Friday, November 21, 2008

Chayyei Sarah

The beginning of our Parashah, Chayyei Sarah, announces the death of Sarah by describing her life according to the number of her years. I could, and probably should, write a more source driven dvar Torah this week, but I am taken by the very opening phrase as today I too take account of my years. Today I turn 42. I do so in Jerusalem with Amalya at my side. It could only be better if Becca, Elan and Mira were here with me. I have a lot for which to be thankful. I live a truly blessed life.

So today, I say thank you to all those who have had an impact on me. They are far too many to count, far more than I deserve. Listing you would invariably leave one of you out so a very general, very deep and sincere group thanks will have to suffice. Somehow, I have been apprenticed to great masters and mentored by people with a depth of wisdom that I cannot describe.

I am blessed with a wonderful, glorious family, a magnificent wife (I often tell people that I married far above my own life status and I really mean it), and fantastic children. They are truly a blessing. Even when I have to give them their brachot over the phone from Israel, the birkat yeladim - blessing the children - is really a way of letting them know that they are incredible brachot in my life.

I am fortunate that in 42 short years, I have been included in several life changing ventures. Before “Independent Minyanim” were popular, I got to help execute the vision of two wonderful rabbis, Michael Seigel and David Soloff, in building a dues free Shabbat morning minyan in Chicago, a project that far outlasted my involvement and flourishes today.

I was blessed to help build a camp that still touches thousands of lives every summer. The web of people in whose lives I am involved and who impact me is wide and complex...and it pops up at the oddest moments. Take today for example. I was sitting with Amalya and her friend Hallel at Bagel Bite on the corner of Derekh Bet Lechem and Yehudah when a former camper, Nathan Pankowsky, walked by. He was talking to a woman who was a shlicha at Camp Ramah in Canada. While talking to Nathan, I caught somebody out of the corner of my eye (15 years in camp leadership helps you develop incredible peripheral vision). I stopped mid-sentence and shouted across the intersection “Marc!” There was Marc Silberstein, a madrich and rosh aidah for several years at Ramah Darom. And inside the restaurant was Arnee Winshall - an incredible leader in Jewish Camping and in Jewish education.

In talking with Arnee and her friends, I had another chance to mention Camp Yofi and the importance of reaching out to the entire family in a unit where there are children with Autism. The blessing of the years of involvement with these families always reminds me of how important this program is, how it needs to be expanded, and how the Jewish community needs to live the ethos of the values of the prophets in making space for the incredible families.

And in the morning, I was walking downtown when I ran into Michal Kabatznik and her mother, Barbara. And it is here where it all comes together. Michal was a camper, staff member, and department head at Ramah Darom. Her mother is the site director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Boca Raton. Michal made Aliyah this year. I now work with her mother. All incredible blessings.

While I sometimes find Facebook a little terrifying, I am reconnecting with people who were blessings in my life long ago. In short, I have so much to say thank you for. So many blessings in my life, and these blessings are just in the first 42 years. I can only imagine what lies ahead in the next 42.

This morning, I walked in the shuk Mahane Yehudah, the bustling outdoor market in Jerusalem. I love it. I love the smells, the tastes, the sounds, even the pushing and shoving. As I wandered the alleyways, my eyes welled up in sadness, the sadness that comes with knowing that on Monday night, I will once again fly away, back to the US. And with each trip, I feel like I leave another small piece of my soul here, waiting to be collected back - a deposit on acquiring an achuza - a possession - in the land of Israel. And with each deposit, it gets harder and harder to leave. Our parashah talks about acquiring an achuzat kaver - a possession of a burial ground - as the beginning of the fulfillment of part of the Divine Promise, a land. Of all the berachot that I hope for in the next 42 years, an achuzat Chaim - a living possession in this land, is the one I hope for most.

With thanks to God for these incredible 42 years of blessing and with an excited eye toward the next 42 years and what blessings they will bring, I wish you all a

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Vayera 2008

I write with great thanks today as I watch the sun descend and Shabbat ascend here in Jerusalem.

Yesterday evening, after sleeping for several hours, we go to my favorite part of any flight to Israel. The dark tube of a plane begins to shine inside as the window shades are raised. And at just the right moment, I see the coast and the lights of Tel Aviv. My heart soars and my eyes well up. This trip, I get to share that feeling with my youngest daughter, Amalya. I tell her about how I feel and she smiles. She smiles. She will get to see all of her friends, her school, her neighborhood and she will feel at home, as do I.

Vayera doesn’t speak of the Covenant of the Land directly. It focuses on the promise of a child, an inheritor, the continuation of the family line that is embodied in Isaac. While much of the action of the parashah happens in the context of wandering the land, most attention is paid to the family that will transmit the blessing. There are powerful, difficult texts in this parashah and we struggle with them every year. I am sure that I will experience the textual struggle tomorrow in shul - which I am so excited to be at - as I listen to the reading of the Torah.

For today, however, there is no struggle, there is only joy. There is wandering the streets of Yerushalayim, visiting with our friends from the fruit stand on Bet Lehem and Esther HaMalka streets, from the dry cleaner and her brand new four month old baby just down the street, and with Miki and Sima, where I get my hair cut. And I get to wander with one of my three wonderful promises. If only the other two and my soulmate were here with me. Life is good.

There is much to write but the sun is setting, Shabbat arrives in about 5 minutes and I have to get dressed to get to shul and dinner.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 7, 2008


I visited an old friend this week in Mobile, Alabama, several old friends actually. I was there for a dedication. Sadly, my oldest friend - mentor and confidant - actually the hero of the day, was not present. To visit him, we needed to make a stop before the dedication and even at that stop, he was only present in spirit, for we were visiting his grave. Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell, one of the founders of Ramah Darom, a giant leader of the American Jewish community, and a courageous civic and national leader, died just over a year ago. Monday marked the grand opening of one of his grandest dreams: The Mitchell Cancer Institute of the University of South Alabama, a world-class cancer treatment center and research institute for the citizens of South Alabama, as well as those of Northern Florida and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I am sure that the list of those who miss Bubba is long and esteemed. In fact, I am certain that were he still alive, he would have had to pull himself away from the unending phone calls from politicians seeking advice up to the last minute before the voting started on tuesday, in order to attend the dedication. I might even go so far as to say that the entire election season, and perhaps the outcome itself, would have been different if those same politicians would have been able to hear Bubba’s sage wisdom. At the dedication, the Governor, US Senators and Representatives, state and local politicians, all spoke with great warmth of the man we all knew as Bubba. His impact and his absence were powerfully felt.

The day was sunny, perfect actually. The new building gleamed, light and airy both inside and out, inspiring a sense of hope for the future for patients and researchers alike. Bubba’s wonderful wife, Arlene, his fantastic brother, Abe, his children and grandchildren brimmed with the pride and love they felt for Bubba and this major accomplishment, just as they mourned his very notable physical absence. After all the politicians and university representatives spoke, it was Arlene’s and then Abe’s turn to address the huge crowd. It requires incredible poise and grace to speak on such an uplifting and yet difficult occasion. Both sounded messages of hope that the Mitchell Cancer Institute would someday produce cures to this wretched disease. Abe taught the crowd a portion from the Talmud insuring that the central role that the Jewish People and Jewish Tradition plays in the life of the Mitchell family was shared with an audience the majority of which was not Jewish. It was an incredible moment. After the ribbon cutting, Rabbi Steve Silberman delivered a stirring benediction.

I miss Bubba too. At these difficult times, as I try to navigate the economic challenges that all Jewish organizations are facing, his wisdom would be reliable and forward- thinking. I miss his friendship and mentoring. When you sat with Bubba, he made you feel as important as any Senator or Representative that might call, even as he had to take that call from a person of such high political stature. In doing so, he reinforced the enduring sense that the work of Jewish education is important, that it is what we are all about, a value I fear is being challenged in these economic times when institutions will save so-called “financial profit centers” while sacrificing the core programs that justify their existence in the first place - the growth of and strengthening of Jewish identity, knowledge and commitment. He genuinely cared about and loved the Jewish people and felt it was his responsibility to work to support and protect them, be it those in his community or those half way across the world. We need more Bubba’s in this world and as I said before, I miss him very much.

Abraham is sent out into the world on a mission, to The Land, where he would be directed by the Hand of God. Along the way, he inspired others to join him. That sense of mission, of responsibility, of calling was shared by our friend, teacher and leader, Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell z”l. His legacies - a strong, committed family, a summer camp to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders, an Israel advocacy organization, AIPAC, he led in the early 1990’s and influenced until his death and whose headquarters in Washington DC bears his name, a Jewish presence in Mobile, a commitment to education at the University of South Alabama, and a Cancer Institute that will help heal South Alabamians and find cures to cancer - are each awe inspiring. And yet, his most important legacies are those whose lives he touched, who he inspired personally or institutionally. I feel very blessed to have been so touched.

Many thanks to the entire Mitchell family for allowing me to join them in Mobile this week and for sharing Bubba with all of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

I will be leaving for Israel on Wednesday night to attend the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities. If you are in Israel for the year or are attending the GA, please let me know. I would love to see you.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Pre-Vote, Post-Noah Thought

Last week, I was in New York for a conference sponsored by the Covenant Foundation and for work related to the Florence Melton Adult Mini School. On Thursday, I had a last minute change of schedule and found myself with an unexpected free hour. Normally, I would have tried to quickly cram another meeting in but I was outside and, despite the cold, decided to take a break and sit in Central Park. It was freezing cold and I could barely feel my fingers to write. But I sat and enjoyed the remarkable quiet of the park, the beauty of the trees - each one appearing hand painted by God, each leaf personally placed by the Divine Hand. New York is not a place to expect small acts of humanity but in the span of ten minutes, I witnessed two of them.

Walking in to the park, I stopped at a vendor to by some nuts, a small snack to tide me over until lunch. The bag cost two dollars. Inadvertently, I gave the man a dollar bill and a five. He could easily have just taken the money as extra profit but he looked at me and said, “Sir, I think you meant to give me another dollar bill” as he passed the five dollar bill back. He smiled. I was impressed by his honesty.

In the park, a young couple was standing in front of the lake trying to take a picture of themselves. Stretching an arm out to an almost uncomfortable length, the man was about to snap the picture when a passerby said, “Let me take that picture for you.” Again, in New York, he could just as easily have kept his head down and kept moving but he didn’t. He stopped and did a nice thing for someone else.

I was thinking about both of these incidents while listening to the Torah reading this past Shabbat. The generation of Noah was described as being completely corrupt, evil, thinking of doing wrong all the time. The midrash describes a time of narcissism, of corruption, of wickedness, big-time awful stuff. But I often find myself wondering if instead of the big acts of evil, what brought about the destruction of the world was the constant small wrongs of living that when added up brought the world at that time to a place where repair was no longer an option - wholesale re-creation was required.

Getting ready to go to the ballot box tomorrow morning, I find myself thinking about those two small acts of humanity in the park, completely minor, and the general lack of dignity of discourse that has characterized this election season. When I press the touch screen to vote tomorrow morning, I feel driven to vote for a return to dignity - dignity of humanity, of discourse, of the honor of what being an American is about. Who I will vote for is my own business, but I hope that we will all feel - regardless of how we vote - that we are voting for a country where the small acts of dignity, of humanity, of hope will far outweigh all the small - and not so small - indignities, acts of anger, of ill-will that are committed daily. That we will vote to step away from the generation of Noah and take a step toward the World to Come.

Good luck. Now, go vote.