Not All Superheroes Wear Capes

This is one of the scariest sermons I’ve ever written.
It also might be the one I was most excited to give.

A few weeks ago, when Nelson Mandela died, it seemed a no-brainer that my sermon tonight, for “Just Shabbat” would be about him.
But then Superman Sam died, and everything changed.

There will be a time to talk about Mandela – anniversaries of his death and of his deeds. I promise that I will give that sermon one day. But sometimes the important things that people have done in the past have to take a backseat to the important things people are doing right now. And right now, 72 of my colleagues and I are raising money to fight childhood cancer.

If we reach our fundraising goals, we will shave our heads.

It’s called 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave – it was originally supposed to be only 36 rabbis, but we’ve been inspiring one another and the number has grown. There are also rabbinical students and relatives participating.

Your obvious question at this point: You’re going to shave your head???Why on earth would you do that?

Well, I’ll tell you.

In some ways, it started with Superman Sam.
But in some ways, it also started years ago.
With Jonah Dreskin and with a tragic loss of my own.

Jonah Dreskin was the son of two very special people – Rabbi Billy Dreskin and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. They are angels. They touch and inspire countless people. They do wonderful things for the Jewish People, the Reform Movement, their own community, the world… but that didn’t protect them from losing their son.

The world doesn’t work that way. No matter what we tell ourselves, there comes a day when we realize it’s not true. And for me, that was the day Jonah Dreskin died. I was already tremendously worn down from my own personal loss and grief that year and by that point I was mostly numb. But the news about Jonah shocked me back into the “awareness of the unfairness” as I call it – what we spend most of our lives trying to hide from but rarely ever do.

The unfairness of the Dreskins – two of the best people I know – losing their son, shocked the breath out of me. I literally crumpled to the floor from the edge of my bed, where I had been sitting when I read news.
“Where are you God?!?” I cried out.
And I wept.

It was a very dark time for me, as I struggled with the theology of loss and with my personal relationship with God.
But I’ve already given that sermon. If you missed it, I’d be happy to forward you a copy of it so that you can catch up.

In any case, what I remember most about that time is feeling helpless. There was no mobilizing or fundraising
around Jonah’s death at first (although there is now a foundation, to which I donate annually), and there was no fundraising around the cause relating to my own loss at the time either. And even if their had been,
I was a poor, exhausted and grief-stricken rabbinical student who barely had enough money or energy to stay in school and make it through each day, let alone mobilize for a cause.

There’s a time to weep and a time to act.

Superman Sam was also the son of two wonderful leaders of the Jewish people. Two rabbis – Phyllis and Michael Sommer.
On December 14th, while so many of us in the Reform Movement were sleeping after an inspiring and joyous Erev Shabbat at the URJ Biennial, Sam lost his battle with AML – Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

Sam had been diagnosed in June of 2012 and in November of the same year he completed treatment and was declared in remission.
But at the end of March 2013 he relapsed and although he received a bone marrow transplant last August, the fatal leukemia returned, and the end came brutally fast.

Sam wanted to be famous.

When Sam was first diagnosed, his mom began a blog, called Superman Sam, and asked friends and family to help Sam know how many people were rooting for him by sending in photos of themselves in clothing with superhero logos, to be hung on Sam’s wall.

I sent them a picture of Manny, wearing a shirt that says, “not all Superheroes wear capes.” In the picture, Manny is looking both adorable and a little sad, as if, in his doggy-wisdom, he knew just the right tone to set. Sam too, in the photos on his mother’s blog, looks both adorable and a little sad.

Although I don’t know the Sommer’s very well, and am pretty sure I never met Sam, Phyllis’ blog – reposted by so many of my rabbi friends, caught my attention, and I read along with anxiousness, and then joy, and then sorrow, as their story went from fear to relief
and then to unbearable anguish.

In the past few weeks, Phyllis has bravely recounted telling 8 year old Sam that he was going to die; she has described their last attempts to give Sam some of his wishes by dropping everything to travel as a family to Israel and then to Disney Land; she has recorded Sam’s final conversations, final minutes; and then this morning she recounted his funeral and the shiva.

I don’t know how she holds it together to write.
But I know that if she can do that, then I have to do something too.

Sam’s death echoes for me in the hollow place in my heart left by the day that Jonah Dreskin died.
Hopelessness in the face of unfair and unbearable loss.

But this time I’m not crippled by my own grief, by my struggles to get through each day, or by my own financial burdens.

This time I can do something.
And this time I will.

So I’m going to try to raise $5000 for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, who will invest every dollar raised into “the best possible childhood cancer research”. And if I reach my fundraising goal, then I am going to shave my head.

If this seems radical to you, know that part of me feels that way too. I have never done anything like this before, which in-and-of-itself is reason enough. Rabbis should be out there doing stuff like this all the time. I firmly believe that but I haven’t been walking-the-walk.
So it’s time.

Also, know that there are 20 or so other women who are Shaving for the Brave, including Sam’s mom Phyllis and Aunt Anne. Phyllis alone, has raised almost 35,000 dollars.

You should also know that when women rabbis started to sign up, I groaned inwardly. “Oh no!” I thought, “now everyone will expect me to do this, and I can’t!
I can’t shave my head!
I’m not embarrassed to be that vain!”

Except that as soon as I finished thinking it, I was embarrassed.

Even though no one heard me.
Even though there are lots of other women rabbis that are not signing up.
I heard me.
And I cringed.

I cringed because along with Phyllis’ blog, I have been reading the blog of my friend’s cousin, Stephanie Herzog, who went to school with my brother when they were young. Stephanie, who is in her late 20’s, has been battling a rare and aggressive kind of Breast cancer. She’s winning right now, thank God, but her blog has been raw and brutally honest all through the scariest and most hopeful parts of her journey.

Stephanie didn’t have a choice about losing her hair and it seemed like it was one of the hardest parts for her (although she bravely posted pictures and she looked beautiful). How can I let a little vanity prevent me from helping when the victims of what I’m trying to prevent don’t get a choice? Sam didn’t get a choice about losing his hair either.
Or about losing his life.

There’s no vanity when it comes to cancer.
Stephanie will be the first to tell you, and I’m sure Sam would have agreed.

Vanity and fear are terrible reasons to do nothing when something can be done. We can’t save Superman Sam but we can try to save children like him. We can’t save Phyllis and Michael and Sam’s three siblings from the terrible loss they are experiencing and will experience every day of their lives, but we can try to prevent other families from having to go through it.

So that’s why.
For the Sommers.
For Stephanie.
For Jonah Dreskin.
For my own loss,
and for the rabbi that I want to be for all of you.
That’s why.

The total goal set by 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave event was $180,000, and today, one week after Sam died, we passed that goal! By March 31st, the fundraising deadline, we will have far surpassed it. I hope you will help us.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE

On this Shabbat may each of us pick one fear we have, one fear that holds us back from reaching out to help someone else;
On this Shabbat – Shabbat Sh’mot, the Shabbat of Names – may we name that fear, and face it, and then reach out in spite of it.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.
May it be God’s will.

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Distinguishing Ourselves

This morning I started reading a book called:

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http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/Jewish-on-Their-Own-Terms,5062.aspx

In the introduction, Thompson mentions that,

a 2010 study found that Jews were the most broadly popular group in America (Putnam and Campbell) suggesting that they no longer needed to band together as strongly against antis emotion as they had in the past.

But what distinguished Jews from non-Jews if not external constraints such as antisemitism?

Thompson asked.

This question strikes me as one of the most central questions for contemporary Jewish rabbis, leaders and thinkers in North America, especially in the liberal streams of Judaism where we and our constituents are more visibly assimilated and integrated into the Christian/secular/non-Jewish world(s).

In a post “crisis narrative” world (to borrow a phrase from the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum), what distinguishes us (Jews) from others?

Actually, come to think of it, this isn’t a new question for Jews. Not remotely. In rabbinical school, my teacher, Lenny Kravitz (the rabbi, not the musician) used to rail at us in our medieval philosophy class about Jews throughout time needing to navigate having one foot in the Jewish world and the other foot without. We Jews are in a constant process of figuring ourselves out in relation to the other. You could argue (and I guess I am) that it is a fundamental part of being Jewish – distinguishing ourselves against the backdrop of “other”.

And yet, Thompson’s point about contemporary Judaism’s lack of a pervading fear of antisemitism, points to the fact that we are (once again) in an age where we find ourselves redefining our otherness.

Still, it is strikingly untrue and unfair to suggest that the bond created through oppression, antisemitism and the crisis narrative is the only thing that has distinguished Jews from others. And while I do see Thompson’s question as one that we often struggle with today, I also think we need only to look backward and inward for the answers in order to see that they are readily available. They are ancient answers: millennia old.

Torah. Mitzvot. Brit.

Jews are distinguished from others because we have a unique (not better just different) relationship with God. (That’s Brit, covenant)

Jews are distinguished from others because our God gave us this amazing book of wisdom, stories, laws and teachings called the Torah, to guide us in our lives. Torah is the gift that affirms the specialness of the covenant.

Jews are distinguished from others because when we value Torah, we structure our lives (even our assimilated and secular lives, in some ways) around its Mitzvot, it’s laws and it’s values. Even Jews who don’t feel religiously Jewish internalize the values of Judaism, which, for the record, are NOT universal (one need only to look to the Christian Right, or to an Islamic fundamentalist State, to see that this is so. If the whole world shared the same values-set, it would be a very different place).

And even without a continuing sense of fear hanging over us, Jews are still distinguished by a shared history and heritage of pain and oppression. We are still a tiny minority of the world’s population. And we still share a cultural identity rooted in humor, food, and the Yiddish phrases we only sort of understand.

So really, there’s a whole lot that still sets us apart. Which is a good thing. Because when Jews no longer engage in the question of what distinguishes us from the other, and when we no longer live with (and recognize and appreciate) the tension of having one foot in the Jewish world and one foot without, then we really start to loose the essence of Jewishness. Which may have been what Thompson was driving at. It may be that as we continue to blend into North American society, and as Jews continue to marry those who are not Jewish, that it may seem there is less and less that distinguishes “Jew” from “other”. But this is simply not true.

As long as we value our special relationship with God; as long as we keep Torah at the center of our lives; as long as we continues to live in ways that affirm our Jewish values; and as long as we continue to feel a connection to our fellow Jews, we will never be a fully assimilated people. We will never be other than what we are: Jewish

A Moment of Self-Reflection

Something I believe very strongly is that good rabbis are rabbis who are always thinking about what they could be doing better. And I don’t mean obsessively or to the point of self-criticism, but I do think we rabbis should regularly engage in self-reflection and consider areas of our rabbinates we can improve upon.
One area that I’m often thinking about (let’s face it, almost every time I’m leading a service) is T’fillah. Something about the way I conduct worship is sitting quite right with me, although I often get positive feedback from members of the temple. It’s like when a shoe is just a little too tight: you can get away with wearing it, but it still rubs you in uncomfortable ways. It would be better to find a shoe that fits, if only you could fine one. And I think I haven’t been quite able to put my finger on what’s not working, and so the perfect-fitting shoe has evaded me.
But the the other day, one of our new young couples, who joined the temple so they would have a rabbi to marry them and a temple to have the wedding at, finally came to services for the first time. It was one of our better services – newly crafted, lots of upbeat music, Howard and I both playing guitar throughout…
Afterwards, she came up to me and asked me if I was planning to play the guitar at her wedding. “Would you like me to?” I asked her. “Please!” she said, continuing on to comment that when I play the guitar, I light up in a different way. “You seem more confident maybe”, she said.
I cringed.
Very rarely do people say things that make me wonder if I should have stayed in the cantorial program. Usually I feel quite the opposite and receive lots of affirmation that I did make the right choice in becoming a rabbi rather than a cantor. In the 4 years of my rabbinate, I’d say this kind of comment has come less than once a year. But what she said struck right at all of the insecurities that I warred with during my decision to switch paths and in the years between decoding to become a rabbi and actually becoming a rabbi. But once I got a hold of those self-doubts and sent them back to 2006 where they belonged (if they belong anywhere), I was able to consider her comment in a less emotionally reactive way. (For the record, although I cringed inwardly at the time, I did have the good sense to smile and thank her for the compliment she intended it to be.)
When I think about it calmly and without the emotional baggage of 2006, her comment actually makes a lot of sense. I started playing guitar and thinking about being a cantor when I was 12. And even before I was sure about the cantorial path, I knew I definitively wanted to become a songleader. I have been watching songleaders avidly all my life. They shaped an enormous amount of my love of Jewish music and by extension, my Jewish identity and love of Jewish prayer. I have been cultivating the skills of songleading for 20 years, if not more. And it’s been less than 10 years since I even began to wonder if I might want to be a rabbi, let alone began to think about what that would look like and consciously cultivate the required skill-set. So of course I’m more confident with the guitar strapped on!
So I asked myself, where does that confidence come from? What change takes over me when I slip the guitar over my head? I think that a large part of the answer us that when I slip on the guitar, I embody every songleader I’ve ever wanted to be: Dawn and Rosalie, Debbie and Julie, Tanya and Rachel, Dan and Noam – even the Indigo Girls and Joni Mitchell are in there somewhere. I can see them in the back of my minds eye. They are a part of the songleader I’ve become over these twenty years.
And I think that when I’m without my guitar, when I’m prayer-leading without song leading, that’s part of what I’m missing. I need to start consciously channeling the rabbis who’s service leading style I appreciate. But even more than that, I have to think about what parts of me I love, and what parts of my song leading style have nothing to do with the guitar, and figure out how to bring those to bear on my T’fillah leading. How can my conduct during worship be more genuine…
Those may seem like conflicting ideas but they are somehow both needed I think to move me from where I am to where I’d like to be.
And finally, I need to chill out, and acknowledge that some of this is just that it takes time and that I have 10 years to go before I’m as comfortable without my guitar as I am with it. I need to just relax and keep going and try not to worry so much (while never being complacent). It’s a tricky line to walk but maybe with this new perspective, I’ll have surer footing. The shoes feel a little less tight already.