If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem” – Friday, December 8th, 2017

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

Let my right hand forget her cunning.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,

If I remember thee not;

If I set not Jerusalem

Above my chiefest joy.        (Psalm 137:1-6, 1917 JPS Tanakh)

 

The Psalmist wrote these words from the point of view of exile 25-hundred years ago, describing the Jewish people sitting, weeping, by the rivers of Babylon and vowing never to forget Zion, never to forget Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the beating heart of our nation. From the day, some three thousand years ago, that the Bible says King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought to the city and set up in the Tabernacle that he had constructed for it, Jerusalem has been both the temporal and the religious capital of the Jews. Since that time, Jerusalem has been a national capital city ONLY for Jews. Not for any of its conquerors in the past two thousand years, be they Greek, Roman, Christian, Ottoman, or Arab.

One hundred years ago, Lord Balfour declared England’s support for a modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land – a declaration supported by the League of Nations in 1922 and by its successor, the United Nations, in 1947. Not, as detractors and anti-semites later would insist, as a post-World War Two colonialist enterprise to grab land from Arabs and assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. But rather to put right a historical wrong.

This week, President Trump sought to redress another historical wrong – by recognizing that Jerusalem IS, in fact, the capital of the modern State of Israel. And I think that is a really, really good thing.

There is no other example that I can think of – certainly not in modern history – where a sovereign nation did not get to choose where its capital would be. And no other example where that decision was ignored or even condemned by the rest of the world. The State of Israel operates out of Jerusalem: the president’s residence, the prime minister’s residence, the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and government agencies all are located in Jerusalem. And diplomats from other nations waste hours on the road every week, making the trek from their embassies in Tel Aviv to the seat of power in Jerusalem.

The president was just stating a fact, acknowledging reality. And that, unfortunately, is something that seems to be an alien concept in other parts of the world. I actually wish this had happened sooner. Maybe 70 years ago, certainly 50 years ago. I wish the western nations that all supported the creation of the modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land had done the same. Because it would, I believe, have forced the nations of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, as well as the self-described Palestinian people, to acknowledge reality, instead of dealing in false narratives.

It is a message long overdue: Start negotiating based on facts on the ground, not the fantasy of a past that really never was.

The delusion goes back all the way to the UN partition plan of 1947 that envisioned a Jewish state and an Arab state carved out of the land, living side by side, with Jerusalem as an open, international city.

The Jews said yes to that plan. But the Arab nations, in unity, said no. No to it all. No to a Jewish state. No to an internationally supervised Jerusalem. Instead they attempted to engage in genocide. And they lost.   They – the aggresors – lost in 1947 and in 1953 in the Suez Canal zone and in 1967 when Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem away from Jordan. They said no. They don’t get rewrite history now: Well, we still don’t want a single Jew on the land, but we’ll take an international Jerusalem. No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You said no back then. And you walked away from prospects for a negotiated peace at least half a dozen times in the last thirty years. So, no.

I am no fan of the current Israeli government. Not a surprise there. They, too, have squandered opportunities and engaged in deliberately provocative building campaigns over the green line. With a current cabinet that is solidly right-wing, there’s little incentive, and little appetite, for anything else. But, historically, Israel has been open to negotiation.

Everybody has ‘known’ for decades what the parameters of a peace plan would look like: both sides acknowledging the validity of the other and providing security assurances. Land swaps to compensate the Arabs for Jewish settlements – 85 percent of which are on only 8 percent of the West Bank and hug the green line. Acknowledgement of the Jewish capital in West Jerusalem while accommodating an Arab capital in East Jerusalem – even if that meant extending the city’s eastern boundary to achieve it.

Everybody “knows” this is what needs to happen. But it has never happened. And it never will happen as long as Jewish historical ties to the land and the city are disputed, and the right to Jewish sovereignty is denied.

This is probably why even some left-wing Laborites in Israel, who would never push for such a declaration from Washington, are reportedly delighted now that it’s happened. Maybe this announcement will be just the kick in the pants that the Arab world needs to get real.

That’s definitely not happening yet in Gaza, where Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, yesterday called for yet another violent uprising. “The only way to deal with the Zionist policy,” he declared, “is sparking a new intifada against the occupation and welcome resistance to this occupation.” By occupation, he’s not talking about the Old City or the West Bank. He’s talking about the entire state of Israel, which he is still committed to wiping off the map. And so are the leaders of Iran, who echoed these same sentiments. Violent protests are breaking out in Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem as a result.

Interestingly, we’re hearing very little from Arab capitals. Another truth of the current Middle East is that the Palestinian issue – which has long been used as a red herring by Arab autocrats to deflect anger away from their own oppressive policies – is not so important to them anymore, what with Iran’s bold ambitions, the bloody Syrian civil war, and the remnants of ISIS still at large. The Saudis are clearly re-thinking their alliances, and my colleague Rabbi David Kaufman of the group We Are For Israel writes that they are not alone: “Several Arab nations have come to realize that establishing more significant relations with Israel would be substantially in their best interest . . .  If the Palestinians and Israelis do not make peace soon, several Arab nations may establish peace agreements on their own without that happening first.”

I was on a conference call yesterday with David Makovsky, a former State Department official who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he pointed out that there’s a duality here that the Arab world seems to be ignoring. Yes, President Trump did correct an historic anomaly – some would say an historic injustice – in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But he also said: “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” Rather than closing the doors to a possible peace plan, the declaration is designed to go along with it.

Makovsky’s advice was that the White House should make that duality clear – not just in English in Washington, but in Arabic in the Middle Eastern media as well. Most of the Arab world is not told the truth by state-controlled media. A majority of Palestinians think that Israel wants 100 percent of the West Bank, which is both absurd and untrue. So it should be the responsibility of the United States to tell the truth, in every place and in every language it can.

And that includes the fact that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem will take years, given the need for land and security. That gives everybody enough time to do what everybody “knows” they need to do. This is what our former Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, had to say about it:

“I supported all three presidents’ use of their national security waiver authority to delay the move in the interest of pursuing Middle East peace. But I have never believed that arguments for moving the embassy were groundless, or that it must await a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

“I’m influenced by my love of Jerusalem — an emotional attachment born of decades studying its history — and sense of justice for Jewish claims to the city that are far too often called into question. The presence of a U.S. Embassy in parts of Jerusalem no one disputes are Israeli territory is one way of acknowledging the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to the city, the questioning of which is closely linked to the denial of Israel’s very legitimacy.”

David Makovsky, during yesterday’s conference call, acknowledged the short-term threat to a long-term solution: “I think it could get bumpier before it calms down,” he said. And I understand the concern of my friends and colleagues who live in Israel, many of them in Jerusalem. They fear for their safety and that of their children, some of whom serve in the IDF or in the reserves. Some think this was the wrong time to make the announcement, absent a detailed peace plan, and that the United States going it alone in the world – yet again – is not necessarily helpful.

And yes, I can say all of this because I have no skin in the game. I don’t live in Israel. I don’t have children who put their lives on the line there. But my colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden does. He picked up his family and moved them from England to Israel decades ago. And he lost his son Jonathan, an IDF soldier who was killed on a rescue mission in Southern Lebanon in 1993. Here’s what he wrote this week in the English-language newspaper Times of Israel:

“So the international community continues to play the charade of maintaining its embassies in Tel Aviv while its ambassadors and other officials travel up the winding highway to Jerusalem to do business at the Knesset and Israel’s government ministries. . . . Of course, there is still the issue of the Palestinians and reaching an accommodation with them. However, no one can seriously believe that Israel will relocate its seat of government to Tel Aviv even in the context of a peace agreement. Therefore, it is time to stop playing games.”

The work of peace is hard and long. And I agree with David Makovsky, who used a baseball analogy to describe a suggested path to negotiations. We have failed, he said, when we swing for the fences instead of hitting a solid single. Let’s start, not by trying to solve everything at once, but by dealing with the gut issues first – the ones that hit people in the kishkes. For the Palestinians it’s about land, and guaranteeing them a fair layout of the West bank. For the Israelis, it’s security, both now and in the future. What are the Palestinians teaching their children about Israel and the Jews? What is the message they send by providing lifetime incomes to the families of terrorists?

The president was right that the two sides need to step up to the plate and deal honestly and realistically. The United States cannot – and never has been able to – impose a solution. But if our acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can shake some sense into them, it is a step in the right direction.

The Psalmist (Psalm 126: 4-6) also wrote of the joy of returning from exile in Babylon all those centuries ago:

Bring back our captivity, O Lord, like the streams in the Negev.

Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.

He who goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.

Let this be the image of the city of David, the city of peace, the city of redemption. Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will. As we say together: Amen.

 

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Abraham, Sarah, and ‘#MeToo’” – Shabbat Lech Lecha October 27, 2017

“Finally, Sarah had had enough[1]. After all the years of humiliation, after decades of isolation from her friends and her family – this was more than she could bear. Abraham had taken from her, her dignity, her sense of identity. But now he had taken her only son, her beloved Isaac. And that was more than she could bear.

        “Their marriage had, in the beginning, been one of love, companionship, trust and respect. Unlike so many women of her time, Sarah never felt in those days that she was merely an appendage, a piece of the household. Abraham had appreciated her talents, her warmth and kindness, and her home reflected her personality. Through their early travels together, when their work on behalf of their God was meaningful for both of them, she had great influence throughout the community. While Abraham brought many men to the worship of Adonai, Sarah had converted scores of women. Their household grew and was filled with love of one another that reflected their love of God.

        “But over the years, Abraham had changed – and so had his treatment of Sarah. As he became more obsessed with being the perfect servant of God, he began to treat Sarah as his servant. When famine in Canaan forced them to move to Egypt for a time, Abraham felt threatened by Sarah’s beauty and grace. “If the Egyptians see you, they’ll kill me to have you,” he had said to her. “So say you’re my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you.”[2]

       ” Just as Abraham predicted, Pharaoh’s servants were mesmerized by Sarah, and word of her beauty quickly reached the palace. Pretending to be Sarah’s brother, Abraham negotiated a bride price and sold his own wife into Pharaoh’s harem, in exchange for gold, silver, sheep and camels. Forced into sexual slavery, Sarah went about in a daze, trying to distance her mind from what her body was being forced to do. Abraham’s God finally took pity on her and revealed to Pharaoh that she was, in fact, Abraham’s wife, not his sister. Pharaoh sent for Abraham and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Here, take your wife and leave!”[3] And Pharaoh sent along an escort to make sure they left his country as soon as possible.

       “But when they returned to Canaan, it happened again. King Avimelech, who should have been an ally and friend, was suddenly seen as a threat by Abraham. “She’s my sister!” he insisted to the king’s servants – this time without consulting Sarah and without warning her.[4] As before, Abraham got the goods while Sarah was taken to the king’s bed. This time, though, God put a stop to the charade before any more harm could be done. Seeing that Sarah had not consented this time, God came to Avimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.” And God said to him in the dream, “I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her. Therefore, restore the man’s wife—since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you—to save your life.”[5]

        “The next morning, Avimelech had gone immediately to Abraham and confronted him: “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.”[6] Sarah, of course, had thought much the same thing. Avimelech paid Abraham off with sheep and oxen, male and female slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver, as he returned Sarah to him[7].

       “All of this Sarah bore with dignity – especially when she discovered soon after that she, at age ninety, was going to be blessed with the child she’d always hoped for. God had answered her prayers, and she bore her beloved Isaac, the light of her life. She kept Isaac close to her, and over the years taught him kindness, gentleness, and respect for men and women alike. She taught him that being a servant of God did not excuse neglect or abuse of the human beings around him – but that, in fact, the way he treated others reflected the way he felt about God.

        “And then he was gone. Sarah had noticed Abraham even more distant and distracted than usual. He refused to talk to her, ignored her pleas to share whatever distressed him. She arose one morning to discover he’d gotten up especially early, saddled his donkey, sent for a couple of his young lads, and taken Isaac away. For three days, she sat weeping in her tent, wandering around the household, praying for her son’s safe return.

“That night, in a dream, an old man came to her[8] and said to her: “Do you not know what your husband has done to your only son this day? He took Isaac, built an altar, slaughtered him, and brought him up as a sacrifice. Isaac cried out to his father, who refused to look at him and acted without compassion.” Sarah thought she would die, there and then. She fainted and felt the life force flowing out of her. Little did she know that, at that very instant, her beloved Isaac felt the same – as he looked up from the altar to see his father raising his hand against him, slaughtering knife in his grip, and beyond him – the angels in heaven openly weeping.

“Sarah came to. She refused to believe Isaac could be gone – it must be Satan, she thought, playing on her mind. Not even Abraham would do such a thing. Would he? Another three days, she searched the countryside around their home, making inquiries, but nobody had seen the father and son. That night, the same old man appeared in her dream. “I was wrong the first time,” he said. “Abraham did not kill your son after all. He’s alive, and he’s returning to you.”

        “Isaac returned alone, without his father, shaken, exhausted and traumatized by the events of the past few days. After a weepy reunion, during which Isaac told his mother every detail of what had happened on the mountain, Sarah knew what she had to do. She packed her things, loaded her camels, took her son and her most trusted servants, and left her husband’s house. She went to Hebron and there lived by herself – something no married woman ever did in that time. But the community knew her, accepted her and respected her. She never saw Abraham again. And neither did Isaac. When word reached Abraham of Sarah’s death, he came and he wept over her and he mourned for her – and for all he had done to drive her away. He bought a suitable burial ground and gave her a proper funeral.”

 

I created this modern midrash on the Torah portions we read this week and next in 2003, as part of a Jewish Women International program on domestic violence in the Jewish community. The events and dialogue are taken directly from Scripture. Sarah’s dream comes from rabbinic lore that attempted to more fully explain what happened while Abraham went to sacrifice his son. The only thing I added, really, was the overlay of Sarah’s own voice, of her own feelings. That’s something that Scripture doesn’t give us, and neither do the rabbis.

As I read it, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was startled into silence by the words and deeds they had read so many times in the Torah but perhaps never before actually seen. Afterward, I was accosted by an Orthodox Jewish woman: “How dare you say such things about Avraham Avinu!” she chastised me. “How dare you do such a thing.” She could not comprehend the fact that these events are in Scripture, and that these words do come from the Midrash, where the rabbis –in their own way – acknowledged that Sarah deserved to be heard. Certainly, from their perspective, they would not – and did not – think of her as an abused woman. But from a 21st-century perspective, that’s just what I was suggesting.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been inundated by news and accusations of sexual impropriety, sexual assault, and even rape, by prominent and important men in American culture. It started with the stories about Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and his abuse of  many young actresses who worked, or wanted to work, for his production company.

After he was fired, Jenni Konner, the executive producer of the HBO series “Girls” said: “I see this as a tipping point. This is the moment we look back on and say, ‘That’s when it all started to change.’”[9]

And she was right. Once the wall was breached, it came tumbling down quickly. Among those finally getting the ax: Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, which last January renewed his contract knowing full well he had just settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $32 million – the sixth such lawsuit against him. The Murdoch family, which owns Fox, made the calculated decision to hang onto O’Reilly even though the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, already had been fired for alleged sexual harassment himself – activity that had gone unchecked for years.

Also recently fired after multiple sexual harassment complaints: Chris Savino of the Nickelodeon network; Vox Media Editorial Director Lockhart Steele; and Hollywood agent Tyler Grasham. Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios, resigned after similar allegations were made against him. Prominent political journalist Mark Halperin was pulled from his current gig as a commentator at NBC and MSNBC, after five anonymous women from his time at ABC came forward. Women are also now coming forward to make accusations of harassment and inappropriate touching against President George H.W. Bush.

And perhaps most sadly for the Jewish community: Leon Wieselthier, long-time literary editor of The New Republic and an important voice in modern Jewish literature….and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who allegedly copped a feel at a public event.

All of these men are powerful leaders in their fields, opinion shapers, and trend setters. All allegedly felt that their power and positions gave them the right to inflict themselves on women who depended on them or looked up to them. I’ve mentioned the word power twice here, and for good reason. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not, at base, about sex. They are about power – about men using sex as a tool to control women.

Some of these men deny the allegations, some have not answered them. Of those who have acknowledged at least some of the damage they caused, their excuses are pathetic. Harvey Weinstein said, in essence, well, that’s the way things were when I was growing up in the ‘70s and nobody thought anything of it. He’s headed for some kind of private therapy – as though that will make him no longer a brute and a bully.

As for Mark Halperin, he actually told CNN: “I did pursue relationships with women that I worked with, including some junior to me. I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.”

Now? From these accounts? That’s how and why and when he gets that what he did was disgusting and disturbing? As Monica Hesse and Dan Zak, asked in their Washington Post article this week:

 

“Does the ‘now’ merely arise from the fact that his actions are now public? Does ‘now’ mean we’re watching an epoch of entitled masculinity finally end? Or is there something else going on ‘now’?”

Maybe there is. When I was growing up, we called these guys dirty old men and tried to ignore the patterns of behavior around us – the men who would wink at us at public events, eye us up and down, comment on our legs or hair, brush up against our backsides in the aisles the music store.

When I was a young reporter and the owner of a prominent sports team – obviously intoxicated – found me alone in the tunnel underneath the stadium and pinned me against the wall, I slipped out of his drunken grasp and sprinted out and never told anybody. I guarantee you that many, many of the women who are now coming forward did the same. Nobody would believe us. Or our young careers would be imperiled. Or our reputations would have been tarnished. Our reputations, not theirs. Because in a patriarchal society – whether in 21st –century America or in ancient Mesopotamia – that’s what happens.

In Sarah’s day, wives belonged to their husbands. They were part of the household, like a chair or a goat. Do you think ownership of women does not exist today?  Why else do you think girls throughout Africa are married off so young, or Saudi women are forbidden from driving, or Haredi women in Israel are ordered to cover up and move to the other side of the road?

Oh, but don’t think that America is going to get off that easy. That we are still debating whether women should have access to birth control – much less abortion – shows the lengths to which men will go to control our bodies, make our decisions, and limit our opportunities for education and financial independence.

Sexual assault does not just occur in Silicon Valley or New York media or Washington power circles. It is not found just in the lurid front-page stories of our newspapers and magazines. It is part and parcel of life – here and around the world. The use of sex as a control device may be more subtle or more overt, illegal or just gross – but it is a constant. At least it has been. Maybe the halls of power are finally closing in on the offenders. Maybe the walls of shame are finally cracking around their victims.

Dozens and dozens of women I know have come out of the shadows to post their #MeToo notes on social media. Amazingly, it has been eye-opening even for forward-thinking male colleagues and friends. They are having their own #YouToo moments.  And that can only be for the good.

But it will take more than individual epiphanies, in a nation that knowingly elected a Groper-in-Chief. The New York Times’ Jodi Kator, who broke the Weinstein story, notes: “Ailes, O’Relly, Weinstein, Halperin were some of our culture’s key storytellers, shaping our ideas of gender authority, power, and much more.” And there’s the real challenge. Because unless and until women achieve equality as shapers of our ideas and voices of our culture – and political leaders of our nation – very little is likely to change.

But making everything public that we have kept so private for so long, is a start. As Hesse and Zak wrote, “It used to be in private, between women alone, or behind closed doors between and woman and the man who was making her life miserable. Now it’s in public. Which might be what Halperin meant in his use of ‘now’: The discussion has gotten really loud. It’s pretty hard to ignore.”

The story of Sarah, as told by Sarah, teaches us that sexual control of women by men is as old as the Bible itself. The #MeToo stories of dozens and hundreds and thousands of women today, as told by them, teaches us that naming it, and sharing it without shame or self-blame, are the first steps to fixing it. We are all created in God’s image. We are all equal in God’s eyes. We are all equally worthy of respect in the eyes of others. We must demand no less.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] This midrash was originally written for a Jewish Women International program in Chicago on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, “Peace in the Homes: The Voice of Sarah,” delivered February 9, 2003.

[2] Genesis 12:12-13.

[3] Genesis 12:18-19.

[4] Genesis 20:2.

[5] Genesis 20:6.

[6] Genesis 20:9.

[7] Genesis 20:14.

[8] Versions of this midrash appear in Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer and Sefer HaYashar. Another variant has Satan appearing as Isaac himself to tell Sarah what is transpiring. See Tanhuma, Va-yera, 23; Ecclesiastes Rabbah. 9:7, 1.

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/08/business/harvey-weinstein-fired.html

When Prayers are Not Enough: A Response to Las Vegas

Another beautiful High Holy Days season with my congregation has just come to an end, and we immediately are turning toward Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Yesterday, we put up the sukkah in the Temple rose garden. This morning, I’d planned to work on my programming and prayers for this Shabbat.

And then….

And then I was awakened to the news from Las Vegas. More than 50 killed, 200 wounded, by a single man with unclear motivation but lots and lots of military-grade weaponry and a clear shot from his hotel room at a crowd of 20,000 at a music festival across the street. Once again, we are using the phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history.” Once again, our nation is in shock. Once again, our leaders ask for prayers.

I’m a rabbi. I’m in the business of prayers. And I’m telling you – no.

No to empty rhetoric. No to the shock, when our recent history tells us we shouldn’t be. No to the call for prayers when you won’t do anything to prevent this from happening again. And again. And again.

How long has it been since Orlando? Or Sandy Hook? Or Columbine? How many more times do we have to use that phrase “largest mass murder in our nation’s history”? How many times do politicians have to kowtow to gun manufacturers who use the National Rifle Association as a front for their madness and their mendacity, and the politicians use the Constitution as an excuse for taking their money? When do you grow a backbone and decide that the lives of your constituents are more important than the blood money in your campaign chest?

Just Saturday, on our fasting and atonement day of Yom Kippur, we read from Isaiah 58, in which the prophet chastised the people for false piety.

““Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist!“[1]

If God has no patience with words with no action, why should we?

At this writing, I have no idea what the motivation of the shooter was, or his mental state. All I know is that Americans have once again been victimized by a cult of death that has infected our nation with the evil notion that a man (or a boy, and generally mass shooters are male) should reach for a gun as a first resort to settle his scores, or soothe his pain, or make a political point. All I know is that I was brought to tears by Tom Brokaw on the Today Show this morning, when he talked about how parents all over the country would now be worried to let their children go to concerts, and what a sad commentary that is on our nation today. All I know is that, once again this Shabbat, I will be asking my congregation to remember the victims of Las Vegas as they did those of Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook. And nobody should be asked to do that. Ever.

So I’m as done with false piety and empty promises as Isaiah was:

“Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.”[2]

I’m an American and I demand more. I demand safety when I go to concerts, or to school, or to the movies. Or even when I’m at home (since there is a proven connection among many mass shooters between gun violence and domestic violence). I demand that we support our police and our other first-responders, whose Kevlar vests do not protect them against military-grade weaponry.

I demand that we have national laws that, once and for all, require that all gun sellers – including private dealers – run background checks on buyers, and that the checks be completed (see Dylan Roof) before a sale is made. I demand a waiting period of at least three days before that sale can be concluded – so that someone does not buy a gun while in the throes of anger or distress. I demand that anyone who buys multiple weapons and/or large rounds of ammunition in a limited amount of time be reported to authorities – because chances are that such a person is either buying to re-sell illegally, or is planning something very, very bad.

And I demand that we have national laws that make it illegal for private citizens to own military-grade weaponry such as the semi-automatic weapons that have caused such mass carnage – a ban that even Justice Antonin Scalia allowed for in his majority opinion in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment affirmed an individual right to bear arms:

“[L]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. . . . [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose . . .  Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Justice Scalia wrote that the Constitution protects weapons that can be carried and are in common use.  And while a million AR-15’s and the like are in the hands and homes of private citizens in this nation, they should not be considered “common.” There is nothing common – that is, ordinary – about a weapon that can cause such carnage, instill such fear, shed such much blood in such a short period of time.

Have you watched the videos taken by concert attendees, as the bullets were fired so fast, so long, and with such deadly power, that people didn’t have time to hide? Can you watch this – and listen to shot after shot after shot – without feeling anger and revulsion as well as fear and pity?

And can we expect our prayers to be answered by God, unless the Eternal sees that we mean it when we pray with awe and reverence?

“Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech, And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.”[3]

Our nation will not see the light of salvation unless we remove the “menacing hand and evil speech” from our midst. Until we as a citizenry demand that our nation’s leaders stop engaging in platitudes and start engaging in the work for which we have elected them: protecting our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We cannot sustain these rights when we fear going into public places. We cannot be free when guns have such a stranglehold on our elected leaders, and on our peoples’ psyche. We cannot be happy when we see the sorrow that gun violence brings.

So, yes, I will ask for healing prayers for the survivors and the families and I will offer a memorial prayer for the dead. I’m a rabbi, so that’s what I do. But as a rabbi, I cannot and will not be silent in the face of this cult of darkness and death. Let there be light.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

[1] Isaiah 58:3-4

[2] Isaiah 58:5-6

[3] Isaiah 58:9-10

Yom Kippur Morning 2017: Finding Faith at the Mall

korotkin_headshotSince Yom Kippur is about taking stock of important things, I’d like to take a moment for a brief survey. How many of you – say, in the last two weeks – have spent a considerable amount of time buying stuff at the shopping mall. Clothes, housewares, appliances. Things like that. How many of you have hung out there recently?

Okay now, how many of you have spent a considerable amount of time doing the same thing on your computer. Amazon, other on-line purchasing options?

Yep, that’s what I thought.

We are, as you might have noticed, in the middle of what some have called a retail meltdown. On-line shopping has taken the place of a lot of the time we used to spend at the mall. It’s easier. It’s quicker. And Amazon Prime – now a fixture in half of all American households — gives us two-day free shipping. What’s not to love?

As a result, of course, a lot of malls are half-empty these days. Major retailers are going bankrupt, or selling off stores, or not paying enough attention to stocking the shelves and having enough salespeople. The Macy’s where I’ve been shopping for several years down in Columbia, South Carolina, is in a dead mall, but it was a great store until this year, when it got dingy and the ladies who always helped me pick out my outfits were gone. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector in this country lost about 30-thousand jobs in March alone.

So: Bricks and mortar are out. And not just when it comes to retail. The same is happening in the world of religion.

Not a few congregants comment to me about people missing from the pews on Shabbat and even on these days of awe. And it’s true. But it’s not just us. All over the country, large urban and suburban synagogues built in the heady days after World War Two are struggling to stay open and have folded or merged their religious schools in response to the aging of their populations. Even in places with large concentrations of Jews like Philadelphia, offering daycare or early-childhood centers isn’t translating into membership. Younger people these days are less likely to join up anywhere, which implies a long-term commitment. And others have married outside the faith and are not raising children as Jews – or as anything else, religiously.

Every summer, we find out in our interfaith clergy groups who has chosen to move or has been reassigned, whose congregation is closing its doors, and who will be serving two or even three congregations that are merging or sharing a minister. So it’s not just us. But it’s disturbing and discouraging nonetheless, for those of you who love this congregation and honor its history.

As you know, we are on “hiatus” for a plan to bring our community’s two congregations closer together. For many people, the plan was moving way too fast for comfort, and they didn’t see the value in the direction the project was going. But change is inevitable and necessary. So while we re-think what it means to assure a future for the Altoona Jewish community, we can take a look at some suggestions being made to re-think retail and re-use those half-empty shopping malls. These three points come from The Atlantic magazine’s City Lab – a free email newsletter, of course — in a Nolan Gray essay from this past spring called “How to Survive a Retail Meltdown.”

Let’s start with an understanding that dead and dying malls are more than just blights on the landscape. These so-called “greyfields” are a financial drain on cities that used to rely on retailers for a lot of revenue. Cities don’t benefit from Amazon Prime purchases like they did from having a Macy’s or a Sears in town. Not only that, they take up a lot of real estate that potentially could be used for other things, but the infrastructure and the legal requirements – the roads, the parking, the set-backs – make it hard to do so.

In Jewish terms, it’s a way to think of teshuvah, the process of return and renewal in which we engage during these Days of Awe. It’s about getting rid of what doesn’t work in our lives and embracing a different model of living. It requires us to be strong and brave about leaving behind what is comfortable and familiar, for the sake of a life that is more fruitful and fulfilling.

So the first suggestion that Nolan Gray makes is to ease land-use restrictions.

“If you are a local policymaker concerned about greyfields,” writes Gray, “ask yourself: Can an enterprising developer turn that empty big box into a co-working space? Can food trucks turn that parking lot into a lunchtime market? If you answered ‘no’ to either question, it’s time for regulatory reform.”

So what does regulatory reform mean for this congregation? Turn away from what worked in the past but doesn’t anymore. Turn toward other models for using the space we have for other purposes, or re-imagine the concept of sacred space completely.

Release ourselves from preconceived notions about how life should be in our Jewish community – such as the idea that one or the other of our large buildings is essential to our Jewish survival. Because, the fact is, neither may be viable in fewer years than we’d care to think.

A congregation is people, not buildings. Our ancestors who left Egypt survived decades in the wilderness without a permanent address. What they had was each other, faith in God, and faith in their community. They followed God’s instructions to build a portable tabernacle that was beautiful and luxurious – but which could be taken apart and packed up and carried anywhere they went. The Mishkan assured them of something that was inconceivable in ancient times – that a God could be omnipresent and go with the people wherever they traveled.

God is always reminding the Israelites: Do what I say because I’m the one who saved you from bondage. But in today’s Torah reading, God through Moses – in his farewell sermon – challenges the people to think of the future, rather than fixating on the past:

יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת: יד כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם:

“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, this pledge. Rather, this covenant is with those who are among you today, standing before Adonai our God, and also with those who are not with us today.”[1]

Community endures. God’s promise endures. Edifices do not. If we are truly a kehilat kedoshah, a holy congregation, we must engage in teshuvah today not merely to make ourselves right with God but to make ourselves right with those who will come after us, who will sustain this Jewish community despite demographic and financial challenges.

Maybe it will mean keeping some of our current buildings and maybe it will not. Maybe it will mean sharing our space with other congregations, renting it out for other purposes, investing in enough infrastructure to draw community groups in as renters, who will appreciate and enjoy this beautiful space as much as we do.

Or maybe it will mean moving into a smaller, sustainable space. Maybe it will mean moving around like our ancestors did, from space to space or home to home – a model that other congregations in other cities are now embracing, in which they put their money into people and programing, inspiring younger Jews – those non-joiners – to take ownership of a concept and a faith rather than a building.

And this brings us to Nolan Gray’s second suggestion: Re-think economic incentives.

In the past, shiny new shopping malls were not just a point of pride but also a great way to generate attention and jobs. But that meant cities and towns giving away millions in tax breaks and free land, and building out roads and infrastructure on the edges of town, not in the core. And that cost a lot of money that now is gone for good. For Gray, the lesson of the retail meltdown is, as he puts it,

“not that we should switch from subsidizing brick and mortar retail to subsidizing e-commerce with the same old mixture of property tax abatement and free infrastructure. Rather, the lesson is that cities should be very cautious about plowing public resources into attracting specific firms. Today’s Amazon distribution center could easily be tomorrow’s dead mall.”

Similarly this congregation often finds its resources strained, stretched way too thin. Are we subsidizing what no longer works for us? Are we thinking both short-term and long-term about not only the members we have but potential new members as well, and where they want their investment to go? New speakers? Or guest speakers? A community focused primarily on Shabbat in the sanctuary, or one that thinks, physically and philosophically, outside the walls? This is not an either-or concept, and meeting the needs of the people in the pews is of paramount concern – because you have put your blood, sweat and tears into this building and this congregation. But our future depends less on short-term patches and more on a future created out of well-spun cloth.

But there’s good news in the third of Nolan Gray’s three steps: Think corner stores, not big boxes. “In dynamic urban economies,” he writes, “smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience are more important” than large-scale retail development. And if there’s anyone who has done small well, it’s us.

Let’s face it: Like the retail landscape, religious observance in America is changing rapidly, and that’s true in Altoona and Tyrone and Hollidaysburg as much as anywhere else. Pop-up churches are filling up empty retail space on downtown street corners and in suburban strip malls.

It’s a far cry from the “if you build it, they will come” church-building philosophy of the early 20th century downtown and of the 1950s and 60s in the suburbs. Like the half-empty mall on the edge of town, the heyday of institutional Judaism as we have known it is long gone. But we should not be looking back, bemoaning the loss, still trying to duplicate the past. Like retail, making use of the space that already exists, and being prepared to move, shift and adapt more quickly, is now the model.

We have gotten really good at maximizing the resources we do have. And our greatest resource – our greatest strength – is our people. And if religion, like retail, now thrives on smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience, then we are in a position to shine.

When we hear of an illness or loss, we come together to share the burdens. When we have a simcha, it’s a celebration for us all. Sisterhood can pull together a joyous reception or a shiva meal like nobody’s business, even on short notice. When Don and I were on Sabbatical last winter, everybody pitched in to help with services and check on congregants who needed to hear a cheerful voice or see a friendly face. While some bigger, wealthier congregations see so many students disappear after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, our students stay through Confirmation, and many teach our younger students Hebrew.

That’s what it means to be in a small congregation in a small community. We’re all in this together, in a sacred cause that does not go unnoticed during these Days of Awe:

ב רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הַנָּשִׂיא אוֹמֵר. . ..[ וְ]כָל הָעֲמֵלִים עִם הַצִּבּוּר, יִהְיוּ עֲמֵלִים עִמָּהֶם לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, שֶׁזְּכוּת אֲבוֹתָם מְסַיְּעָתַן וְצִדְקָתָם עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד. וְאַתֶּם, מַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עֲלֵיכֶם שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה כְּאִלּוּ עֲשִׂיתֶם:

Rabban Gamaliel son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said: “All who labor for the community, let them labor with them for Heaven’s sake, for then the merit of the community’s forebears will sustain them, and their beneficence will endure forever. And as for you [who labor thus], I regard you as deserving great reward, as though you had accomplished it all [on your own].” [2]

One generation sustains the next, a gift that is particularly true here at Temple Beth Israel, where the photos in our center hallway depict the grandparents, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and cousins of those who gather here today. You are their gift to us.

But even if you don’t carry a familiar last name, it is absolutely impossible to be anonymous in this congregation. Don and I found that out the first time we walked in the door. But it’s also absolutely impossible to be inactive. Or at least it should be. And if you are now, you won’t be for long. Those yellow interest cards we handed out at Rosh Hashanah will be out for break-the-fast too.

We need you. Every one of you. Not just today, but throughout the year. We need your talents, your ideas, your time and attention. Small can be successful, if we, together, our whole congregation, pitches in.

People want attention. They want a place where they feel welcome, where they feel at home, where they feel that they matter, where they have a sense that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves. All of us feel that way – and so do all the people who have not yet discovered us. So let’s share the best of what we are, and together plan for what we can become.

“Smallness, accessible, and a high-quality experience.” We make Judaism come alive in a way that is both highly personal and communally fulfilling – just like the prayers we recite throughout these days of awe. Each of us is responsible for our own teshuvah. But each of us here today gives strength to everybody else making teshuvah for themselves.

Let this not be just for today. We control our own destiny. We are in a position to move this congregation into a future that meets both the expectations and the needs of Jews and their families – both those who are with us today, and those who are not yet with us.

יד כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ

“For this thing is very near to you, on your lips and in your heart, and you can do it.”[3]

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deut. 29:13-14

[2] Mishnah Avot 2:2

[3] Deut. 30:14