on.

And I think of all the lightas well, people from every ethnic, religious, and national background coming together in solidarity to affirm our common humanity.

As much as I worry about the direction of our country and the cowardice of too many political leaders in Washington to speak out morally against all the outrageous statements and actions by the President, I also take heart that so many good people are running for office at every level of city, state and national government and that our nation has an opportunity to make a correction in its path, to renew the checks and balances built into the Constitution, and release the better angels of our national character.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 54b) it is written:

Whoever can stop…the people of his/her city from sinning, but does not…is held responsible for the sins of the people of his/her city. If s/he can stop a whole world from sinning, and does not, he/she is held responsible for the sins of the whole world.”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel expressed the moral spirit of Judaism when he said that “some are guilty; all are responsible.”

We are responsible whether we’ve been critics of this government’s policies or not. That’s why it is so important on Tuesday that every adult American vote. Polls suggest historically that young people do not vote in mid-term elections. If you have a son or a daughter, a grandson or a granddaughter, a niece or nephew, cousin or friend, employee or colleague that is young – please tell them to vote next Tuesday and remind them that recent history has proven that elections can be  decided by only dozens of people.

I am hoping for a turnaround election and a resulting statement to the nation and world that America is still America, that the light of morality shines through in our political process!

 

Solidarity at the Westwood Federal Building

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at Westwood Rally last evening

The violent speech, the praise of politicians who body slam journalists, the not so subtle dog-whistles that stir up racist hatred, Trumps’ appeal to white nationalism, his intolerance of people of color, his slander of those seeking political asylum because of their well-founded fear of persecution should they return to their nation of origin, his accusation that Middle East terrorists have inserted themselves into a wave of frightened women, children, and men refugees walking hundreds of miles to escape harm, his attack on the “other”, his calling every political critic “evil,” his attacking journalists as fake-news gatherers – all of it must stop and we must be the agents of change to stop it.

We American Jews thought we were safe from violence, but we now know if we didn’t before that the Jewish people remain the eternal scapegoats for haters because we affirm that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim and is imbued with infinite value and worth.

We Jews have become the targets yet again of the haters’ projected venom and rage. Old world anti-Semitism showed its ugly head at Shabbat morning services in Pittsburgh and we mourn the loss of eleven Jews who wanted nothing other than to pray in peace and celebrate Shabbat.

As every speaker last night at the Westwood Federal Building Rally noted including Mayor Garcetti, all of us are in the same boat, America’s strength is our diversity, and Muslim, Christian, Jew, Latino, Black, women, men, and children are brothers and sisters. We may pray out of our respective religious traditions, but we’re all Americans.

It’s time to assert ourselves as we’ve not felt we’ve had to do before, to use the power of the vote on November 6 and take back the US government from those politicians who refuse to exercise moral courage and stand up to Trump and his minions.

It’s time to return decency to our nation and integrity to our democratic processes and institutions, to say no to voter suppression, and to support those candidates who will restore checks and balances that define our constitutional democracy.

The following analysis by Marty Kaplan in the Forward connects the dots between Donald Trump’s relentless tweets and rhetoric and the Pittsburgh atrocity –

The Straight Line From 5,000 Trump Lies To 11 Jews Murdered In Pittsburgh” – By Marty Kaplan October 27, 2018 – the Forward –

Go to – https://bit.ly/2PuTenJ

 

 

 

Letter from Temple Israel Leadership on the tragic events in Pittsburgh Shabbat morning

Our hearts break at the murders of eleven worshippers at Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and of the shooting of the police sent to protect them this morning. We express our horror and grief at this hate-filled act that strikes at the heart of our American tradition of compassion and respect for the dignity of every human being.

The killer used the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) that historically has reached out to immigrants and settled refugees in the United States as his foil for his anti-Semitic outrage, the worst attack on Jews in American Jewish history, but we express our pride in the good work that HIAS has done over the past century in fulfilling Emma Lazarus’s expression of our national commitment to welcome the tempest tossed to our country.

We want to assure our community that we have tightened security and had the LAPD in addition to our own security with us this morning at services. Our first obligation is to the safety and security of our community.

Recent events in our country have challenged our democratic values and institutions and our nation as a force of love and goodness in the world. Our community at Temple Israel is committed to combatting this destructive negativity and indecency. Please know that all of us are here for you as a source of comfort and moral support.

We will convene together at 9:30 am tomorrow at Temple Israel for prayer and solidarity if you would like to join us.

We send our condolences to the families of the victims and hopes for the complete healing of those injured.

May the souls of those lost today be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.

Signed,

Senior Staff of Temple Israel of Hollywood and our Board President