Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Reflecting on the 1st Yahrzeit of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC


Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

Orlando. Dallas. Baton Rouge. So many acts of gun violence since, a little more than a year ago, on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spent an hour with the community there studying Bible, and then pulled out a .45-calibre pistol and murdered nine parishioners and clergy. A year later, stunned by the death and grief which have continued to tear through our country, we are sadly confident that nothing in America will change. We’ve watched it all unfold before and, wearily, expect to see this again and again.

Still, in spite of everything, we hope for an effective national response to gun violence in our nation, even while gauging our own personal response. Thinking back on that day in June 2015, I can’t help but feel linkage between me and the people of Emanuel AME Church. Dylann Roof entered their parish that evening even as I entered my synagogue at almost the same time. That same evening, our local interfaith organization was starting its monthly meeting. When Dylann Roof brandished his gun, temple leaders and I were reviewing our past year, and the interfaith gathering was wrapping up. The people of Emanuel AME Church were doing what people of faith do in every house of worship, and we were doing in ours: learning together, praying together, working together for the simple purpose of bringing God’s blessings into the world.

When our temple built a new sanctuary in 2002-03, we had to move out for the year of construction. Before doing so, there was a heated debate about an offer from nearby Greenville Community Reformed Church to come worship in their prayer space while we were building. Theirs was a simple, warm, unadorned sanctuary, with no more than a single cross on the front wall, and it was located a very reasonable distance away. Eventually, we would accept their gracious invitation. But before doing so, some of our folks resisted. How can we worship in a Christian space? Isn’t it offensive to pray where Jesus is worshiped?

The choice was a no-brainer for me. Our very kind neighbors had invited us in. What could be offensive about one people of faith embracing another in its hour of need? Nonetheless, I understood the visceral reaction that some of my congregants experienced. After all, Christian history has not been kind to the Jewish community these past 2000 years, and it’s really only a recent development that Jews and Christians have befriended each other and comfortably visited one another’s houses of worship.

I did some study about Judaism and the question of whether our ancestors felt it acceptable to worship in a church. Here’s what I found.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 127b), Rabbi Yehoshua is in Rome and, prior to entering the home of a Roman matron, removes his tefillin (which, at the time, were worn throughout the day). He later explained to his disciples that he did not wish to bring Jewish sacred objects into a place where there were idols. While Jewish law does indeed forbid us from engaging in prayer in a place of idolatry, the question is: Does Christianity or Islam constitute, in Jewish eyes, idolatry?

In the Shulkhan Arukh (a highly-respected 16th-century code of Jewish law), we read, “The peoples among whom we live (i.e., Christians) and the Mohammedans are not idolaters.” So even though Christians worship God in three different manifestations, Jewish tradition still considered them worshipers of One God. Muslims too. Which is why, in the Shulkhan Arukh, we also read, “One may pray in a house where there are (idolatrous) images but should not bow towards them, even if they are in the east (the traditional direction of Jewish prayer … toward Jerusalem). One should face another direction, while directing the heart toward Jerusalem.”

GCRCMezuzah (6a)

In May 2002, Pastor Jack Elliott (center) of Greenville Community Reformed Church, invited us to affix a mezuzah to his church’s door before our temple began using it for services.

Only occasionally does a more stringent authority prohibit the use of a church for Jewish prayer. The predominant tenor of rabbinic opinion, however, is that (in the words of Elijah Mizrachi, a 15th-century Turkish rabbinic giant), “Even a house that is regularly used for non-Jewish worship may also be used for Jewish worship.” Rabbinic authorities are also clear that it is acceptable to use a Torah in a church and, if needed, to store it there.

Nothing, therefore, short of our own inherited memories and personal attitudes, prevents us from worshiping in a space that has been designated for use by another religion. In fact, an opportunity to join ever-more closely with neighbors of a differing faith, this is very good for us. What an honor to spend time worshiping at Greenville Church! They even insisted we put up a mezuzah. And when the 1st anniversary of 9/11 rolled around, we cried through that shared memorial service together.

A year after nine men and women were murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I am remembering our synagogue community’s year in a church, and it’s been tugging at me. I think it serves as a bridge from Woodlands (my synagogue) through the Greenville Community Reformed Church, to Emanuel AME in Charleston. It’s simply one more way that my heart has been linked to theirs and to all victims of gun violence.

Part of the shared faith between Jews, Muslims and Christians is that there is a loving God in the universe Who cares for us – all of us. And when human beings share a common respect for one another, offering kindness and love from one person to the next simply because we are all God’s creations, we demonstrate the best and highest manifestations of God’s love. The folks at Emanuel AME were simply doing what we all do – learning about and practicing their religious faith, including the welcoming of Dylann Roof to join them that evening. For that – and the addition of their skin color – they were murdered.

And what did the Emanuel AME Church community do in response to their tragedy? They sounded a call for increased love and an end to hate and violence.

We must do no less. We must continue to reach out to one another – to our neighbors of a different faith, our neighbors of a different color, our neighbors of a different ethnicity, our neighbors of a different gender, sexual orientation, and even political affiliation – and extend our hands in fellowship and shared faith that America can and must be a home for all. We need to support those elected officials who propose worthwhile programs that promise to reduce the possibility of future acts of hatred like the one at Emanuel AME – through better care for mental illness, better regulation of gun ownership, and the reduction of racism and other acts of bigotry and discrimination. We must also do what we can to elect Members of Congress who not only care about these issues, but will stake their very careers on the need to act on them.

My heart still aches for the families of those nine who died in Charleston, but it aches for so many more who have died since then. In fact, my heart aches for an entire country that just can’t find the resolve to fix this.

So I’ll pray. But I’ll also act … with my voice, my wallet, and my vote. I hope that you will too.

50 years ago, on Friday evening, September 9, 1966, Woodlands Community Temple held its very first Shabbat celebration. This holiest of services – one that initiated the creation and establishment of our kehillat kedoshah, our sacred temple community – wasn’t celebrated inside a synagogue building. We didn’t have one. Instead, we gathered in a nearby church – the Calvin United Presbyterian Church in Hartsdale, NY – which opened its arms and its doors to us, one neighbor saying to another, “How can we help?”

IfYouCan'tSeeGodInAllI think of all three of these acts of kindness – two churches that invited us in, and a third church that invited Dylann Roof in – and I pray. May we never close our doors to another human being, especially in their moment of need. May we teach our children that there is no shame in expressing such need, but that it must only be shared through words and tears, never through a clenched fist. May we continue to affirm that God’s love comes into the world through human acts of goodness, so may our spirits be resolute in the faith that it is always right to welcome and to love. And may the day soon arrive when every man, woman and child not only understands, but lives, such faith.


P.S. On Saturday, September 25, 2016, 4:00-6:00 pm, we’ll be hosting “The Concert across America to End Gun Violence,” a series of live events from coast to coast to remember the victims of America’s gun violence epidemic. Turning up the music to turn down the hateful rhetoric. Please visit us on Facebook to learn more about our event, or Remember 25 to learn how you can host your own. Trying to do our part.

Serakh bat Asher: To Grasp Fame Without Doing Famous Things

At Woodlands, we’re following Israel’s schedule of Torah readings. So this week, it’s Pinkhas. The rest of you can get a jump on next week.

There’s a reason rabbis seem to only speak about the character of Pinkhas when this parashah comes along. The rest of the Torah text (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1) is mostly genealogies … a long list of descendants from the original twelve tribes. By and large, these lists aren’t terribly interesting, so much so that I recall many years ago Reader’s Digest publishing their own version of the Bible that left out these genealogies. So if you happen to have that version at home, you’ll miss out on the chance to meet Serakh bat Asher.

Serakh bat Asher (by Sefira Ross)

Serakh bat Asher (by Sefira Ross)

Serakh bat Asher is actually mentioned three times in Tanakh. 1st, she gets a mention in Genesis 46:17 as the sister to Asher’s boys: Yimnah, Yishvah, Yishvi and B’riah. She’s mentioned again in parashat Pinkhas, in a census of all Israelites who are able to bear arms, once again as the sister to her brothers (‘tho curiously, one of the four boys, Yishvah, is missing from this list — somebody want to tell me why?). Then, in I Chronicles 7:30 (books toward the end of the Tanakh that review Israelite history), Serakh is mentioned once more as their sister.

Let me tell you about my sister, Joan. She’s the eldest of the six of us, one girl followed by five boys. She was (as far as I could tell, being 13 years her junior) super well-behaved, always doing her parents’ bidding, and living a very conventional life. As a result, while I was growing up in Cincinnati, I would hear many references to “the Dreskin boys” who were always making a name for themselves — either through their achievements or from getting into trouble.

As the youngest of six, I was in awe of them all. But my sister was pretty much known only as “and their sister Joan.” Such is what comes, perhaps, from being dwarfed by your little brothers. Don’t be mistaken, though — she could whup every one of us. And we lived in respectful fear of her. In our constellation, “and their sister Joan” was the star.

Serakh bat Asher is mentioned only in passing in the Torah. For all intents and purposes, she is a mere footnote in Israelite history: “their sister Serakh.” But in midrashic literature (stories composed by rabbis who lived much later down the line), her reputation looms huge. The reason for this is likely because she gets mentioned at all in Torah. Not a lot of women get that. Eve did. The matriarchs did. The daughters of Tzlophekhad did. But they also all had stories they were part of. Serakh bat Asher is known in name only. One can’t help but wonder why (unless you read the Reader’s Digest version, in which case you’re not doing any wondering at all).

The rabbis loved mysteries like this one. Why in the world would someone get mentioned three times without any story? And for generation after generation, they assumed it’s because this woman had a story! So Serakh bat Asher became a most beloved character in our rabbis’ imaginations. Here are just some of her tales:

• The rabbis imagined that, having been present both at the descent down into Egypt as well as the Exodus out of Egypt, Serakh must have lived an extremely long life … somewhere between 200 and 400 years!

• The rabbis imagined that, when Jacob was to be told his son Joseph was still alive, it was Serakh who was sent to play music for her grandfather, and to sing of Joseph’s fate in order that it be revealed to Jacob with utmost love and care.

• The rabbis imagined that this was the source of Serakh’s longevity. After delivering her message with such tender and gentle tones, Jacob gave her a most powerful blessing: a life whose length would surpass most, if not all, others.

• The rabbis imagined that, in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was having difficulty persuading Israel to let him lead them to freedom, it was Serakh who spoke to them and convinced the people to follow.

• The rabbis imagined that later, when Moses needed to find Joseph’s bones in order to carry them up from Egypt for burial in the Holy Land, it was Serakh who remembered their location.

• The rabbis imagined that, in II Samuel 20, which takes place long after the Exodus and during the reign of King David, she may still have been alive, for a certain isha khokhma … an unnamed “clever woman” advised the Israelite general Joab how to win a certain battle and save countless lives while doing so. The rabbis say that “clever woman” was Serakh.

• And then when Serakh’s life finally reached its conclusion, the rabbis imagined that God conferred upon her the honor of entering Gan Eden (Paradise) alive – a distinction that was reserved for the likes of Abraham’s servant Eliezer and the prophet Elijah. According to the Zohar, Serakh resides in heaven to this day where she has become a renowned Torah scholar.

So this supremely unvetted (to use election-time parlance) woman of the Bible, whose name we receive but nothing else, is provided a back-story like no other. And about the only reasonable fact, if we can even call it that, to take away from Serakh’s story is that she must have been a person of substantial importance. To achieve in the Tanakh even a single shout-out, and she gets three, that’s impressive. All we can really do is ponder the question, “How did she earn that?” God bless our tradition for making up so many imaginative and loving tales in response to this question.

Here’s a different story. It’s about Serakh bat Asher, but not the one I’ve been mentioning. This Serakh is one more unknown figure in history whose story – in this case, only slightly better known than her biblical counterpart – impresses and inspires. From 1950s Montgomery, Alabama — specifically during the 55-56 bus boycott which had been sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks and which really kicked the civil rights movement into high gear — Georgia Gilmore is a name you probably don’t know but really should.

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

Georgia Gilmore lived in Montgomery where she worked as a midwife while caring for her own six children. She also worked as a cook until the boycott began and she was fired for speaking out against racial inequality. Georgia’s cooking had become so well-known that, now out of work, she was encouraged to open her own business. It didn’t take long for leaders of the boycott — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr — to begin using her home as a meeting place (which happened to serve some mighty fine vittles) and as ground zero for the nascent civil rights movement.

Georgia’s food was awfully good, but her talents and her destiny with the movement were not limited to her cooking. Dubbed “the Club from Nowhere,” to protect the anonymity of its participants, Georgia established a clandestine group that organized food sales – cooking up a storm of meals and desserts to be sold throughout Montgomery and whose proceeds went into coffers of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the guiding leadership behind the boycott.

The significance of Georgia’s efforts is two-fold: First, she was incredibly successful in her fund raising efforts, cited by some as the force which kept the boycott alive, both through the financial assistance it provided and, just as important, the visible community support for those on the front lines that it generated. Second, through Georgia Gilmore’s example, African-American women were inspired to support the boycott wherever and in whatever ways they could. Rival clubs sprang up, initiating friendly competition in providing greatest support for the boycott. Folks did what they could, which amounted to plenty. More than plenty. Gilmore herself is quoted as saying, “They were maids and cooks, and they were the ones that kept the boycott running.”

Georgia Gilmore is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Like Serakh bat Asher, Georgia’s name is not well-known. But her impact was true and strong, her story very much worth remembering.

Most of us will never become famous. At best, and this is no small thing, we will become famous in the hearts of a small number of people who have known us, and who celebrate us for our principles, our efforts and, yes, our achievements. We need not plaster our names on the fronts of buildings, or proclaim ourselves the savior of a people. We just need to try and do what is right. Some may say that’s not enough, that the powers of corruption and greed are just too great. But take a page from the life of Serakh bat Asher.

Or if you don’t believe that story, take one from the life of Georgia Gilmore. And know that our actions can make a difference, a very big difference. It’s possible that no one will ever hear about it. But perhaps that’s how life is best lived.

I don’t know where these next words came from. But every now and then, they show up at a funeral, recalling the memory of someone whose impact was huge, but known only to some. I love these words, and share them in the hopes that you’ll know someone to whom they apply.

Few of us ever achieve the acclaim of everyone,
But that is not to say that fame has escaped us.
In the hearts of a handful of people whose lives we have touched intimately,
Our torch will continue to burn without us.
And who is to say this is not a greater achievement,
To grasp fame without doing famous things,
To be loved for what we were instead of what we were able to become,
To be forgiven our faults,
And to be celebrated simply for our spirits,
Our character,
And our willingness to try.

Shabbat shalom,

Living in the Wake of Tragedy

Yesterday, two neighborhood kids came riding by on bicycles. A few minutes later, they came back the other way. A short time after that, they passed by a third time. It wasn’t until the fourth pass that I noticed one of the kids was holding her phone out in front of her as she pedaled. At first, I thought she was speaking to someone but then it dawned on me — she’s playing Pokemon Go.

Pokemon Go is the new rage across the nation. It’s a phone app where the objective is to find and capture Pokemon that are out and about in the real world. Using your phone’s camera and GPS, this clever app has found a way to hide these mythical creatures everywhere. And the only way to find them is to go, well, anywhere, hold up your camera and see what’s around.

03242016-169Pokemon Go is a delightful summer distraction. It appears at just the right time when our kids have time, time to immerse themselves in mindless delight. But as we seem to do with everything else these days, it’s already become neccessary to teach them how to play Pokemon Go safely – not while walking in traffic (or riding their bicycle in the street!), and to not to go looking for Pokemon in dark alleys or other unsafe locations. But other than that,  it seems harmless enough.

Pokemon Go also comes at a time of great sadness and exhausting grief. On the heels of the bombing that killed 280 in Baghdad, the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the five Dallas police officers, and now we add the 84 who died in Nice, France. Our hearts keep breaking as we struggle to keep up with bad news.

So no one should be surprised if distractions are valued this summer. I found us a few more.

An article appeared this week positing that we’re coming closer to realizing Einstein’s hypothesis that time travel ought to be possible. Researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, say they have simulated the behavior of a single photon traveling through a wormhole and reappearing at another point in time. Talk about distraction – time-travel would be even more fun than Pokemon!

noahs-arkAnd did you read about the opening of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, KY? I’m not sure what it measures in cubits, but this new tourist attraction is over 500 feet long, more than 80 feet wide and over 50 feet high. And best of all, because the creationists who built it believe the world is only 6000 years old, there’ll be dinosaurs on the Ark!

But wait! There’s a second ark. This one was built in the Netherlands, measures over 400 feet long, more than 90 feet wide and over 75 feet high. It has 5 decks and purports to hold more than 5000 people. I’m not sure why they felt it important to tell us how many people it can hold unless … well, listen to this:

Apparently, a giant asteroid could hit earth next week. It measures approximately 1 km across and, if it strikes a populated area, it could wipe out entire cities and potentially devastate an entire continent.

But that was all made up. The article was placed online to see how many people would repost it without even reading that it was bogus. Scientists theorize that 59% of all links shared on social media are never actually clicked, meaning that most people who share news on social media aren’t actually reading it first.

Someone, after reading the above-mentioned article, posted: “I was hoping for an asteroid that would cause a worldwide flood so the guy in Kentucky with the ark would be a hero!” Which is maybe why the Netherlands ark posted its human capacity.

None of this can make the tragedies of the past week go away. And there will be more, I’m fairly certain and sorry to say. ISIL won’t be going away anytime soon. Nor will we be able to make sure every police officer in America is safe or is able to respond sensitively and appropriately to every scenario unfolding before them.

And just to show you that crazy people won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, I read an article about the fear that Pokemon Go will be used by terrorists to hunt down people.  Rick Wiles, who hosts a Christian podcast, “Trunews,” has asked, “What if this technology is transferred to Islamic jihadists and Islamic jihadists have an app that shows them where Christians are located geographically?”

I don’t know if this should make you smile or cry.

Looking at the week’s events, it’s difficult to know what to say, how to offer comfort. This is a really scary time in America and around the world. But here are some ideas that keep me going.

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. Their “miraculous redemption” required incredible dedication and bravery to change the status quo. And that’s what Moses and company did.

Further, we are a people that believes the day will come when nation will not lift up sword against nation, that the lion will lie down with the lamb, and that when asked if the Messianic Age has arrived, our answer is never “No,” but is always, “Not yet.”

We’ve cornered the market on hope.

Let me tell you story of guy named Franky Carrillo who, at age 16, was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Twenty years later, his case was overturned and he was released. Amidst it all, Franky never lost faith, not in others and not in himself. He speaks of how his father would restore other people’s discarded toasters and such, and make them shiny and like new. Franky always reminded himself of that, and of his hope that it would be able to happen for him, that he’d become and shiny and new again. And one day, it did.

And finally, Reb Nakhman of Bratzlav would tell his community, “Do not despair. A Jew may never despair.” All the world is very narrow bridge. How we get across it is puzzling and frightening. But we persist. Shaking perhaps. But continuing ever onward. No matter what, we hope and we act on our hope.

There’s a popular meme that has plastered the online world this week. It reads, “Things are not getting worse. They’re getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Penned by African-American writer/activist Adrienne Maree Brown, these words, in my opinion, epitomize the determination to not despair, to see every moment as an opportunity, every step forward, no matter how small, as an important and potentially beneficial one.


Dallas protesters confront one another with hugs!

This past Monday, two simultaneous protests took place in Dallas after the shooting of the police officers. One group proclaimed that “Black Lives Matter,” holding placards that asked, “Will I be next?” The other group, stationed just across the street from the first, was protesting violence against police, arguing that we all matter. Police appeared in order to keep an eye on the protesters, and to be ready in the event of violence. But it never happened. The two groups crossed the street, and confronted one another with handshakes and hugs, proclaiming, “No more walls.” Praying together for Dallas, with even a police officer joining in, they called for unity and peace and, together, chose to start making it happen right then and there.

Ellen meets Charmander

Ellen meets Charmander

May this be where all our differences lead. To understanding that we can care about what’s important to us without not caring about others. We can tend to what moves our hearts, and still honor what moves others’ hearts as well. We can even disagree about what needs to be done, all the while loving our opponents and looking for places we can agree and can work together to move our communities forward.

While walking thru New York City this week, I opened up my phone and took a photograph of the first Pokemon I encountered. And guess what, contrary to what many are saying about how people are fixated on, and only see, these non-real storybook characters … the one I found, it turns out, was standing right next to the woman I love. And that made a beautiful picture!

When we look at the world — through whatever lens we care to bring to it — may we always see God’s creation and its infinite opportunities for us to bring new blessings to it.