Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Lesson in Mourning

[For my HSC Family, this is also going to be my January article in The Connection as well]

All too often, we rabbis are called upon to officiate and eulogize funeral of someone we either do not know, or do not know well.  In most cases, we do a formal ‘intake’ where we actively listen to family and friends about their loved one.  It is through their eyes that we are able to create narratives to share about the deceased with the community.

And yet, there are also times where we are called upon to officiate at the funerals of those we know and of those we love.  In my own case, I was asked to officiate at the funeral of my wife’s beloved grandmother Rachel a few years ago.  As someone intricately involved in the family dynamics of the situation, it is certainly a very different place to be than as an outside observer, which is neither good nor bad, just different.

And then there are the times where we go as mourners.  Monday December 16, 2013, I attended the funeral of Samuel Asher Sommer, known on the web as Superman Sam.  Sam was the son of my dear classmates Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer.  I have known Michael and Phyllis for nearly two decades, and over the past 18 months they have shared openly their journey with the world as Sam has battled against refractory acute myeloid leukemia, or what Sam referred to as the ‘Ninja’ Leukemia. 

Now I won’t say Sam lost his battle, because he didn’t.  He fought every step of the way.  And through his struggles, he taught many of us how to live better and how to love more intensely.  He simply ran out of options as he ran out of time.  Sam died peacefully surrounded by his parents loving embrace.  And as his mother Phyllis wrote, “throughout his entire life, Sam was never alone.”

I was awestruck as well by the words of Rabbi Steven Lowenstein, who not only officiated at Sam’s funeral, but also knew him deeply and intensely.  Rabbi Lowenstein is the Senior Rabbi at Am Shalom where Rabbi Phyllis Sommer is the Associate Rabbi. 
Rabbi Lowenstein has been there through every step of Sam’s journey as well.  And to be able to be present and give the family the ability to grieve without breaking down himself, is simply amazing.  I was in tears throughout the whole service.  I can’t imagine the emotions he must have been holding back to do this.  As he said, “the ninja leukemia may have ravaged his body, but it never touched his soul.”

During this time I began to think about the grieving process in general.  I weep both for the early loss of Sam, and all the things he will never get to do and experience.  I grieve for my friends and their other children David, Yael and Solly.  I am heartbroken for Sam’s grandparents and uncles. 

I want desperately to take away their pain or at least alleviate their sorrow.  But the truth is, when it comes to grieving, many of us strive to do this. We try to find just the right words or do just the right action that will make everyone just a little less sad.  But that is not our job. 

Our job is simply to be a source of comfort, to be a presence.  Whether this is a shoulder to cry upon, a warm embrace or simply an acknowledgement, we are there to be the pillar for the mourners to lean upon.

It is not about us, it is about them.  So what then can we do?  Most importantly to reach out to those mourning not just in the days leading up to the funeral nor the days immediately following, but the days, weeks, months and years later.  It does not mean we have to bring food or cheer them up, it just means we are letting them know that we love them and the memory of their departed are dear to our hearts. 

We may never be able to make sense of the loss of a loved one.  But what we can do is to work to make their lives continue to have meaning.  I, for one, am committed to keeping Sam’s story alive and vibrant.  He was an amazing kid who was wise beyond his years.  He loved turtles and googly eyes.  He loved stories and bugs, and he had a mischievous side.  His memory will be for an abiding blessing.  And for the thousands who knew him or got to know him through social media, may our Loving God provide consolation to their sorrowing hearts.  For Sam will be greatly missed.

And for those of you who would like to do something in Sam’s memory, a group of rabbis and rabbinic students will shaving their heads in March at our annual Rabbinic conference to raise money to fight childhood cancer.  Donations can made through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (this happens to be his father’s page.  His mother and others have pages as well). 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Memoriam

This has been a surreal Biennial.  At its’ core, the Biennial (hashtag #Biennial13) is fundamentally all about about celebrating Reform Judaism.  In particular its’ focus in on our amazing capacity as Reform Jews to change ourselves; to change our congregations and work together to continue to transform the world. 

With this in mind, there have been wonderful, thought provoking and insightful presentations.  I am particularly intrigued by the Visual Tefillah, which I have seen used before, but I now have the knowledge as to how to go about implementing it in my own congregation.

I have also had the pleasure of catching up with colleagues and friends while garnering the opportunities to make new friends as well.  For, as we tend to discover and rediscover, we are all, in many ways, on the same journey together.

But I as I began this piece, this Biennial has been surreal.  Usually I feel thoroughly engaged in the festivities, seminars and the like.  But for me, it has been like walking through a fog.  I am here but detached.  The days and nights felt ethereal, real but not quite real.  My state of being was through no fault of the organizers, committee members, staff, and others who have pulled of such an amazing convention.  It was instead because of outside tragic events that have drawn me closer to my fellow attendees while drawing me away from the convention as well.

The first night I learned of the untimely death (though aren’t most deaths untimely?) of one of my former b’nai mitzvah and confirmation students from my previous congregation – Joshua Bynes.  Josh was a kind, intelligent, and caring young man.  He had his whole future ahead of him, which was starting to come together.  He had seen his share of challenges and adversity, but he was coming through it.  It was made all the more difficult because for his fellow confirmands, this was the first time they encountered the death and loss of someone their age. 

For me personally, I am upset and angry about the loss of Josh.  I am upset because his death was senseless.  It did not need to happen.  He should still be here today to be in the warm embrace of his loving family.  He was such a wonderful person and he will be greatly missed by his loving family and his loving friends.

This tragic news was then followed a couple days later when we learned of the death Sam Sommer, also known as Superman Sam.  We learned about losing Sam to what he called the Ninja (leukemia) late Friday night.  Sam died in peace surrounded by his loving family.  And yet, all I can think about is his list of “I won’t get to.”  Though his amazing family took him to Israel and to Disney, there are so many things that he never got to do, least of all, live a long, rich, and full life.  The sense of unfairness is overwhelming.  The sense of grief is palpable. 

The one that still breaks me up is that his youngest brother Solly will never really remember Sam.  Sure he’ll hear the stories, see the pictures, and watch the videos, but he’ll mostly know his brother through the memories of others.

I am not typically a demonstrative emotional person, and yet, I cry every time I think of Sam. I cry in front of absolute strangers.  I cry alone.  As I have been reminded, it is good to cry because crying reminds us of the love in our hearts.  Which is strange because I had only met Sam once in my life. 

Our families got together during a CCAR convention in Atlanta.  Our daughter is just a little younger than Sam and I can barely remember him as a toddler climbing up and down the stairs at my in-laws house.  Or perhaps I am confusing the time and we saw him when he was a little older.  Memory is a funny thing that way. 

So I really only know Sam through his parents and the stories they have chosen to share about their amazing son.  He was a gift to them and a gift to us all.  So even though I have been surrounded by themes of vitality and vibrancy my thoughts have been all about mortality and the greater questions of life. 

And then I remember, I have been using a lot of “I” statements.  I wonder, have I (there I go again), making these tragic stories about me instead of where the focus should be, on their grieving families?

My loss is not their loss.  I cannot fathom what they are going through, and I pray to God that I never will have to know.  What sense can I make, can we make, of their deaths? 

Perhaps only this.  Tomorrow I will be boarding a flight to go to Chicago.  It is a flight of consolation.  It is a flight to comfort the mourners.  We cannot heal their pain.  We cannot relieve their suffering or their overwhelming sense of loss.  We can only help them to know that they are loved, that they are cared for and thought of. 

To Eli, Ana and David, and to Phyllis, Michael, David, Yael, and Solly: you are loved.  Josh and Sam will live on in our hearts.  Our tears are here to join yours creating a river, a gush, a torrent.  We cannot hope to make sense of their deaths, but dammit, we will make meaning of their lives.

Rest in peace Josh and Sam.  May you be bound up in the wings of the Shechina and your memories and your lives will be for abiding blessing. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Happy Belated Thanksgivukkah!

Below is my first video blog on the serendipity that is the combination of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving:


Monday, November 25, 2013

Vayeshev 5774: Making Sense of Defining Moments in History

    Today is an auspicious day to say the least.  For today we commemorated one of the most traumatic events in the modern history of our country.  It was a day where many have argued that innocence died.  Of course we have lost other presidents to similar forms of violence: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley are also on the list.  Though one can argue that with better medical treatment, Garfield and McKinley would most likely have survived.  Be that as it may, the day Kennedy was shot, has never left the consciousness of most of those who were around to witness or recall the events of that tragic November day.
            For those who were lived through that time, you remember where and when you heard the news.  You remember what you were doing.  You remember who told you.  And they distinctly remember how you felt before and after.
            To paraphrase one of JFK’s nieces, I believe, “What we lost was his ability to galvanize the nation around the idea that we could rally around a common purpose on the right side of history.”  He was the one who told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  JFK was also the same man who inspired the space race.  For there was a time when we aspired to break the earthly orbit and feel our feet touch soil not directly of this earth.  He gave us hope and inspiration, and I feel part of the reason why we are so focused on this date, is because that legacy was lost to us, just as it was beginning to take root.
            This is in part why I also feel why the conspiracy theories still linger.  How could one man take away the hope of a new future away from us so quickly and so violently?  There must have been others who were threatened by the Kennedy legacy.  It was they, not Oswald, who stole that from us.  I for one, am very reluctant to subscribe to such theories, for a variety of reasons.  Though I am sure the reason why so many do is because they are troubled by the notion that a single crazed individual can alter the course of history.
            Be that as it may, there are those who have also weaved this narrative into the works of fiction.  There was a famous episode of Quantum Leap where Sam was transported into the body of Lee Harvey Oswald.  And Stephen King, not to long ago, wrote an alternate history where in his book 11/22/63, the protagonist Jake Epping was able to travel back in time and change the events in Dallas on that fateful day.  Of course then he had to deal with all of the ramifications of changing history.  It is a fascinating book and I do recommend it. 
            As I started, today is an auspicious day.  For those of my generation, thankfully we do not have our JFK moment.  Though I would argue, our moment was January 28, 1986 with the Space Shuttle Challenger.  I too can remember where I was, what class I was in, and how I felt afterwards for days, weeks, months, and years later.
            And then there are those of the millennial generation who remember September 11, 2001. 
            What all of these events have in common is the profound impact they had on the people who were around to experience them.  But they do, to some degree, have diminishing effects on the generations that followed.  December 7, 1941, is now a historical date for most, and does not have the same emotional resonance for subsequent generations.  And yet, for those who lived through it, how could they ever dream of forgetting the attack on Pearl Harbor?
            I mention all of this because after each one of these pivotal events, the world changed.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes it has been worse for wear.  But in either case, the world was different before and after each of these seminal events.
            We too in our tradition have dates such as these.  But they are not as much a part of our collective Jewish memory because the times have passed, and time heals almost all wounds.  586 BCE saw the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  From that point on, we have always been a Diaspora community.  70 CE, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.  Since that time, we have lived under the auspices of Rabbinic Judaism.  Another pivotal event in our history.  And being that we are a tradition that is over 4,000 years old, there are many more major, and minor events that were just as transformative as the ones that I mentioned at the start of this drash.
            Not all of them were bad by the way.  For example, next week, everyone is excited about the combined observance of Chanukah and Thanksgiving.  The name that seems to have stuck is Thanksgivvukah.  Though there are others out there as well, to be sure.
            People have written songs.  There are YouTube videos (some more hilarious than others).  I personally like the one where a nice normative family is invaded by their Jewish relatives who are taking over Thanksgiving for all 8 days.
            But what is lost in this, is the transformative nature of what Chanukah represents.  We celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days.  It is a wonderful Rabbinic midrash.  The truth is, Chanukah really has nothing to do with a ‘magic’ jar of oil. 
            Instead it was all about a miraculous fight for religious freedom.  It all started around 175 BCE when the local Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes replaced the High Priest Onias III with his brother Jason.  This set off a series of laws and decrees by Antiochus, who basically was trying to eradicate Judaism and replace it with Hellenism.  He allowed gymnasiums to be built in Jerusalem.  He outlawed the public study of Torah under the penalty of death (this by the way is the reason why we play with the dreidel.  The students would gather together to study, and if soldiers came by, they would quickly hide their materials and act like all they were doing was gambling).  So the dreidel was not just a children’s toy, but really a life saver.
            Antiochus outlawed circumcision and he pilfered all the wealth that there was in the Temple.
            And to add insult to injury, then Antiochus tried to place a statue of Zeus in The Temple in Jerusalem.  If he had been successful in his campaign, there would have been no more Judaism.  All that we know and do today, simply would not have come into existence.
            But a priest by the name of Mattathias, along with his 5 sons including Judah (later nicknamed the Macabee), along with religious zealots called the Chasidim began a guerilla war against the Selucid Greeks.  Their tactics were later studied an adopted by none other than our very own General George Washington in his battles against the British.
            They succeeded and on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE, (3598) the Macabees and their followers were able to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem.  Chanukah by the way means, “dedicate” or in this case, “rededicate.”  25 Kislev 3598, another auspicious date in our history.  I am sure it was memorable for those who were there and the celebrations that followed.
            For three years, it must have seemed like their way of life was over.  But, then with victory after victory, came a moment in time that has been a defining moment in our tradition ever since.
            We can talk another time about why Chanukah has become centered around the ideas of oil and gifts, around latkes and menorahs.  But we should know, that it is these pivotal moments in our lives and in the lives of our people that help to shape and define who we are, even if we weren’t there.
            Writers can speculate as to what the world may have been like if JFK had survived or had been riding in a car with a roof.  Would we have gotten out of Vietnam?  Would the Cold War have ended sooner?  Would Civil Rights have been much more at the forefront of the political discourse?  No one can say. 
            But what we do know is that without the courageous actions of our ancestors led first by Mattathias and later by Judah, we would not be sitting here this evening pondering these questions. 
            So just as we work to remember November 22, 1963, so too, we should incorporate into the essence of our being, our Jewish memory dates like 25 Kislev 3598, for that was an important date in history for us as well. 
            And in this case, unlike today’s date, it is a date we can celebrate.  For there are too few dates of celebration in our history.  I for one am planning on making a turbriskeh, an old Southern Jewish favorite: Turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with latkes. 
            But not to make light of today’s 50th anniversary, I do ask that we use dates such as these to remind us that even in the face of tragedy, we all have the ability to bring greater goodness into the world.  Yes innocence was lost that day.  And we are all left with a feeling of, “what if?”  that can never be answered, only speculated.
            But what is important is that we are here to ask these questions.  We are here to try to, if not make sense out of tragedies, to at least give them lasting meaning, in our lives, in our country, and in the place of history.  For we are all defined by every event in our lives, both big and small.  But what we sometimes forget is that we are also defined by those events that came long before us.  And we should not forget that they had and still have meaning for us to this very day.
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

For Sam

This past year I lost three people near and dear to me to the devastation that is cancer.  First came the shocking news that we lost my Aunt Nancy.  It is a long tale, but needless to say, we had no idea she was even sick, let alone dying.  So when the news came, we were all devastated.

Then we lost one of my heroes Anna.  She was the inspiration to many with her strong will and sense of Annatude.

Then came my friend Steve.  He was my guitar hero and the epitome of what it means to be a mensch.

Words cannot possibly summarize the lives of these three wonderful people and the lasting impact they have left on their friends and their families

As a rabbi I have also eulogized and buried far too many cancer victims.

But today many of us received the news too heartbreaking to even contemplate, our hero Superman Sam Sommer, who has been battling a vicious and nasty ninja of leukemia, has received the news that it is back.  And not only that, there is very little else that can be done.

My heart is breaking for his parents Phyllis and Michael, and for his siblings David, Yael and Solly.  I wish I had the power to take away some of their hurt, some of their pain.  I wish I had the power to fight and destroy this horrible disease.  But wishes are just that wishes.  There is nothing I can do to ease their pain, and there is nothing I can do to fight such a vicious foe.

But then I remember, it's not about me, it's not about any of us.  It is about Sam and Phyllis and Michael and David and Yael and Solly.

And in the face of such an evil disease, all the rest of us can do is hug our children more often.  All we can do is continue to love one another.  All we can do is remember that there are far too many of us fighting battles like Sam's against overwhelming odds.

There is too much hate and anger in the world.  We spend to much time spewing words filled with vitriol because we disagree about something be it philosophically, politically, religiously.  We forget what matters: love of family and friends.

In the meantime, I am rededicating myself to the reminder that Superman Sam continues to be my hero.  And that his battle is all our battle.  And that we will not have won until we no longer lose any of our loved ones to that evil foe that is cancer.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


     There has been a great deal of reporting on the convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, which will be taking place this November.  As an interesting aside, both holidays are based on the Jewish festival of Sukkot: the fall festival of Thanksgiving.  For the pilgrims, who knew their Bible, they wished to celebrate a version of Sukkot.  And for the Hasmoneans (the group led by Judah the Macabbee), they wished to reinstitute Sukkot by rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem after they reconquered it from the Selucid-Greeks.  Hence the eight day festival of Chanukah, which is very much modeled after the eight days of Sukkot.

            However, given the curious anomaly of Thanksgiving and Chanukah overlapping, I do think it is worth taking a moment to talk about the Jewish system of calendaration.  This is because our calendar is one of the more complex systems out there, which is why our holidays seem to occur either earlier or later during the Gregorian year.

            This is because, according to the Torah, we follow the lunar calendar.  Part of this is because the cycles of the moon are much easier to follow than the seasons dictated by the sun.  You may have noticed that many of our holidays seem to fall either when there is a new moon or a full moon.  This is of course, by design. 

The months of the Hebrew calendar are either twenty-eight or twenty-nine days long.  This means that unless we adjust our calendar it will not line up with the Gregorian or solar calendar.  This would not be a problem except we also follow the agrarian calendar because we have a fall festival (Sukkot), a spring festival (Passover) and a summer festival (Shavuot).  These festivals all need to fall in the calendar around the appropriate time of year. 

            Basically what this means is that we have to periodically readjust the calendar to make it work.  But there is an additional problem.  The problem is that there are also certain days holidays cannot fall.  For example: Yom Kippur can never begin on a Thursday evening.  This is because traditional households would never have the chance to prepare for Shabbat.  So except, for Shabbat, we determine, to some degree, the days on which certain holidays take place.

            For all intents and purposes, what has arisen is a mathematical formula to keep track of the comings and goings of our observances.  The only day that is consistent is Shabbat, which falls on the seventh day, no matter what.  Otherwise, to keep it all straight, we add seven leap years every nineteen years to readjust the calendar.

            This is why Chanukah falls so early this year.  We have not had a leap month recently, so the holidays have been taking place earlier and earlier during the solar year.  In 5774, both the holidays and Chanukah will take place about as early as they possibly can during the Gregorian year.  Add to that, November having an additional Thursday, and this is why you end up with Chanukah and Thanksgiving overlapping.  According to some estimates, this will not happen again for another thousand years.

            If you are confused, not to worry, there is a simple solution.  Buy a Hebrew calendar or a Hebrew calendar app, go to Hebcal, or download the new Har Sinai Congregational app.  The Hebrew calendar is the same on all of them.  And make sure to enjoy your turkey with latkes, and don’t forget to light the menorah at halftime.  In my family, we are going to try a new experiment: the tur-bris-ke or turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with latkes.  What better way to celebrate the two festivals based off our fall festival of Thanksgiving.  Chag Sameach everyone!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In Defense of Jews and Judaism

There was recent survey as reported in the New York Times that in essence is predicting the end of Liberal Judaism in North America.  Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews Now to be clear, prognosticators have been predicting the end of Judaism for well over two thousand years, and yet we are still here.  Jews and Judaism are not going anywhere.

But what we are seeing is a significant change in practice and observance by those who label themselves as non-Orthodox.  Though I do feel it is important to state that there are many Jews who call themselves Orthodox because they attend an Orthodox synagogue, but are not actually Orthodox in their observance.  So already there is the blurring of some lines.

What is happening is a trend that is not new.  In some ways we are a victim of our own success.  The Jews of North America represent the most successful Diaspora community in our history.  We have achieved economic success beyond our wildest dreams.  We have achieved political success our ancestors never could have imagined.  And we have achieved freedoms never afforded us throughout our wanderings.

We have built institutions, denominations, and a veritable alphabet soup of organizations.  Some of which have achieved amazing accomplishments and milestones, while others have become stagnant.

What this poll indicates is that we will see an increase in cross-denominational merging as Jews are becoming less affiliated.  We are also going to see beloved organizations and congregations either merge or fold with the times.  Those institutions that are innovative and focus on programming, worship, and financial stability will thrive, while those that continue with models of the past will fade away. We will continue to see amazing clergy and Jewish professionals rise to the top, while some others, who are equally as amazing and committed finding ways to create new paradigms for their professional careers. 

Judaism and especially liberal Judaism is at a cross roads, but ever since the 1800s, the Enlightenment, and Emancipation, Judaism continues to be at a cross roads.  To be part of a communal experience while having personal freedom and autonomy has always represented a fundamental challenge to Judaism.  Communal norms are not what bind us together.  So instead we need to focus on the individual and communal experiences we can share in meaningful ways. 

And there are many other things we can do as well.  We need to look at joining together many of our alphabet soup of organizations.  We simply have too many organizations competing for the same pool of dollars for similar purposes.  We need to get ahead of the challenge of the À la carte trends in Judaism.  Many of our folks today are of the Netflix and Amazon tradition that they want what they want when they want it.  It is imperative that we start to switch to models to help accommodate them while helping them feel connected and not losing our sense of purpose and mission at the same time.  It is a daunting challenge to say the least.

We have to redefine what it means to be a 'member.'  The dues model is broken.  There are those who speak about switching to a contribution model or a pledge model.  The reality is, people have fewer resources nowadays with more demands than ever, and we need to find ways to be willing to acknowledge the financial realities of today.

One way to do this is to re-examine our use of space.  Far too many of our congregations and organizations are invested heavily in underutilized facilities.  Some have invited in other congregations, organizations, and the like to rent the space, which is more often than not, a stop gap measure.  We should be asking ourselves, how much space do we really need?  For every dollar we spend maintaining our facilities is one less we can invest in the people and programs that help to fill our sacred spaces.   Our spaces have become monuments to our past successes, but are sadly now a hindrance to our future.

We need to shore up our resources with long term investments.  We need to double-down in the people who work overtime and are underpaid to help our congregations and organizations thrive. 

The future is bleak only if we do nothing.  We still have time and we still have opportunities.  I can prognosticate as to what the future will look like, but what I do know is there are a lot of intelligent and hardworking people still working hard for the future of Jews and Judaism.

Rather than wring our hands and worry about the fate of Judaism, I feel as rabbis, we need to spend more time focusing on the fate of the individual Jews with whom we encounter.  I am not here to "save" Judaism.  I am here to help my congregants and even my non-congregants to continue to find meaning and connections with our ancient and modern heritage.  I feel it is a fight worth fighting, and I will continue to fight on behalf of Jews and Judaism, no matter what the polls may say.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon: Why Israel Should Still Amaze Us

     In some ways it is strange to say that we miss, at least to some degree, the relative calmness in the Middle East prior to December 18, 2010.  That was the date Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire, which then became the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution.  This revolution was quickly followed with the fall of governments in Egypt (twice now), Yemen and Libya.  There is currently a civil war ongoing in Bahrain.  And there have been major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Kuwait, and Morocco.  And Middle East experts are concerned about the wave of refugees flooding into Turkey and Jordan.  They are especially concerned about Jordan because of its limited ability to take not only take care of so many refugees, but also even to provide them with water.

Not that I am advocating a return to dictatorial rule.  It’s just a fresh reminder of what a dangerous neighborhood Israel resides in.  The strained relationship between the United States and Russia, both of whom who have been active in the Middle East since the early days of the Cold War, does not help matters either.  I am not a prognosticator, and I have serious doubts about anyone who can predict how all of this turmoil is going to turn out. 

One consequence of all of this instability is that it has changed Israel’s security plans.  For example, Israel’s southern border is increasingly unstable as Sinai has become, for all intents and purposes, lawless.  So now Israel has to contend not only with Hamas in Gaza but also increased security concerns stemming from the Sinai Peninsula. 

There is also the ongoing concern, and I do not use that term lightly, of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Whether the strengthened sanctions will work, or Israel or Israel with the United States will have to mount a military response also remains to be seen.  But as most experts seem to agree, is Iran cannot develop nuclear capability.  A nuclear Iran is just too much of a threat not just to Israel, but to the world entire.

And yet the world was quick to welcome in the election of the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.  Of course the world will not be missing Mahmoud Ahmadinajad.  But if you ask diplomats off the record, they do miss Ahmadinajad because he put the crazy in crazy.  Rouhani is not really any more of a moderate than Ahmadinajad.  And as long as the Ayatollah remains in power, Rouhani is more of a figurehead anyway.  Experts believe that even as Rouhani has promised better relations with the West, he has continued to back the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program.  So just because Rouhani was elected, no one is really expecting anything to change in Iran.

However, at this moment, the most pressing issue is the ongoing Civil War in Syria.  I participate in a Facebook group of fellow Reform Rabbis.  The question was broached, are my colleagues planning on dedicating a sermon to Syria.  The consensus is that we all very much are gravely concerned, but due to the fluid and constantly changing nature of the situation and the world’s response, there is no way to effectively speak to it until we see how things are going to play out.  And now with Russia back in the mix and the possibility, though unlikely, of chemical weapons being removed from Syria, it is a wait and see game.  The truth is, we could spend hours dedicated to this topic and still not have any idea what the endgame will look like.  What we do know is that Syria’s ongoing Civil War does have significant regional and possibly world-wide implications. 

What is less well known is that Syria’s main enemy in the geopolitical world has been quietly opening her gates to treat the victims of the Syrian conflict.  According to the New York Times, “Since late March, almost 100 Syrians have arrived at two hospitals in the Galilee. Forty-one severely wounded Syrians have been treated … at the Western Galilee Hospital (in Israel), which has a new neurosurgical unit as well as pediatric intensive care facilities. Two of them have died, 28 have recovered and been transferred back to Syria, and 11 remain (t)here.”[1]

Admittedly, it is just a drop in the bucket, but unlike Turkey and Jordan, which have allowed in tens of thousands of refugees, Israel and Syria are still in a state of war.  This of course makes the story all the more incredible.

Yet, this quiet act of medical assistance is not well known and certainly not well reported in the greater world.  It is as if all of Israel’s wrongs, whether real or imagined, must be shouted out from the mountain tops, but those acts of mercy and kindness should only be mentioned in whispers from the valleys.

So despite all of the turmoil, all of the needless deaths, all of the suffering, Israel continues to be a bastion for what is good and right in the world.  And yet, far too many stories of Israel’s contributions are lost.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a newly formed JNF Program called ‘Rabbis for Israel.’  At it, the presenter spoke about new ways that the JNF is serving Israel, and even more importantly ways that Israel is serving the world. 

For example, I learned that Israel has a Philippine guest worker program.  Haven’t heard of it?  That’s not surprising because even some of those in JNF have not heard of it.  What this program does is it brings in guest workers to work the fields during the day.  That much is known.  But what is less well known is that these same workers then attend school at night learning about modern agronomy.  The goal is that when they return to the Philippines, they return with a marketable skill. 

Of all the countries in the world that have guest worker programs, only one country, Israel has this educational requirement in its guest worker program. 

But there are so many other stories as well.  As our JNF presenter explained, “Take the field of stem cell research.  In the United States, it is laden with restrictions and subject to religious taboos.  In Israel, where scientists are limited only by their imaginations and their budgets, they are using stem cells to develop new life-saving technologies and therapies every day, for practical application around the world.  For example, bone marrow transplants.

In Israel, a company called Pluristem Therapeutics, based in Haifa, has developed a placenta-based stem-cell treatment called “PLX” that can save patients suffering from bone marrow failure.  This past summer, a 54 year-old woman with lymphoma cancer was receiving chemotherapy, but her condition continued to deteriorate, necessitating a bone marrow transplant.  Unfortunately, the transplant was not successful.

Pluristem’s PLX cells were then administered to her at Hadassah Medical Center.  Her health improved dramatically, and eventually she was released from the hospital.  At about the same time, PLX saved the life of a seven-year-old girl suffering from aplastic bone marrow. 

Today, Israel has insured the effectiveness of bone marrow transplants – and in so doing, is making the world a better place.

Israel is at the forefront of the development of new treatments and therapies for multiple sclerosis.  Israeli companies have developed two major M.S. medications that are now used by 70% of M.S. patients throughout the world.

And there are so many more stories.  An Israeli company, Mapal Energy has developed a new way of aerating the bacteria that are used to purify the contaminants in waste water.  This new technology replaces the current one, consisting of mechanical aerators, at a cost savings between 50 and 80%.

            Israel has also gotten involved in biological pest control.  For example, Gall wasps in Australia were a blight on the eucalyptus tree, and threatened the entire industry.  Two Israeli scientists isolated the enemy of the gall wasp, another type of wasp that acts as a parasite and kills the gall wasp. 

            Not only has Israel helped to save the wood industry in Australia, but this product has been used in China, Thailand, India, Turkey, Italy, Kenya, Uganda and Brazil.  The strange paradox is that the diplomats of many of these countries consistently attack Israel, and yet Israel is quietly helping their economies.  And there are so many confounding stories like these, while the countries denounce Israel, yet quietly seek her guidance, advice, technology, and so much more.  It is a strange world in which we live.

But the world aside, there are also other major developments in Israel as well.  For example Israel recently discovered the mega gas fields titled Tamar and Leviathan located off the Israeli coast from Haifa.  These massive discoveries will soon transform Israel as they will adequately look after Israel's domestic needs forever and thereafter to supply foreign markets.  A number of countries are pursuing involvement in these finds.  Among them are Russia, China, Europe and South Korea.  Vladimir Putin, of all people, was in Israel a few months ago pursuing a contractual relationship with Israel on its gas development projects. Tamar is due to come online sometime in 2013 and Leviathan to follow in early 2014.  Additional target areas are being explored all the way down the Mediterranean coast of Israel.  The likelihood is that a pipeline from the gas discovery area will be built to Cyprus and on to Greece. This will help Greece with some of its financial troubles. It is expected there will be a plant built to liquefy the gas at the Greek end of the underwater pipeline.

Geologists have recently completed a large mapping of most of southern Israel and preliminary findings indicate there are vast amounts of oil trapped in rock layers under about 15% of the State of Israel.  This shale oil is technically difficult to extract but Israel and the companies involved are becoming very familiar with the methodology to extract this oil called 'fracking'.  Fracking is not without its own challenges and controversies, but the possibility of oil in Israel is an intriguing one indeed.  Perhaps Moses was right after all.

The World Energy Council and Israel Energy Initiatives have completed a detailed study and presented it to the government on their estimates of Israel's shale oil potential. They estimate that Israel's shale reserves could contain as much as 250 billion barrels of potentially recoverable oil.  This would be putting Israel on a par with Saudi Arabia in terms of its oil reserves!

Israeli planners believe that if the gas and oil finds reach the levels that the potential indicates, Israel's current group of allies, trading partners and opponents could drastically change. Israel's geo-political standing in the world will also change.  It’s amazing what friends can be made when you have oil and gas to export!

Currently China is in very serious negotiation to build and finance most of a high speed railway from Eilat to Ashdod.  This would allow tankers and freighters to avoid the Suez Canal as well as cut the time frame from canal usage in half, by using the railway. This is a huge development for Israel as it will open up the Negev, which was always the dream of David Ben Gurion. 

            Of course the ultimate dream is for Israel to be at peace with her neighbors and with the Palestinians.  Currently there is a renewed peace effort ongoing, with Secretary of State John Kerry spearheading this effort. 

            As always, most experts are skeptical including those at AIPAC who noted with regret the recent resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian Authority back in April.  Fayyad, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund, first came to prominence when he was named finance minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2002.  After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Fayyad become prime minister.  His tenure was defined by institution-building, including in the areas of finance and security.

            During his time, security cooperation with Israel became the norm.  In partnership with Israel, during this time, the PA built 1,700 community development programs, 120 schools, 50 health clinics, and 3 hospitals.  More than 1,000 miles of road were paved and 850 miles of water pipes were installed.

            Unlike so many other Palestinian leaders, Fayyad reasoned that the path to Palestinian statehood requires political transparency, economic development, and demonstrating that the Palestinians can govern themselves effectively through durable institutions built from the ground up.  Losing a partner in Fayyad could prove a tremendous obstacle to overcome to say the least, especially if the PA returns to a more authoritarian model.

            But peace still remains a viable possibility, now even more so.  Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have a vested interest in a successful peace process for a host of reasons, least of all, the security of both.

            This is the background information.  There is both good news and troubling news to report.  The situations continue to be fluid, and can change at a moment’s notice.  But our commitment to the Jewish Homeland is unwavering.  And there is much we can do to show our support for this island of tranquility in a sea of troubled waters.

            First off, you can buy Israel Bonds (like this one), which you should have at your seats.  We’ve tried to make it easier than ever.  Attached to your tickets is a sticker.  All you have to do is remove it and put it on the postcard indicating what kind of bonds you would like to purchase.  Keep in mind, this is not a donation.  All Israel bonds are an investment.  And this year, like last year, any bonds purchased in the Baltimore area will be doubled. 

            Our goal at Har Sinai Congregation is to have 100% participation in Israel bonds.  And you can even donate your bonds back to the congregation or pay your Associated dues with them if you wish.  Also, Israel bonds are not a donation, they are an investment.  So buy early and buy often, as your investment not only helps Israel, but also helps your family and the greater community as well.  When Alex was born, he received many wonderful gifts including Israel bonds. We are so excited to use those bonds to help set up Alex’s college and/or therapy fund, just like we did for Emily and Noah.

            You can also join us in our pilgrimage to Israel.  We are planning a family trip to Israel leaving June 22, 2014.  We have worked hard with our service provider to make the trip more affordable for everyone with a particular emphasis on families.  It is also specifically scheduled to take place when schools are out of session.  So please let me or David Carp know if you are interested.  Or just ask any of those who joined us two years ago, they all had an amazing time.

            Likewise, we are also planning a congregational trip to Jewish Argentina in February.  This trip, which will be led by Cantor Gerber and his wife Graciela, an Argentinian herself, will be guiding you through many wonderful experiences.  We encourage you to look at our website and contact Cantor Gerber for more information.  For the Argentinian Jewish community, which has also had its fair share of challenges, is also a proud supporter of Israel.

            As I mentioned the JNF is doing important work in Israel as well.  Currently they have an amazing development in Be’er Sheva.  They have been developing a river park that runs through South Central Be’er Sheva modeled after the river walk in San Antonio, Texas for those of you who have been.  They have also built an amazing park, a promenade, a large lake, and an amphitheater.  The goal is to make Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel, a destination. 

            JNF continues to focus on Israel’s environment, agriculture, green space, and green technologies.  So, if you are so inclined, put a few shekels in your blue pushkies and send them off to JNF.  They are doing important work in Israel.

            And then there is the political support Israel needs here in the United States.  We at Har Sinai Congregation are proud to continue our partnerships, ARZA (more information is in your seats), the Israel Religious Action Center, J-Street and with AIPAC.  I know it is a lot of alphabet soup there, but each of these organizations is working towards Israel’s betterment in their own way.

            For example, I am planning to attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference this year coming up in March.  I hope some of you will be able to join me.

            As always, there is much that we can do.  But perhaps the most important thing we can do is to educate ourselves about all the good that Israel offers the world, so that we can then educate others.  Israel has consistently lost the PR campaign.  But what is even more distressing is how Israel is perceived among our own young adults.

            In the words of a JNF presenter, “the next time you see, or hear a criticism of Israel, think of how much poorer the world would be without this tiny Jewish democracy that struggles and achieves against insuperable odds.”

            We note that on this 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, where Israel’s very existence hung by a thread, Israel has since managed to radically transform herself into a beacon of what is more right than wrong in the world.  From saving lives of victims of the violence in Syria, to her technological and medical advances that are making the world better.  From her agricultural prowess she is sharing with the world, to the energy conservation developments that are making the world more efficient.  The world certainly would be much poorer without Israel.  She did and still needs our help and support to continue to share these gifts with the world.

So whether you can buy Israel Bonds, join us on our Israel trip or our Argentina Trip, advocate for Israel, or support her in any number of ways, I encourage you to do so.  I for one feel better knowing Israel is there.  And what an amazing and vibrant country she is, even in these troubling times. 

I would like to conclude with the aspirational words of prayer offering up by Isaiah some 2700 years ago, though seem just as apropos today as they did then:

“AND THEY SHALL beat their swords

into plowshares and their spears into

pruning hooks. Nation shall not take

up sword against nation; that they shall

never again know war.” (Isaiah  2:4)

Cayin Yehi Ratzon, May this be God’s will