Letters to Congregation
November 23, 2022
During this time of year, we’re bombarded by advertising messages that show families and friends happily gathered together.
That feel-good approach may work for TV commercials, but here’s the reality for many: upcoming holiday meals will be torturous, with the turkey and stuffing served with a side dish of contentious conversation.
There’s much to debate. Inflation, crime, abortion, immigration, gun violence, racial divisions, and the war in Ukraine are among the many hot-button topics. And while heated discussions will play out in countless homes in the coming weeks, they’re already simmering in many other areas of our lives.
As a rabbi in Northern New Jersey, I’ve watched as differing perspectives have driven a wedge between family and friends. Bitter arguments are commonplace, occurring on social media and the carpool line at our children’s schools. I see it in my own synagogue — a community of 5,000 people who are increasingly polarized.
It no longer seems possible to consider an opposing point of view. So many claim a monopoly on truth. We are dug into our positions, interested only in hearing our own opinions reaffirmed in our self-enclosed social circles and media echo chambers. Marriages have ended, holiday dinners have been ruined, and lifelong friendships have died because serious issues can no longer be discussed without the danger of estrangement.
As a civilization, we’ve been here before, and it’s brought about disastrous results.
One example that is particularly meaningful to me: In 70 CE, the last sovereign Jewish State before modern-day Israel was destroyed by the Roman army. The Romans were indeed a powerful adversary. But according to the Talmud — the most important compilation of a Jewish Law — the real reason for the nation’s defeat was the senseless division and hatred among the Jewish people themselves.
According to Tractate Yoma, one of the volumes of the Talmud, 2,000 years ago in the Jewish empire, “wanton hatred” caused people to stop listening to other points of view. The origin of the hatred is debatable and difficult to track, but story after story describes senseless arguments for sport that resulted in violence and murder.
Hatred became so enmeshed in the communal fabric that when the Jews were called upon to come together and fight a common enemy, there was no cohesion or will to work together. Senseless hatred led to the loss of the Jewish Empire.
I can see how this divisiveness can happen. As a rabbi, I need to keep an open mind. But as a human being, I have my thoughts and opinions, many of which were reinforced from an early age.
I was born and raised in a staunchly liberal family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and served my first pulpit in the same neighborhood — a bubble unto itself. My political philosophy was never challenged because we mostly thought the same way.
When I moved eighteen miles west to serve as the senior rabbi of my current synagogue in suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, things were not so monolithic. My congregation is a microcosm of our larger society with political affiliations across the spectrum.
It didn’t take me long to realize that many of my congregants saw me as being less of a rabbi and more of a political activist for the Democratic Party. I spoke with unconscious political bias and was frequently challenged for it. It led many of my congregants to wonder if I could truly be their rabbi if they had different political views.
While leading my divided congregation through a series of seemingly unending crises, I’ve increasingly realized that I need to become more open-minded. I need to hold space for others and hear out their views.
Learning from the mistakes of my ancestors, I now strive to listen and learn instead of pushing back. I want my congregation to know I’ll be their rabbi, no matter their political beliefs. I want to be there for them, but just as importantly, I want to grow as a friend, neighbor, family member, and leader. When I hear other points of view, I now take the time to consider them rather than using my “bully pulpit” to refute them.
Recently I informed my congregation that I, a lifelong Democrat, have become an Independent. Not because my political beliefs have changed, but so I can more effectively fulfill my role as their rabbi.
I strive to model the conduct I want to see in other community leaders: to be someone willing to hear beyond myself, who is open to new and different ideas that can help me evolve as a Jew, a global citizen, and a human being.
Has it been easy? Not always. Has it been worth it? Absolutely.
I now have an ask of you: Join me in this mission. I ask you to look at subtleties, to struggle with nuance. To step outside your echo chambers and hear what the “other side” has to say. I encourage civility and bravery. I recommend we stand up for our values, but not be arrogant in thinking ours is the only truth.
I believe most of us are exhausted by the way we are constantly pushed to adopt uncompromising views in the name of political principles. I also believe there is a common core to our society, one that is still worth fighting for.
As we get ready to join family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner, I ask you to consider listening to each other more deeply and taking a breath before responding.
And then I ask you to continue to do this in the days, months, and years that follow.
I hope we can be steadfast with this approach, willing to stay longer in uncomfortable conversations in order to find common ground.
I pray we can do so before we suffer the plight of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
Response to Mass Shooting in Uvalde, Texas
May 25, 2022
24, Iyar 5782
Dear Congregational Family,
It’s taken me twenty-four hours to awaken to the realization. I saw the alert cross my phone screen. But I’m ashamed to say that I’ve gotten used to and numb to it. I ended my day by walking out of the building with Rabbi Perolman, who asked me with tears in her eyes if I had seen what had happened? I’m not an insensitive human being, but I could not match her empathic depth. I couldn’t because I feel deprived of sensation; unable to wake up to the pain that this is the carnage with which we live on a daily basis. I feel like I’m losing my soul; we are losing our national, collective soul because the violence is such that we can no longer feel it. Let me try to wake me and us up. Excuse the anger and vivid imagery. Look at the photos with me. I took a look to ring the alarm. Every child killed was younger than ten-eleven years of age. Nineteen of them woke up; ate their bowls of cereal; argued with their siblings; joked with a parent; confirmed their schedule and after school activities; and went on their way. There was nothing unusual about their morning, but none of them would ever see home again. Every single one of them died in the kind of fear we spend our lives as parents protectIng our children. None of them saw today and will never see a breath of life again. Those who survived watched their classmates not just die, but saw their bodies explode to pieces because of the caliber of military artillery used. Their families who lost children are shattered and many will not be able to recover; horrified and bereft.The above images pierce my heart; moves the numbness away; nauseates my spirit and makes me want to crawl up and hide. I feel like I’ve won the lottery ticket by being born into this country; but I simultaneously can’t fathom that I live in a nation where this is permitted to happen to our most precious gifts. I rail against our national political polarization regularly as you know. But that’s a luxury. Indeed, our inability to solve problems that allow our children to grow up without the ability to go to sanctuaries of learning without fear of death is diminishing to the charter of our American experiment.I don’t want speeches or empty exhortations; soulless prayers from leaders who can’t get it together to solve a problem that is draining the blood of our children; literally. I am not talking politically about our right to bear arms; I’m talking about a path to safety that allows us to live with law and protection and safety. Can our political leaders see beyond themselves; beyond their need for power and greed; beyond their political talking points to actually fulfill their obligation to which they swore their oath? They owe us. They owe themselves. They owe our national collective. Perhaps they should imagine the way we all have in these past hours, to what extent they would act if these were their own children. I want them to wake up and rid themselves of the numbness to our exhaustion, pain, fear, anger and utter anxiety. This isn’t fair. This isn’t what we signed up for and we must demand with an unequivocal voice that we expect better. As we learn more from our local organizations, we will invite you to join us in making our voices heard to our local and National elected officials.I’ve awoken from my numbness. I, along with you, am broken. By Friday night, we will have prayers for you. But for now, I’m out. We need change and we need to solve this unbearable scourge. Then we can use words of prayer again. Let’s change. And let’s demand change.
With love and heartbreak,
Response to War between Israel and Hamas in Gaza
May 19, 2021
8 Sivan 5781
Dear Congregational Family,
I write to you heartbroken, dismayed and I will admit, quite frightened about the unfolding events in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the reactions here at home by many sectors of society.
First and foremost, I stand in steadfast support, with every fiber of my being, behind and for Israel. Full stop!
I urge you to fervently do the same. In moments like these, Israel needs us emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and financially. Full stop!
Indeed, I believe with a full heart that without a thriving Israel there, Jews will ultimately not be safe anywhere, including right here. Full stop!
Most of us don’t remember what life for Jews was like before the existence of Israel. Thank God, because we have thrived in this country, we have sometimes conveniently forgotten the Zionist imperative. Our ability to flourish and survive will ultimately not be possible without the existence of the State of Israel. I urge you to email and call your elected officials and make them know about your concern and the need for steadfast United States support of our Homeland. The calls and emails count.
As we have experienced too often through our history, people seem to forget, that we Jews have been murdered, tortured, and chased from almost every part of this planet. Rockets are being indiscriminately shot into any reachable part of our Homeland to kill innocent civilians. If this were happening in any part of this country, an overwhelming majority of our polarized nation would be in support of the same response Israel is displaying today. It is utterly heartbreaking that innocent Palestinians are dying. Their lives count as much as anyone’s life.
However, the difference is that Israel is doing everything in its power to target her attacks. When terrorist organizations like Hamas, cowardly hide their militants in the basements of apartment building, hospitals, or news outlets, where innocent people dwell, the blame lays at Hamas’ doorstep. Israel gives as much fair warning as possible to protect innocent people from attack, but Hamas makes it impossible not to cause civilian casualties. Israel has nothing to gain, politically or militarily by killing innocent Palestinians. Israel does have the obligation, however, to eliminate terrorist threats, including stockpiles of weapons and a network of tunnels that are meant to accumulate more missiles and the means by which to infiltrate and kidnap Israelis.
Moreover, I am profoundly worried, almost as much as I am about Israel’s existential safety, as I am about the reaction in this country and abroad to the current conflict. To be blunt, I think at best, the reaction from the entertainment, sports, political and academic (but from other circles as well) circles has been abhorrent. At worst, however, I believe it smacks of anti-Semitism. Somehow Israel has become the “Oppressor”; “Imperialist, “Colonialist” and “Apartheid State”. To watch people, some of whom are prominent, entangle Israel’s right to exist with other important causes of justice is not only simplistic thinking, but it is despicable. I am a fervent advocate, as most of you know, of equal rights and justice for all people. Because I am Jewish, I fight for any and every oppressed group. But to group every oppressed people, without understanding the nuance behind it all is lazy and hateful. I want to be awoken to any disparity about which I may not be fully cognizant, but to support causes just be part of anything that is considered Woke is taking the easy way out.
Israel bears part of the responsibility for Palestinian hardship. There have been too many chapters written to pretend there is no Israeli accountability. Indeed, I believe with a full heart that Palestinian nationhood should manifest in reality. And we should work with all our might to manifest such a reality. However, there are decades of history that show how impossible and complicated the Palestinian leadership has made such feasible. Deal after deal has been rejected over the years; and more, the rejections come along with the blowing up of Israeli buses, kidnapping and random knife-attacks. The reaction from too many here at home comes with no knowledge of the layered chronicles of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Finally, I fret for how easily we get duped ourselves. There is indeed a growing and alarming anti-Israel sentiment expressed on the political Left of our nation. It sears at my soul. But our job here is to articulate and educate our neighbors on all sides of the political spectrum. I don’t mean by yelling, canceling, and writing anonymously on social media, but by meticulously explaining our case. As I have said to you before: Our job is to unite as Jews in this country; to have civil and informative dialogue; to listen and learn from each other. Our job is not, however, to add this issue to the litany of reasons our politics are right and other side is wrong. We are all entitled to our own conservative and liberal ideas, and still support Israel. If we allow this to become like every other political issue of our day, we might win an argument, but will contribute to the defeat of our Homeland. We can stand up for all kinds of rights for all kinds of people, without inhibiting our ability to stand with Israel. Please, I implore you to not group all issues and all groups as one. Do your research; read articles from all sides; and then state your case. But don’t, like too many are attempting to do, make all this binary. It is abidingly complicated and thus so must we be in our navigating of it all.
Unfortunately, many, including Jews, make the case that we can be anti-Israel, without being anti-Semitic. That is just not true. Pretending such is just a way of hating Jews. We can certainly critique Israel. We can advocate to pursue peace more steadfastly. We can argue for a change in leadership. All of that is fair game. But the premise must come from a place where the belief is in an Israel that has the ultimate right to exist without the constant threat of destruction. If people want Israel gone, they want Jews gone also. Full Stop!
We are living through one of the more dangerous times in our history as Jews. I implore us all to keep our collective eye on the ball both in supporting Israel and in dealing with the growing anti-Semitism here at home. But, please let us be wise in our reactions and in our fight. Israel’s existence depends on it and on us.
Please join my family and me in praying and fighting for Israel and the Jewish People.
With love and steadfast solidarity,
Response to the Insurrection at the Capitol
January 6, 2021
Guns drawn; American flags ripped down to be replaced by the flag of Party. Glass broken; citizens yelling in the House and Senate chambers. Vulgar and violent behavior in one of the most sacred places of our democracy.
These are scenes I never imagined possible. Like me, I imagine, you are in a state of shock. The vitriol in our country has surpassed anything that resembles opposition; the behavior we are witnessing today is seditious and smells like the rancid odor of treason.
Today is a day of reckoning; a test that is challenging us to the bottom of our spirits. We must answer the question—Are we really a country of democracy and freedom? This is not a time to pound our chests or to boast that we are a model of freedom. This is a moment to show ourselves; our community; our nation of deep diversity and division, that we see each other as self.
It is up to us, every sacred community throughout our nation, to stand up and agree that our differences somehow make us stronger; not something that tempts our most evil impulses to tear each other down. We don’t look that way on television today, but we are indeed better than that.
As your religious leader, I urge every one of our governmental leaders, including and especially the President of the United States to stand up and lead and tell the protesters to leave the Capitol immediately. Everything that we are about is at stake. While we cannot control what the president does this evening or how the protesters will act, we can decide how it is that we’re going to treat one another.
No matter our personal beliefs, every one of us is the same; biased and imperfect. But our love for our country must come first—without that humility, we are going to destroy what is so precious to us all.
Let us be wise. Let us be compassionate. Let us be generous. Let us be humble. So much of this is actually up to us.
Please join us tonight, not in politics, but in prayer.
With solemn sincerity and love,
Thanksgiving During a Pandemic
November 23, 2020
7 Kislev, 5781
Dear Congregational Family,
I know this one is tough. I know at Passover, we expected to be together for the High Holy Days. I know at the Holy Days, we expected to be able to have a normal Thanksgiving. I know this existence we are living through feels like it is never going to end.
But, indeed, it will. It really is going to end and slowly, but surely, we are going to be able to do things we haven’t been able to do and have missed, just within a matter of months.
My heart goes out to those of you who are going to spend another Holiday isolated from your loved ones. I know that it feels especially hard as it gets colder and darker; and it can all feel depressing. Hang on. Invest in another holiday on Zoom, sharing dinner digitally. We won’t have to do this much longer. Let us be grateful that we have the technological means to at least experience one another’s faces and voices, if not in person. Tell stories; share that for which you are thankful; tell jokes; cry; smile; say anything and everything (well perhaps, leave politics aside :)); share what wisdom you have taken from these past eight months and what of those lessons we will take with us when we all get vaccinated and can properly and safely enter society again.
It is astounding that our national experts have created a vaccine that seems will be successful and efficacious at a rate of 95%. It is nothing less than extraordinary that we live in a day and age in which something so complicated could be solved in a relatively short period of time. They have done their work; and so my good people, we must finish doing our part of the job. We need to stay fast in our own protocols of safety. We must play our mutually interdependent part by washing our hands, wearing masks; and as our national experts have told us, do everything possible to be smart about how you celebrate Thanksgiving. We have put too much time in to blow it now. Why take the chance and perhaps cause more illness before the vaccine arrives? It is not my place to tell you what to do, but to be ethically and communally wise about how we all make our decisions. We are all responsible for one another and how we live should reflect the same. Please be vigilant and if you feel like you need to keep your children home after the Holidays (especially in our schools), then like the pledge you all signed, by all means, quarantine for the necessary time before you send your children back to school.
We have kept our Temple up and running; open in ways that so many places are not because we have all pitched in. We don’t want to shut down; and we need to work together to help that happen whenever and wherever possible.
This will be a year none of us will ever forget. There has been enormous pain and loss; and there has been much wisdom acquired that will help define the rest of our lives. Indeed, if you are reading this letter, then you are breathing. Just for that, may we express profound gratitude that we are alive. Alive and breathing to fight another day and transform to a next normal on the other side. The other side, which is indeed now around the corner. I assure you, I will meet you on that corner to embrace you and walk with you as we thrive again…as people….as Jews and as a B’nai Jeshurun community.
I continue to be proud to call myself your rabbi. Lauren, Jake, Talia, Sadie join me in wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for you!
Reaction to Presidential Election
November 8, 2020
Dear Congregational Family,
I write to you as I did four years ago after the election was decided. November of 2016 feels like a lifetime ago. Between the insidious nature of the political environment and the Pandemic, we have lived exponentially more years than four.
There are so many feelings today. What makes this all so complex is that while one part of our nation takes a huge breath of relief, the other part of our country begins to fret. That is indeed the worrisome nature of our national landscape. As I wrote to you four years ago:
There is great distress in our country. So many are fearful about their future. They wonder, many of us wonder, about our economic and national security. Too many feel that those elected to public office care more about their own power than they do about our welfare. There are so many who feel left behind….and those “many” are young people who fret that they are not “seen” in a way that ensures a flourishing path forward. The sad irony is that both sides of the political spectrum don’t feel “seen” or “heard” and they (we) are pitted against each other by our leaders when in many respects, we all want the same sense of safety and security. And thus, we wake up seeing past each other when we need to work harder than ever to see each other as self.
The only thing that has changed from the above paragraph is that it all feels even more complicated today. The past four years have challenged us in ways I have certainly never experienced in my lifetime. President Trump, if you have favored his policies or not, has certainly not acted in ways that have attempted to bring our country together. The divisiveness and fear have only augmented during these years.
But, as I have told you before, our leaders are a reflection of our own behavior. It is up to us to understand each other and why we all feel the different ways that we do. Isolating from one another in our own echo chambers, discounts the possibility of understanding the multi-layered nature of the human being. We presumptuously believe that anyone who votes differently than we do must be marred. Of course, when the values of others are anathema to the way we live, we sometimes have to separate ourselves. But there is no way that all 70 or 75 million people who voted differently than you might have are all horrible people. Our nation is complicated, and we should be complicated in the ways we approach each other….. and why we act and believe the ways we do. There is too much at stake right now not to take the extra step to have the conversations I implored us to have during my Kol Nidre sermon. Our country’s fabric is frayed and a change in the Oval Office will not do the trick. We hold the magic in our hands. That magic is called empathy, listening, caring, wondering, struggling and loving. We have the power to do all of that.
We are a great democracy. We really are a great nation. We have problems of profound injustice and civil intransigence that are alarming. There is serious hatred and bigotry, sexism and xenophobia. But, because we are a democracy, we have the potential to change, that which ails us. We have the ability to speak freely and act to transform to our highest sense of self. Our system, as broken as it sometimes feels, still allows us to act in ways which in other countries, people are jailed for even thinking such ideas of protest. How we react and operate each day is the stuff that can make our nation continue to be exceptional.
I don’t know President-elect Biden. But it feels clear to me that he is a human being made of empathy and decency. You may or may not care for his policies, but his humanity and his yearning to unify our country feels important. Perhaps, it is the profound loss he has experienced; or his own brush with death; or just his many years here on earth; whatever it is, he claims he wants to be a President for all of us. We need aspirations for unity. We need unity.
As I prayed and asked you to pray with me for President Trump four years ago, I ask you to pray with me for President-elect Biden as well. I ask that of you, especially, if you voted for President Trump. As Americans, we should want each of our presidents to be successful. Their success is our success.
We are a nation in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years. We need more than ever to stick together, to transform our crisis to a next normal of health and vibrancy. These coming winter months cause all of us to feel anxiety at the prospect of being shut in and worse, becoming sick. Let’s celebrate or bemoan the results of the election today and then get back to the business of healing our national soul. Let us not act in a way that sees past one another, but in a manner, which finally enables us to hear one another as human beings who yearn for equality and freedom and safety. There is an opportunity here to turn a new page and see each other as children of God. May that be our sacred task.
I pray for our community and country.
Indeed, may God Bless America.
With Profound Respect, Care, Humility and Love,
Passover in a Pandemic
April 8, 2020
14 Nissan, 5780
Dear Congregational Family,
We are commanded by our tradition that in every generation we must remember the slavery and, of course, freedom from Egyptian servitude.
Remember…..my goodness do have we a lot to remember this year.
Let’s start, yes, by remembering that we were once slaves in the Land of Egypt. Let us remember the bravery of Moses, Miriam and the Jewish people who found the wherewithal to escape to the unknown treachery of the desert.
- We also feel locked up, enslaved in our own homes. And, we too need to continue to be brave and tenacious about staying put so we can play our part in redeeming our nation. Let us stay the course, so we too can burst forth from our communal constriction.
Let’s remember the generous nature of our ancestors as they helped those who couldn’t easily leave because of personal challenges.
- We also can act like those who helped by continuing to reach out to anybody in our lives who need the call; the text; the groceries; or the prescription picked up. Our generosity in resources and deeds are more important than ever before. Our compassion and love can and should be more contagious than any virus out there.
Let’s remember that our ancestors moved quickly, with agility and flexibility to adjust to their new environment.
- We, too, understand suddenly how we have created anew to build new structure into a life we never quite imagined. None of us thought we would be here a month or two ago, but stop and give yourself a pat on the back that you are making things works with the kind of ingenuity that you have always had inside of you.
Let’s remember how parents suddenly had to teach children; people who were alone became part of other families; new types of community were formed on the trek through the desert.
- We, too, are empathically taking on roles we never imagined; reaching to make others, who are alone, become part of our own circles. We have abilities from within that we never envisioned; patience and tolerance that go further than we thought possible (even though, at least I and perhaps some of you lose it once in a while). Let’s keep on digging into our well of empathy…. our wells are indeed deep.
Let’s remember those who protected our ancestors in war against those who were out to destroy us. They were called suddenly to duty and they protected each and every member like there were their own.
- We, too, are forever (FOREVER) in debt to our doctors, nurses, EMT Squads; every single heath care worker. You have been called into duty, not having any idea that you would become the modern day soldier. You are putting your lives on the line to protect us. We are forever thankful and we will absolutely never forget your service to us in this time of war.
Let’s remember our song, “Dayeinu”….the song our tradition demands that we sing in gratitude.
- Let us indeed remember to express gratitude for any blessing; any at all that you might be experiencing in this moment.
I don’t pretend that this is a typical Passover. It is far from that. People are sick. People are dying. We are isolated and scared. I am with you in those feelings. But, our People have never backed down in the face of unbearable adversity. We have shown our courage, sometimes most, by declaring that we will take the time out to celebrate our age-old ritual despite and especially because of the times in which we live. Let’s make our ancestors proud and show them that the sweetness we create tonight will beat the living heck out of the bitterness that we feel and see around us.
Just like the spring is budding forth, I assure you, together, we will renew; we will absolutely get to the other side. As long as we but remember the most vital of our lessons.
Thank you to my extraordinary team at TBJ; and my partners in lay leadership who have made me prouder than ever to call myself your rabbi.
Lauren, the kids and I will see some of you soon (well over 300) on Zoom for our Seder…. to you and everyone else celebrating in your own way, we wish you the sweetest possible holiday.