Monday, May 28, 2012


Confirmation Class of 5772!

You made it!

Can you believe it?

I can’t believe it!

After all, we had every reason to believe that we’d never make it to Confirmation this year.

We made it, despite your rabbi’s unintentional icecapades on the morning of Halloween.  I figured, that’s it, the Confirmation retreat is definitely off…. But thanks to the Confirmation Class of 5772, we made it!  You stayed clear of my crutches, schlepped my luggage, brought me Advil, propped my gimpy foot up on a pillow all weekend, and didn’t make too many jokes about my facial hair experiment.  

We made it, despite the bus conspiring to break down on its way home from our mitzvah project at the Westchester Food Bank.  Rather than kvetch to Grace, or insist that your parents bail you out, you organized the only logical response:  a massive song session.  Who would have guessed that the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys would have such a far-reaching cultural impact but Grace is pretty sure that she heard Will singing along to “I Want It That Way.”

We made it, despite repeated attempts to make one another other violently ill on the flight simulators at the Air and Space Museum during our trip to Washington, DC.  Yes, Ethan and Annie, I'm talking to you.  

We made it, despite Rabbi Jacobs taking off in the middle of the year in order to begin his new work as, basically, the Pope of Reform Judaism... and then, just when things were starting to settle down, we learned that our very own Crabbi Dan Sklar was heading off to an outstanding new position as Senior Cantor of Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut.  

Yes, Confirmation Class of 5772, you made it!  So for a few minutes I want to reflect on why I think you made it and what I think it’s going to take for you to make it in this complicated, challenging, and often confusing world in which you are rapidly growing up.

Since 2000, the Global Language Monitor (GLM) has been selecting the Top Ten Words, Phrases and Names of the Year.  To select these words, phrases, and names it analyzes language usage in the worldwide print and electronic media, on the Internet and throughout the Blogosphere, including social media.  In its annual global survey of the English language, GLM announced its Top Words of the Year for last year.   Tellingly, “Occupy” was the Top Word, and “Arab Spring” the Top Phrase.  But do you know the top name for this past year?  No, it was not Dan Sklar, although if GLM had analyzed global e-mail output for the last year, it might have yielded a different result!  

Hint:  Think Different.

The top name of the last year was Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was the top name of 2011, and “Think Different” was the top slogan for Apple Computer from 1997-2002, right up through the introduction of the iPod.  “Think Different” is an amazing slogan, one that I embrace, despite its deliberate misuse of the adjectival form “Different” instead of the adverbial, “Differently.”

The “Think Different” campaign featured posters with photographs of different icons like Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Amelia Earhart, and Mahatma Gandhi.  It presented this text:  “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Confirmation class of 5772, “Think Different” is one of the two reasons you made it here today.

You are growing up in a culture that does not want you to “Think Different.”  You are growing up in a culture of conformity.  The voices of conformity speak not just in unison, but in a mind-numbing monotone:  Get yourself into the right school.  Get yourself the right clothes.  Get yourself with the right crowd.  Get yourself some sleep and exercise and healthy food, unless you need to study some more, in which case, don’t.

Over one hundred seventy years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way; remember it well:  “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood [today, we would add, ‘and womanhood’] of every one of its members….The virtue most [requested] is conformity….Whoso would be a man [today, we would add, ‘or a woman’] must be a nonconformist” (from "Self-Reliance"). 

Think Different!

Confirmation Class of 5772, do you know the most common spelling mistake in the history of Confirmation?  A number of you made it in your Personal Statements.

It’s okay.  Don’t panic.  Jessica Miller, our amazing Intern who joined the RAC trip and helped to coordinate today’s service, caught them all.

It’s when a student spells Confirmation like this:


Oh, that pesky “O!”

Your spell-checker won’t catch it, because “conformation” is a perfectly acceptable word.

But make no mistake, it’s a mistake.

You are not the “Conformation Class of 5772.”  You made it here today because you gloriously, giddily, wildly, celebrate nonconformity.  We have students towering over six feet tall and barely scraping 5 feet tall.  Sorry, Alex.  Although, the heels are fabulous.  We have cheerleaders and knitters, athletes and artists, geniuses with a lacrosse stick and geniuses with a xylophone mallet.  This is, no doubt, the first Confirmation service in the history of Reform Judaism to feature a Xylophone solo.  Next year, the theremin!  Look it up.

We have singers and speakers, lovers and fighters (well, debaters), bloggers and tweeters.  We have pianists, composers, wordsmiths and woodchoppers--and that’s just Rabbi Sklar.  We have representatives of J-Teen, BBYO, and NFTY.  We have students who have been to Israel and some who are going this summer.  And you are all part of YoGWRT, the Youth Group of WRT, whether or not you like the name and the logo with the sprinkles on top.  

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money,” said Steve Jobs in 1994.

“That’s a very limited life,” he went on.  “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

...That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Now I could just stop here--and perhaps you wish I would--but I feel that to end by just repeating a brilliant statement by Steve Jobs would actually dishonor the point of his remark.  And, what’s more, I promised that there were two reasons you made it here today, and “Think Different” is only the first.

The second is that “Nobody can make it out here alone.”

Confirmation Class of 5772:  You have not come here today to conform but you have come here to confirm, to confirm your unique voice in the chorus of your ancestral faith, to confirm the place of your unique thread in the fabric of this amazing global civilization that we call The Jewish People.  

You are growing up amid a crescendo of disgust at so-called “organized religion,” some of it justified and much of it misplaced.  When the Catholic Church shelters priests who sexually abuse child parishioners, is it any wonder that a new generation has grown up to resent the religion itself?  When a group Jewish extremists, grown men, find justification in their version of Orthodoxy to spit on an eight-year-old Orthodox girl for wearing allegedly “immodest” dress, as happened this past December in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, is it any wonder that the vast majority of Israelis laugh at the idea of joining a synagogue?  It is a shame, and a crisis, that the reputation of organized religion has been hijacked and sullied by its most fanatical elements.  

But it is a cop-out--both intellectually unsubstantiated and morally weak--to dissociate from organized religion because of the abuses of a fanatical fringe.  The whole point of being part of a congregation, being part of a religious movement, especially a movement with a progressive outlook and a social conscience like Reform Judaism, is to band together to multiply the good that any one of us could do alone.  

Alone you can read a book; as a Confirmation Class we learn and practice Torah.  Alone you can write a little check to tzedakah; as a Confirmation Class you raised over $6,000 at our Fundraiser, and as a class you selected two very deserving recipients about which we will hear at the end of today’s service.  Alone any one of you can visit Israel; with NFTY-in-Israel you can travel with teens from all over North America to understand what it means to be part of a people that has survived oppression, exile, and every Jew-hater’s prediction.  Alone you can write a letter to a Senator or Representative; as a Confirmation Class you can lobby in the halls of Congress.  Alone you can whisper a prayer to God; as a Confirmation class you can lift the voices of hundreds in song, as you have today.  Alone you can feed a table of hungry people; as a Confirmation Class you can stock the county’s Food Bank, the bus be damned!  

Together, we have power.  Alone, we are, ultimately, alone.

You did not come here to conform, but you did come here to confirm, and you can’t come to this bimah alone.  Judaism does not work by oneself.  You need the Jewish People and the Jewish people needs you.  Synagogues, the hub of every Jewish community, need you--to care enough, to lead, to continue to confirm your choice to be Jewish, to be part of a bigger Jewish picture, in 11th grade, and 12th grade, in college, and after college.  

Today is Shavuot.  We read from the Book of Ruth.  We read the Ten Commandments.  Both are about confirming--confirming one’s place amid a community, confirming one’s commitment to something bigger than him or herself.  Ruth, born a Moabite, says to her Hebrew mother-in-law, “Wherever you go, I will go.  Wherever you dwell I will dwell…. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”  Ruth confirmed that she couldn’t make it out there alone.  She needed a people.  It was the same at Sinai.  The Torah says when the people heard the ten commandments, they proclaimed in one voice, Na’aseh v’nishma:  We will do it.  We will listen.  We, the people.  Not each man, each woman for him and herself.  We.  Together.  We confirm.

So here we are, Confirmation Class of 5772.  We made it.  Thanks to two messages we made it.  You will need these messages to make it in this difficult world.  The first message is Think Different.  The second message is Nobody can make it out here alone.  I didn’t come up with either of them.  The first, as you know, belongs to Steve Jobs.  And the second, to Maya Angelou.  Listen to her words:

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I'm wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can't use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They've got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I'll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
'Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bemidbar: "Standing Guard"

The following essay is from the book "Text Messages:  A Torah Commentary for Teens."  Jeffrey Salkin, editor.  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012).  The hardcover edition comes out on June 12, 2012, and the Kindle edition is already available.  Click here for details. 

Standing Guard

by Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake

“The Levites, however, shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Pact…” (Numbers 1:53)
What, or who, represents the greatest threat to you as a Jew today?  

There are two possible answers.

On the one hand, you might believe that the greatest threats to the Jewish people today are external threats: anti-Semitism, “anti-Israelism,” and the threat of a nuclear Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies that the Holocaust happened and who would like to see Israel disappear from the map.

On the other hand, perhaps internal threats to the Jewish people are more dangerous. Jews from different streams of Jewish life, like the ultra-Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, are constantly going at it. Some Jews don’t even like it when other Jews express different opinions on Israel and what it means to be Jewish. 

And then, there’s that old threat – assimilation. There are many Jews who just want to be like everyone else in America.  Throw in rising rates of intermarriage, and the fact that fewer people are choosing to join synagogues.  Each of these, and all of these together, might lead to the weakening of the Jewish community – not because of external factors, but from the inside out. 
So which type of threat is more dangerous to us as Jews – the external, or the internal?
In our Torah portion, we read that the Levites, the biblical priests, took on the responsibility to “stand guard around the Tabernacle” (Numbers 1:53), the central shrine in the wilderness.  The Levites served as the Tabernacle’s security force!  

When you consider what we know about the Levites, it’s an intriguing choice. While other tribes consisted of warriors, the Levites were religious professionals. They ministered to the ancient sacrificial system; conducted communal rituals and celebrations; taught sacred texts, and even composed and performed religious poetry and music.

Perhaps the Levites’ main function in guarding the Tabernacle had nothing to do with their skills as security guards, and everything to do with promoting a vibrant Jewish life for the entire community. After all, the entire Tabernacle was already fortified with a heavily armed military encampment, comprised of all the other tribes.  

What was the job of the unarmed Levites? Teaching holy words; bringing uplifting music and ritual to worship, and ministering to the needs of the people.  

I imagine the Levites made it their top priority to ensure a thriving Jewish congregation, aware that no external threat could ever destroy a community that was strong and united from within.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Just a little thought for Parashat Bechukotai, 5772

I was studying this week's parasha, Behar-Bechukotai, and stumbled upon a lovely teaching by Ovadiah Sforno, the 15th-Century Italian Sage.

In Bechukotai, the Torah enumerates blessings and curses.  Blessings, for those who abide by God's strictures.  Curses, for those who disobey.  Among the promises offered to the obedient is this:

...I will establish My sanctuary in your midst, and My Being will not abhor you.  I will walk in your midst and be your God, and you shall be My people (Lev. 26:11-12).

Commenting on the phrase, "I will walk in your midst," Sforno notes that the verb form for "walk" (hithalech) is in the reflexive, which Sforno interprets to mean, "walking from place to place."  From this point Sforno extracts an important lesson:  for the Jewish people, God is not confined to a sanctuary, a shrine, not even to a holy land.  God is found wherever we seek God; indeed, "wherever the righteous of [each] generation are to be found, that place is the holiest dwelling of the  Most High" (Sforno, ad loc). 

I am heading into the sanctuary now, but remember that God is not in that place alone.  Where do you find the Most High in your life?    

Friday, May 11, 2012

Installation Remarks - Friday, May 11th, 2012


Hinei Ma Tov--how good it is to stand on the bimah of the congregation that I feel so grateful to serve and share this Shabbat with so many cherished congregants, family members and friends, representing every age and stage of my life, from childhood through college and after.  To my colleagues who came this evening, I must compliment you on your “Friday night off” strategy. 

I honor this moment by sharing a little teaching by Rabbi Nehemia Polen who is a leading expert in Hasidism and Jewish thought.  Polen went to a Harvard ethnomusicologist, asking him how it is that the niggunim, the wordless melodies, of the great 20th Century master Shlomo Carlebach have such spiritual power.  The expert concluded that he did not find anything special about them.  At which point Rabbi Polen said, “I think you don’t understand….”

“You see, every note in a Carlebach niggun looks at the note that came before it and says: ‘Thank you for being my teacher.’  And every note in a Carlebach niggun looks at the note that comes after it and says: ‘I give you permission to be even more beautiful than I am.’”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, thank you for being my teacher.  For more than eight years you nurtured my professional growth, challenged my assumptions, modeled for me an ever-evolving rabbinate, and inspired me to advance the mission of this groundbreaking synagogue.  To stand here and receive your blessing is an incomparable honor.  

I want you to know that even though you are now officially my congregant, along with Susie, the kids, and your extended family, you will always and ever be my rabbi.

To all of my clergy colleagues, thank you for being my teachers.  I came here to work not only with Rick but also with my cherished classmate, the magnificent Angela Warnick Buchdahl who taught me that little story about Nehemia Polen, and with Stephen Merkel whose memory and music are enduring blessings.  I venerate the memory of my friend Rabbi Jack Stern and feel his compassion and wisdom embedded in the fabric of our congregation.  Along the way I have worked alongside so many gifted interns, cantors, and rabbis.  Rabbis Jan Katzew and Aaron Panken, thank you for nourishing us with your teaching and preaching, especially in this transitional period.  

Mia Davidson, you bring intelligence, dedication, and personal warmth to your cantorate.  Your communicate a love of Jewish music to young and old.  You take organization to a whole new level and recognize the impact of the little details.  Thank you for keeping the team on track and for lifting our spirits.  

Dan Sklar:  Temple Israel of Westport has selected one of the most talented musicians our Movement has ever produced to be its next Senior Cantor.  Of course you are so much more than a singer; your gifts extend to wordplay, technology, home repair and most of all, a special ability to connect with other people.  I speak for all of us when I say how much we will miss you, but we also acknowledge that you accepted this invitation not only as a professional attainment but also because it’s the right thing for your family.  I can think of no more Jewishly honorable decision than to choose to have Shabbat dinner every week with your wife and three-year-old son even as you rise to new heights in musical and spiritual leadership.

Jill Abramson, thank you for being my teacher.  Every day I learn from you how to be a clergy person.  You are a sensitive listener, an inspirational teacher, a deep thinker, a soulful singer, and somehow you stay grounded, graceful, and giving even when we’ve had a week with four bar and bat mitzvahs, three funerals, no internet connection, and in your case, an infant at home.  I don’t know how you do it but I feel grateful for our sacred partnership and the laughter we share.  

Sorel Goldberg Loeb, thank you for being my teacher!  Your creativity and unflagging dedication to excellence combine to produce students who graduate from WRT, go off to college and adulthood and actually miss their temple, their religious school teachers, and their WRT community.  I love collaborating with you.

To our religious school faculty, and our bookkeeping, custodial, and administrative staff, thank you for everything you do to keep this 1,200-household congregation running smoothly even in a week like the one I just described.  Marilyn Master, you are a living repository of information about our families and I rely on your mathematical brain to figure out how to pair hundreds of B’nei Mitzvah students without sparking a nuclear conflict.  

Suzanne Saperstein and Amy Rossberg:  you not only provide administrative support but interact lovingly with the congregation as an extension of the clergy.  You are often the first point of contact when a congregant needs anything from a Hebrew name to a shiva minyan.  Amy, I have already come to rely on you for advice and the occasional Aramaic translation.  

Sue Tolchin, your love of young children and your caring ways with their parents are nurturing the next two generations of Jewish leaders.  

Yoel Magid, I am still not sure how a person with an advanced Ivy League degree in metaphysical poetry goes off to serve in the Israeli army, live on a kibbutz for 25 years, become its chairman, and then when most people would want to slow things down, to initiate a whole new career as a synagogue director, eventually serving WRT during years of monumental transformation... but here you are.  Thank you for every labor of love on behalf of this congregation.  

Of course none of us professionals could do any of our work without the partnership of our exceptional lay leaders.  No mere cabinet of figureheads or bean-counters, those who serve this congregation on our Board of Trustees and in countless other volunteer commitments embody wisdom, responsibility, and Jewish values.  We cannot do what we do without your guidance, support, and vision.  

If they gave out medals for synagogue presidents then the ones with whom I have served could not stand up under the weight of them.  Amy Lemle and Ellen Sunness, the support you have given my rabbinate is only a mirror image for your unstinting service to WRT.  

And Lisa Messinger, you keep me on my toes even more, if it is possible, than does my physical therapist.  Our temple president is fluent in the languages of Reform Judaism, Jewish organizations, Jewish philanthropy, staff management, and community institutions.  She understands rabbis intuitively, perhaps because she married a terrific one.  Everything you do, Lisa, you do with energy and imagination.  Most of all, in this eventful synagogue presidency, you have ever embodied that wonderful British maxim, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” 

Like a note in a Carlebach niggun I look back at all the ones who have come before and say, “Thank you for being my teachers.”  I am blessed to stand here tonight before my parents and sister who gave me the incomparable gift of a loving, happy family that cares about God, Torah, and Israel, infusing my upbringing with a love of Reform Judaism and a passion for keeping our faith and our people strong.  
In my life, no note resounds more beautifully, no teacher has provided more inspiration or support, than the one I was blessed to marry ten years ago this month.  Kelly, from our first “not really a date” date at the luncheon following my fourth-year sermon at HUC to these remarks, you have been there to support me.  But you have not merely stood by my side; you have in many cases taken the lead, pursuing conversion to Judaism of your own initiative well before I was ordained a rabbi; conveying a spiritual depth and wisdom reserved for the most enlightened human beings; offering your gifts to audiences everywhere--not only onstage, but backstage, where your colleagues all come to know what I understand about you--that you are not only by career a phenomenal performer and consummate musician but also by innermost nature a caring, honest, and intensely loyal friend who helps others to be their best.  Thank you for being my partner in friendship, in love, and in life.

You are also a dynamite sermon editor, and this paragraph may be the only one in more than twelve years that you have not proofread.  I hope you liked it.  I know I speak for the two of us when I express how grateful we feel to call WRT our home and we look forward to greeting you after the service.  
Let me add that it is especially sweet to be joined tonight by your mom and her husband Tom who came in from Michigan.    

“You see, every note in a Carlebach niggun looks at the note that came before it and says: ‘Thank you for being my teacher.’  And every note in a Carlebach niggun looks at the note that comes after it and says: ‘I give you permission to be even more beautiful than I am.’”

Dear friends, we stand poised at such a special moment in the life of Westchester Reform Temple.  Like a note in a niggun, we all look back with gratitude at our teachers, all those in our almost sixty-year history who sought to establish and safeguard a sacred congregation in the heart of Westchester County.  

And we look ahead to a congregational future that yet glows with the promise of being even more beautiful.  In the coming weeks, two gifted rabbis will join our clergy team.  In February, impressed with his gifts in teaching Torah, in information technology, and in cultivating deep and caring relationships, we invited Rabbi David Levy to be our next assistant rabbi.  And just this week we announced the partnership of Rabbi Marcus Burstein who will give strength to our team and our congregation with his thirteen years of experience in the field, his advanced training in pastoral care and synagogue transition, his ease with people of all ages, and his passion for creating lives vibrant with Jewish meaning.  Ashreinu, how fortunate we feel to welcome you, David and Marcus, and your families!

In notating music, each note is of course suspended in something called a staff, five horizontal lines that provide the organizational framework around which the melody flows.  Here at WRT,  the lines of our staff are our five pillars:  Chavurah, community; Avodah, spirituality; Talmud Torah, learning; Tikkun Olam, reparing the world; and K’lal Yisrael, the Unity of the Jewish People.  These comprise the values that give shape to the melody of our lives.  Like the lines of a staff, our values hold the melody in place.  The values themselves remain fixed, steadfast.

But the melody keeps coursing through this community of faith and action, taking shape as it goes and grows.  We will find new ways to express the foundational values of our congregation.  Our community will grow--not just by outreach to the unaffiliated but by deepening the experience of belonging for those who affiliate.  Our worship will evolve as new prayers are composed and new songs are sung.  Our ancient tradition will still summon us to learn, but in new ways, with new teachers and new technologies.  Our world, with all of its brokenness, from the violence of the Middle East, to entrenched poverty and inequity in our own county, to the ravages of environmental neglect and disaster, will not relent in giving us new opportunities for Tikkun Olam.  And our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters the world over, especially in Israel which needs us now more than ever, will make unprecedented claims on us, requiring us to unite with our people everywhere.  We will fulfill all of these sacred responsibilities with eyes and ears attuned to Jewish arts and culture, the harmony to our melody, those notes that make what we do not just consequential but beautiful.  

We will never abandon the foundational values that make WRT such an exceptional congregation.  But the melody will continue to change, and new singers will lift up their voices to make it heard.  I don’t mean new clergy.  I mean you.  Because you are the ones who make the music. 

As we look with hope to the future, we echo the blessing that one note sagely intones to the next:  ‘I give you permission to be even more beautiful than I am.’”