We Pray Anyway

When I want to rail at God

prayer is the last place I want to be.

I know I’ll find my way back to God one way or another

but right now I don’t have words of my own

and the words of tradition feel empty

given that men died with those words on their lips this week.

But the Voice of Jewish tradition says I don’t have a choice;

it says there are shiva minyans to go to and Shabbat services to attend.

The Voice of Tradition says that prayer isn’t just about what I have to say or not say;

that prayer  isn’t just about me.

The Voice of Tradition says that life goes on;

that the community needs to gather;

that prayer is going to take place with or without me.

And I remember that even empty words can be a refuge;

that the rituals can shelter me through familiarity alone.

If I don’t believe in prayer this week, that’s okay,

but somebody else might need to pray

and they need the community around them to do it.

And if I’m a part of the community then I’d better be there.

The Voice of Jewish tradition doesn’t promise that prayer works;

it doesn’t promise that Jews won’t be slaughtered –

not even if they’re righteous,

not even if they’re praying.

The Voice of Jewish tradition doesn’t promise that prayer works;

What it says is:

Pray anyway.


Soon & In Our Days

Over the past few months, it has felt like my email in-box, my face-book page, and all of the Jewish newspapers I subscribe to, are full of headlines about whether or not peace in Israel is possible. As if it’s a new question.

It’s impossible to read every single article that I come across, and truth be told, there are many days that I find myself sighing heavily and even rolling my eyes. How many times can we hear the same promises & platitudes? How many times can we be hopeful and then disappointed?

I remember very clearly, one of my earliest conversations with my parents about the conflict in Israel. We were standing in the hallway of my grandparent’s apartment, and I don’t think I could have been much older than 4 or 5. I believe we were hosting my dad’s friend Ron, a representative of Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava Valley, who used to travel around North America speaking about the kibbutz, and about his dream for peace with his neighbors.

But when will they get peace?” I asked the grown-ups, next week? Next year?” I remember the looks that exchanged between my parents and Ron, and how sad my father looked. Probably not, Em.” he said. It might happen one day, but it could be a really long time before it does.”

I remember wondering why he was being so uncharacteristically negative. I wasn’t one to give up on anything, and I declared, with childish cheekiness, that I thought they were wrong. I was certain I would live to see peace happen.

And as a teenager, my excitement and certainty about this grew when Yitzhak Rabbin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, and when Israel made peace with Jordan. Certainly we were almost there! I could taste peace in the air.

But then Yikzhak Rabbin was assassinated and it all seemed to go downhill. In college I shook my head sadly over the headlines about the 2nd Intifada and by the time the buses stopped blowing up and the “security fence” was in place, and I could see from the window of my Jerusalem apartment that the “fence” was really a big concrete Berlin-essqe wall, I had lost the certainty I had once had.

Would they ever have peace? I wasn’t so sure anymore.

I didn’t have to look in a mirror to know that my face now reflected that of my dad, all those years ago. Disappointed. Sad. Discouraged.

Jewish tradition has a saying, “May it come soon and in our days.” An expression of hope that we will live to see the thing we desire. But I often wonder if I will live to see peace in Israel, and there are many days when I worry that I won’t, and days when, even more so, I fear that I might see the very opposite – Israel fallen once more.

God forbid.

But on other days, the excitement of the headlines is contagious and I can’t help feeling a tiny tingle of hope. Maybe peace is possible. Just. Maybe.

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry said the following words: I believe that if you indeed care about Israel…If you care about its security, if you care about its future, if you care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations for self-determination…(then) we need to believe that PEACE IS POSSIBLE and WE ALL NEED TO ACT ON THAT BELIEF.”

It’s such a profound statement. I’m going to repeat it.

“…if you indeed care about Israel…If you care about its security, if you care about its future, if you care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations for self-determination…(then) we need to believe that PEACE IS POSSIBLE and WE ALL NEED TO ACT ON THAT BELIEF.”

Well, let’s see.

Do I care about Israel? Yes. Do I care about its security and about its future? Yes. Do I care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations for self-determination? Yes.

So then I need to stop the deep sighs and the eye rolling. I must believe that peace is possible and I must act on that belief.

So, as a first step – a first act – let me share with you some of the recent headlines and discussions that have rekindled my hope.

First of all, I believe that we are currently in good hands. I hadn’t known that John Kerry had Jewish roots until I read a recent article in The Times of Israel.

The article begins: US Secretary of State John Kerry says his feelings toward Israel changed 10 years ago, after he found out that that he had Jewish grandparents. It’s a connection that’s deep (he said). I lost a great-uncle in the Holocaust and a great-aunt. I never knew that until then. to understand that you are biologically and personally connected to that, is very moving,”

Israel itself has a special connection to me, (he continued) not just because of that personal, now-known connection, but more importantly because of the amazing journey of the Jewish people…”

I don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring that the person overseeing the current peace talks has Jewish blood in his veins; has a personal connection and thus, one hopes, a vested interest (and not just a political one). Surely, no politician is perfect, and no one person has all the solutions to problems that are decades, if not millennia old, but I think the Peace Talks have been in the hands of “strangers” for too long. Kerry is family (in a way). And we have to hope that counts for something.

In the same article, Kerry describes his perspective of the huge task he has undertaken: I think my job is to try to help create a situation where the realities of the agreement are such that it’s not such a leap of faith. I don’t want this to be a leap of faith. I want this to be a leap of reason. A leap of rationality and of choice, based on a very understandable and tangible set of guaranties about security and other things.” If that could be achieved, Kerry continued, then we take some of the emotion away…even though it will be for some always a huge emotion…I know all of that. But I also know that over 70 percent of the people of Israel believe in a two-state solution.”

This is another of those headlines that gives me hope.\

Yesterday, The Times of Israel reported: Poll: Three Quarters of Israeli Jews Would Accept A Peace Deal”

A survey, commissioned by the non-profit Israeli Peace Initiative, was conducted earlier this month with a representative sample of 500 Hebrew-speaking Israelis. The poll indicated that a large majority of the country’s Jews hold hawkish views regarding the peace process” but would be willing to accept a deal if they understood what Israel stands to gain. Even better, more than 60 percent of respondents said that they would likely support a regional peace treaty even before any components of it were discussed. This represents a statistically significant increase over the findings in other surveys conducted over the past few months,” the article quotes the authors of the survey as saying.

The significance of this poll shows that although Israelis indeed hold right-wing views and don’t believe the Palestinian rhetoric, they are still willing to accept a far-reaching deal (if presented properly to them) and they will support Bibi Netanyahu if he does make, as the article puts it, “such a heroic decision”.

This is cause for, at the very least, tentative optimism. Israeli public opinion is an important factor in Israel’s leaders being truly motivated to negotiate for peace. No matter how hard the U.S. pushes, or how connected John Kerry feels to the Jewish people, if the leaders of Israel aren’t truly bought-in to working toward peace, and aren’t willing to make sacrifices to that end, then there’s a lot less to be hopeful about.

There has also been much press this week about German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s visit to Israel this past Monday. Chancellor Merkel told reporters, We have come here with almost the whole of our new government, and we wanted to show you (Israel) in this way that this is indeed a very strong friendship.” The visit kicked off preparations for the celebration of fifty years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, which began on May 12, 1965.

Let’s be honest: Germany has a vested interest in supporting Israel.  It’s a big part of their rebranding, post-WWII and post-the Berlin Wall. When I was in rabbinical school, I went on a trip called Germany Up Close, a trip that is highly-subsidized by both the Israeli and German governments, with the goal of bringing Jews to experience “the new Germany.” It was a propaganda trip to be sure. But it was a really powerful experience too. And there were many incredibly interesting moments.

One such moment took place on our visit to the Reichstag building, an admittedly uncomfortable experience, at first, for us Jews. It is daunting to walk up to that building and feel safe.
But we were greeted warmly, and even better, we were treated to some very frank honesty by a representative from the office of foreign relations.
Look,” he said, Germany is the best friend of Israel and America right now. We’re such good friends that, in the UN, Germany always votes with Israel and America, no matter what the issue!”

He was so proud to inform us of this, and I found myself wondering whether Germany even thinks about these votes, or just raises her hand along with her new BFFs, like any teenage girl just trying to fit in and fly under the rader; just trying to make nice with the popular girls.

But whatever we think of Germany’s motivations for supporting Israel, the fact is, Israel is in need of support that comes from within Europe.  It doesn’t have enough of it, and so a little goes a long way.

During Monday’s visit, Merkel and Netanyahu discussed, among other things, the peace process, in advance of the expected publication of Secretary Kerry’s framework document for negotiations, that are expected to be shared in April.  Chancellor Merkel said that she could not comment on what the framework agreement could or should look like, but that she could comment on what the end result would need to be. She stated that mutual recognition would need to be part of any framework agreement, as well as serious concern for Israel’s physical security.  She also addressed the issue of the settlements, saying,: the settlement issue fills us with concern…We do not always see eye to eye [with Israel] on this issue, and I hope that we can overcome these difficulties and that there will be no obstacles to the two-state solution.”

So, even Germany won’t do just anything the popular girl tells her to. And undoubtedly, Israel is in need of friends who will lovingly stand up to her. That she has such a friend gives me hope. It’s progress. It’s another thing to be optimistic about.

Look, even just the fact that Israel and the Palestinians have come back to the table is something to acknowledge as positive progress.

On the website of the2campaign, a campaign that answers Kerry’s challenge to rally a “great constituency for peace”, I found the following statement: For the first time in 5 years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are sitting down together. They’re working behind closed doors to craft the agreement central to our shared vision: two states for two peoples. While the details may be complex and the choices ahead difficult, the issues are clear, and it’s time for those who support a two-state resolution to this conflict to stand up and say so.” Supporting the2Campaign is another action I have taken to reaffirm my belief that peace is possible. Their website describes how Kerry has turned to the Jewish community to enlist our support, because he recognizes that “no one has a stronger voice” when it comes to Israel. Most in the organized Jewish community are now on record,” it claims, supporting a two-state solution and have applauded Secretary Kerry’s efforts. However, too many are then quick to list the reasons why an agreement isn’t possible.”

The 2 Campaign is a concerted effort across the country, employing a major multimedia effort, including a national petition, educational outreach, and major events in key American cities, all designed to convey to the US Secretary of State that he has the support of the American Jewish community and beyond in pushing negotiations forward, especially in the most difficult moments. Because achieving a two-state solution is in the American, Israeli and Palestinian national interest.”

By participating in this campaign, we can demonstrate the resolve of pro-Israel Americans to see a two-state solution reached. We can show policymakers and political leaders that we support US leadership in helping the parties make the difficult, but necessary choices with regard to Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security.

But most importantly, by participating in this campaign, we can respond to Kerry’s challenge: we must believe that peace is possible and we must act on that belief.

If the2campaign isn’t the organization for you, because you’re not a supporter of a two-state-solution or because you don’t believe that Palestinian aspirations for self-determination are legitimate, than I encourage you to seek out the method of peace that you think is most likely to be successful, and to support those efforts instead.

But don’t not believe in peace. And don’t not care about Israel, and about Israel’s future and security. Don’t sigh heavily. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t be discouraged.

We all have days and moments, maybe even years, when it seems an impossible dream, but as Herzl said, im tirtzu ein zo agadah, if you will it, it is no dream.”

We need to push past our moments of hopelessness, and turn our faces Eastward, and connect with our childish innocence, and more importantly, with our faith.

The psalmists teach us to “seek peace and pursue it”. Our tradition obligates us to act for peace, to pray for peace, to believe that peace is possible.

May it be soon and in our days.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Daring to Lose

I remember very clearly a conversation I had in rabbinical school where I stated (with a healthy measure of pride and defiance) that I would rather say no to a member and lose them as a congregant than bend a rabbinic ideal or Jewish value just to please or accommodate them. “Someone has to be able to say no,” I declared. And who, if not the rabbi?
Of course, I had no idea then what it would really mean or feel like to have my own members and congregants; of all the complicated factors; of the reality that my own livelihood is inextricably tied into synagogue membership; of how it would feel to say no to someone I care about…
But despite the harsh realities of the “real world”, I find myself clinging to the thought: Who, if not the rabbi?

I’m on a plane heading to California for the CCAR convention. Our topic: Rabbis leading the shift in a rapidly changing Jewish world. Who if not the rabbis? Hopefully this is one of the many ideas we will discuss – the tremulous tension between membership retention and values retention. (I sigh as this sentence leaves my fingertips. It is heavy work sometimes. Heavy indeed.)

I’m multitasking as I fly. CNN on my airplane screen is discussing the Catholic Church and whether or not there is a call for reform with the changing of the guards (as it were). I’m listening to discussions about celibacy and women in the clergy and at the same time I’m reading an article that popped up in my Facebook feed about the Episcopal Church’s female Bishop and how their organization decreased significantly when she backed a openly gay male clergyman on being more welcoming of the gay community. “Over the next four years, almost a quarter of a million congregants departed, leaving a church that’s about ten percent smaller – and more harmonious.”

In the values retention vs. membership retention battle for this bishop and her (national) church, values won out big – AND IT’S A GOOD THING. Churches had to close, finances had to be navigated, but at the end of the day, the loss of people who’s values are not in line with those of the community is not being mourned. Nor should it be. That’s what I meant back in rabbinical school. That’s what I was talking about. The need for religious leaders (clergy AND lay) to be unafraid to draw lines in the sand; to dare to lose (or leave behind) others in the noble attempt to save and preserve ourselves and our ideals.

Believe it or not, self-preservation is a mitzvah – not just permitted but obligated by Jewish tradition. The Talmud discusses how one is obligated to survive a life or death situation even at the cost of another’s life (if it can’t be helped)! This is radical, and it should inform not only the life or death choices of Jewish individuals, but also the “life or death” choices of Jewish communities.

The article moves on to examine our own Reform Movement. What difficult choices will our new URJ President, Rick Jacobs have to make with his leadership? What lines will they have to draw in the sand? What or who are they willing to lose to keep us not only alive but also to keep us honest – to keep us us?

Its a little scary to think about but it’s also exciting and inspiring. I find myself hoping that Jacobs is daring enough to brave potential losses for the sake of preserving the values and integrity of our movement. I think he’s up to it. I hope he is.

I hope I am too.

Who, if not the Rabbi?