Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Kaddish II

After sharing the story (see “Kaddish“) of the first piece of music I ever wrote (at age 17), I’m delighted to share a new development. A very talented friend of mine, Amir Sinai Weisglas, emailed me with the following:

“When I listened to the old recording of your Kaddish, I was struck by its optimistic energy and beauty. I had to do a version of mine. The last two weeks were all around this piece. I recorded a grand first version, but it was not correct. So I started again and here is the second version. What I loved the most about your composition was that this text, which is for me (and us, Israelis) is usually connected to negative, dramatic, down-pulling energy, turned to be something optimistic, pray of bless.”

Amir’s original artwork for the song

Amir is a very dear friend of mine. We met in the summer of 2007 at Kutz Camp, the Reform movement’s teen leadership program in Warwick, NY. I was a volunteer rabbi on faculty teaching Jewish Ethics, Jewish Attitudes toward Tattoos and Navel Piercing, as well as Sonic Spirituality, a deeper dive into the emotional power of music. Amir, who is from Israel, served on staff for the Visual Arts program, an all-purpose role that included not only teaching but coordinating the wildest of requests from anywhere in camp for art support, including a working, life-sized Wheel of Fortune.

These days, Amir lives in Berlin where he now spends time pursuing the musical arts, a talent of his I hadn’t known about during our summer together. We reconnected a couple of years ago, just on Facebook, first to say hi and then to discuss our musical interests and ideas. Amir is such a kind, thoughtful and rather brilliant person that it was always a treat to spend some time with him. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to listen to more of his creations as he posted them on YouTube and Spotify.

When I posted here a piece about “Kaddish,” my first musical composition (written when I was 17 years old), Amir heard it and right away began thinking about how he would cover it.

“I knew I wanted to keep some of the original recording, which in my opinion is perfect (soooo many music producers are working very, very hard to get the tape/old/low-fi sound, and here it is in its full glory) and took it to my contemporary world, mixing electronica with orchestral work.”

This wasn’t long after the massacre of October 7, and Amir explained to me that these words of Kaddish were resonating quite strongly for him. Recording my melody became one more path for his grief journey.

“Every time I tried recording vocals, I ended up crying! I feel like this is my prayer at this moment, as so many are suffering, and so much disharmony is surrounding us.”

Back when I was 17, the only one close to me who had died was my dog, Frankie. So I really had no reference for the feeling of grief. The song was innocent and naive. I wrote it in a minor key because, well, wouldn’t you have to? But I’ve never quite been able to write sad music. To then learn that 50 years later it had moved my friend to tears, that came as a surprise and (can I say this?) an honor. Amir didn’t just like the tune; he was moved by it.

“About the upbeat recording, I find it full of power — your piano playing is great with strong fingers — and I love the upbeat feeling of the song. It has the youth(fulness) in it, without inhibition! I find it perfect.”

As I mentioned in the first article, I only composed this at the request of my teacher. Imagine how surprised (and pleased) I was to witness this emerge from inside me. I suspect all art is difficult at one level of another. The song hadn’t “emerged” but rather had been somewhat “torn” from my insides. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as difficult as musical composition. From the first project to this very day, the struggle is topped with immense satisfaction and pride. I was hooked and I still am!

“I also noticed your change of tempos in the recording, as it is clearly no metronome-based recording, and this brings it a special flavor. I also wonder where you recorded this, as the piano is tuned up about 60% above 440, a bit more than half a ton.”

This makes me laugh. I’m always having trouble maintaining a steady tempo. For Amir to tell me that “this brings it a special flavor,” is such a sweet way to respond to a person’s flaw. Would that we treated everyone like this!

So now, I’m very, VERY happy to share with you, Amir Sinai Weisglas’ “ElektroKaddish.” It’s quite different from my version, and I love every moment of it. Yes, he cultivates the lo-fi sound that’s in such vogue these days, but don’t let that fool you. Listen carefully to the quiet activity taking place in the background. As promoted above in my mini-bio of Amir, it’s brilliant.

You can listen to it on Spotify or on YouTube …

About his artwork for the song, Amir writes, “The image is part of a recent series of drawings I’ve been working on using ink, acrylic, and wall paint. I chose it intuitively after extensively searching for an image to accompany the song. The lyrics are profound and abstract, so an abstract approach to the image felt appropriate. Given that the text connects to the themes of life, death, and the entire circle of life, I immersed myself in the fluidity, flow and drip of paint. This allowed me to avoid committing to a single interpretation of the image of the music. Reflecting on it further, the tension between the electronic tools I used to create the music and bring it to you, and the manual, analogue work of the drawing and the music embodies the contemporary Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the ability to bridge the new and the old, merging electronics with analogue, and connecting the United States, Germany, and Israel today. The song and the image are my prayers for a better future.”

Thank you, Amir. I’m endlessly touched that you were moved to create this moving piece. While I doubt we’re going to make it onto the Top 40 this year, if nothing else your creation should be nominated for the Kaddish Music Hall of Fame. Yashir koach, chaver.

Billy

The sheet music and mp3 for my original “Kaddish” are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

Panim El Panim

Do you know what he said when they asked Uncle Jeffrey (as we know him in our house, but most everyone else knows him as Rabbi Jeff Sirkman) who he’d like them to commission to write a piece of music honoring him for his 36 years as spiritual leader of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY?

“Uncle Billy.”

Yep, he’s one of my closest friends. My kids call him Uncle Jeffrey and his kids call me Uncle Billy. Just the same, his temple leadership wondered if maybe he wanted them to hire someone with a more proven track record.

“Nope. I want Billy Dreskin to write a song for me. And I want Beged Kefet to sing it.”

“But Uncle Jeffrey,” I fruitlessly explained, “Beged Kefet stopped performing more than a decade ago!” Jeffrey was adamant so I agreed to ask. And surprise surprise, everyone said yes.

But now I was in big trouble. Receiving a music commission is a big deal. I had to come through.

I asked Ellen if she would work on the lyrics with me and, thank God, she said yes. In a few days I came up with a starter idea for the music but before we set our minds to finding the words, I needed to do some research. I asked Jeffrey to send me his favorite sermons and bulletin articles which I combed through searching for common themes and motives, settling on an idea that he came back to again and again:

“Punim to punim.”

That’s Boshkenazic (Ashkenazic Hebrew with a Boston accent) for “face to face.” Throughout Jeffrey’s rabbinate, he’s always been about “meeting,” about people coming together. Whether family, friend, neighbor or stranger, Jeffrey believes that we actualize our best selves when we connect compassionately and whole-heartedly with others. Including with ourselves!

And that was plenty to get us going. Ellen and I started crafting verses, which inspired more music, which led the way to more words. It took a few weeks of shuttle diplomacy (Ellen in her study downstairs and me in mine upstairs). In time, we created a piece that we felt was perfect for honoring our friend.

I arranged the music for Beged Kefet to sing, joined by Larchmont Temple’s Cantor Katie Oringel along with her volunteer choir and temple band. Parts were distributed and rehearsals were arranged.

Beged Kefet met a month before, not only singing Panim El Panim together for the first time but ANYTHING for the first time since February 2009. What a treat to gather with these longtime friends and prepare this incredibly special gift, a gift for Uncle Jeffrey and a gift for ourselves.

On Friday, November 17, 2023, we joined Jeffrey and Katie on their bimah at Larchmont Temple and, along with 700 or so other guests, sang our little hearts out. This was the first time he had heard the song but when Jeff then got up to speak, he began his words with “punim to punim.” Guess Ellen and I chose right (even if he does pronounce it wrong).

The only thing left to do was to get into the studio and mix the raw tracks from that night and make sure it was sync’d properly with the video stream (which has a bunch of glitches in it but we were able to get the music to work just fine).

And here you have it. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in nearly 15 years, Beged Kefet — live!

Hope you like it,
Billy

P.S. The mp3 recording and sheet music (lead sheet and instrumental parts) are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/panim-el-panim). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

P.P.S. If you want to learn more about Beged Kefet, visit https://www.billydreskin.net/or-zarua where I tell the whole story. You’ll also find links there to hear Beged Kefet’s three albums.

The 1619 Project: Changing Our Melody

Adapted from a presentation at Woodlands Community Temple
January 3, 2024 • 25 Tevet 5784

One day, many years ago, while driving my young children around town I, as usual, had music playing in the car. On this particular day I’d put on a playlist of my favorite gospel tunes. I love gospel music and have tried my hand at writing Jewish tunes that are informed by the irrepressible spirit of some of what I think is America’s greatest Christian music. As we were driving along, there was a pause between tunes when I heard a voice from the backseat ask, “Daddy, aren’t we Jewish?”

What can I say? I come by it honestly. First, regarding the lyric content of the songs, I believe in the validity of all religious messages, so long as they are kind, open-hearted and in pursuit of a just society. Second, I’ve always enjoyed a great variety of musical styles. It’s possible that comes from growing up as the youngest of six children in a home where music emerged from every room: my mom listening to Glenn Miller and to Rosemary Clooney, my dad listening to classical, and my siblings turning up the volume on everything from Andy Williams and Claudine Longet to The Beatles, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Sly and the Family Stone. Marvin Gaye. Isaac Hayes. Earth, Wind and Fire. Just a few of the superstars whose music filled my home throughout my youth. All of them were black. But at the time, I didn’t know that.

In the olden days, when record owners would read album covers over and over again while listening to the vinyl discs inside, I didn’t know that any of these performers were black simply because these weren’t my albums. I fell in love with their music from a distance, as I laid down long lines of Hot Wheels track in the hallways of our home or worked up intricate designs on my Spirograph while sitting at the kitchen table. This music was the background soundtrack to my pre-adolescent years.

What I hadn’t realized, at least not until viewing the music episode of Hulu’s “The 1619 Project” was that tunes that were written and performed by people of color, like American blacks themselves, were usually segregated out of view from my white community in Cincinnati of the 60s and 70s. “The 1619 Project,” which began as investigative reporting for The New York Times Magazine by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and has recently become a documentary series on Hulu, very convincingly asserts that our country’s entire history, to this day, links the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in profound ways that still demand a complete reckoning and change of national behavior.

My brothers listened to alternative FM progressive rock stations which, I think, were less subject to the subtle acts of discrimination that AM radio employed, including playing hit parade listings that excluded what was actually called by Billboard (and I remember them being listed as such in our local paper) “Race Music” or, a little bit later and, I suppose, less inflammatory, “Soul Music.”

I can tell you that, while I was growing up in Cincinnati, “Soul Music” was never played on any AM radio in my home or in the public places that I frequented.

I never noticed.

I really had no idea that my life was a pretty clear reflection of an America that had only barely moved on from slavery. While I never said or did anything that was demonstrably racist, and I never witnessed such things, my recent involvement with “The 1619 Project,” namely public conversations in our local library, each session facilitated by one black and one white community figure, and specifically my conversations with Rev. Freedom Weekes of Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry as he and I prepared our shared presentation, I’ve only now come to understand the role that I’d had no idea I had played in discriminatory living.

Prior to my and Rev. Weekes’ presentation at the library, we met for lunch and spent a delightful few hours getting to know each other. We spoke openly about our youth, and the ways in which each of us had experienced and been affected by black-white relationships. It was during this conversation that I heard my own words about the racism which I had been part of.

I was stunned by my self-revelations.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share with you one of the great pieces of anti-racist pop. While Sly and the Family Stone was better known for their funk and psychedelic tunes, “Everyday People” crossed over into the mainstream, crossed over the racial divide, to deliver its message of acceptance and love.

Now I’m a pretty nice guy and I don’t generally harbor anger or grudges for superficial, super-uninformed, super-selfish reasons. So I asked Rev. Weekes what I could do to be a better ally and he said to me, “Talking like this is a great first step.”

So let me urge you to do the same. Find a gathering where these kinds of conversations are taking place. Listen to others’ stories. Share your own. Be honest about it. And ask the question, “How can I better support people of color in my personal and public life?” Hopefully, you’ll find it as illuminating and challenging an experience as I have. But I want to emphasize how important an experience it is.

Since retiring, I’ve spent most of my time studying and writing music. It’s been a thrill and a luxuriant dream come true. I struggle with the value of my endeavors though. After 26 years as a congregational rabbi, it feels self-indulgent and not terribly helpful to society to be spending all my time in a little room with music (and Charlie) filling my days. But I have to remember that, despite my being 67 years old, I am still quite the newbie at this music thing. I have to give myself the time to just be a student, to acquire the skills I need to be able to bring my art to bear on the important issues of our day, something I very much want to do. In the meantime, I’m watching the world around me and am just starting to dip my toes into creating music that is responsive to these times.

Ellen and I recently wrote a piece of music together called “Panim El Panim,” which is a phrase the Torah uses to describe Moses’ face-to-face encounters with God. The song’s lyrics urge us to carefully consider how we interact with one another, and to understand that it’s when we connect with others — when we connect compassionately, lovingly, and with common humanity — “these are the moments,” the song suggests, when God is here. The piece is every bit the kind of social commentary that I’ve been used to sharing in my teaching, in my preaching, and in my writing. I hope to find a way to continue such social commentary through my music. To help further the conversation about making the world a better home for everyone.

I have no idea if I’ll ever be good at this. I’ve begun researching and thinking about a new piece that will be based on the White Rose, the resistance group that operated in Munich, Germany, for less than a year in 1942-43, urging active opposition to the Nazis but which ceased when its leadership was caught and executed. If the poet in me can get this right, the song will have as much to say about our world today as it will about the world then.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of race. All I know is that I can at least do something to try and move the needle, and to try and make sure that I’m not part of the problem.

As a young teen, I wore this button. Its text is credited to Eldridge Cleaver, a black American writer and political activist and early leader of the Black Panthers. Not sure back then if I really knew what the button meant. But I sure do now.

Why do I care about racism?

Well, probably most significantly, my family cared. My father was a doctor who took care of people his entire life. My mother marched with Dr. King. And my brothers drafted little-kid me into their anti-Vietnam War activities. I am a product of a family whose values may have made it likely, if not inevitable, that I would want to help, not hinder.

Second, Jewish tradition teaches us to care. The book of Exodus tells the story of the Jewish people’s decline and descent into Egyptian slavery, and also the story of our rescue and our redemption. As we left Egypt, it became the story of our stopping at Mount Sinai and pledging ourselves for all generations to accept others and to welcome difference.

Because we know.

We know what it’s like to be stripped of freedom, and thank God what it’s like to get it back. Judaism teaches us again and again that it is our responsibility to make sure no one has to ever endure cruelty — at the very least, to not have to endure it forever.

Third, the world needs us. Regardless of religion or family of origin, the world needs us to care. It needs us to respond, to help where we can. And even when we can’t help, to name it, to call out injustice for what it is and to keep doing so until the world no longer turns a blind eye.

I don’t know whether one person’s deeds of, in this case, anti-racism are better than another’s. Sure, it seems like it would be more worthwhile to change a law than to write a song. But how are we to know who is affected by our actions? Someone might grow up to be a Supreme Court Justice because, once upon a time, they were inspired by a song!

I have always loved the music of The Beatles. I was only seven when they landed in the U.S. for the first time. But their music had already been part of that home-based soundtrack I mentioned. So in 1968, when the song “Blackbird” was released on the White Album, I was exposed to their very British view of American prejudice toward blacks. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly.” The Beatles had seen how America treated people of color, and they recorded “Blackbird” to let us know that they’d seen, and that they hoped we’d finally do something about it.

Did “Blackbird,” which I must have heard a thousand times in my youth, embed itself inside my heart, so that one day I would want to be part of “The 1619 Project”? I can only give you a maybe on that. But I sure am glad that they put that song out into the world. Just as I’m glad to have participated in my conversations with Rev. Freedom Weekes.

Vayomer el amo … and Pharaoh said to his people … hinei am b ’nai Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu … “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us … hava nit-chak-mah lo … let us deal shrewdly with them.” (Exodus 1)

It shouldn’t have required us to know what it feels like to be the stranger, to be scorned and outcast, in order to want to do right by others. But we were the stranger and, because of that, we carry a special knowledge and a special obligation.

We may not get it right. God knows, there’ve been many times when I’ve unwittingly hurt others. But we have to keep trying, keep learning, keep getting closer to each of us producing the art, in whatever form it takes, that will shape this world into the Garden of Eden — for everyone — that God meant for it to be.

Billy

Or Zarua

Talk about taking your time! I first worked on this piece in 1981, but I didn’t finish it until 2022.

When I first wrote Or Zarua, it was performed by Beged Kefet in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school (1982-83). Beged Kefet was a singing group. We started out as a community-service project, fulfilling Hebrew Union College’s mandate that each student, during our year in Israel, give something back to the country that was hosting us. I joined some friends who chose to give back through music. Thus, Beged Kefet began. The group included (Rabbi-to-be) me, (Cantor-to-be) Ellen, (Rabbi-to-be) Les Bronstein, (Cantor-to-be) Benjie Ellen Schiller, (Educator-to-be) Kyla Epstein and (Rabbi-to-be) David Wolfman. We performed at sites all over Israel like block parties and new immigrant absorption centers, and occasionally at our alma-mater-to-be, Hebrew Union College.

Beged Kefet in our heyday (1999)

Where did we get the name Beged Kefet? Well, first you need to know that it’s a very common Hebrew mnemonic taught to Israeli children in their elementary school grammar classes. “Beged Kefet” indicates the six Hebrew letters that, when they appear at the beginning of a word, receive an added dot (a dagesh) to modify its sound. We chose the name to give our mainly Hebrew-speaking audiences a heads-up that they’d need to be somewhat patient with us as we attempted to speak and perform in our second, their first, language.

When we returned to America, we kept the group, kept the name, added more music, and performed together for another 26 years. Our personnel adjusted slightly because Kyla and David finished their studies in another city, so our ranks were replenished by the addition of (Cantor-to-be) Leon Sher and (Cantor-to-be) Riki Lippitz, and our consiglieri Beth Sher (every band needs an attorney who can sing).

Or Zarua was performed many times during our year in Israel and, before we returned stateside in the Spring of 1983, we made an informal recording of it. Here you can listen to me, Ellen, Les, Benjie, Kyla and David singing it in its original form.

Beged Kefet would record three albums during the years that followed: The First Album, Go Out in Joy, and One Little Dot. But Or Zarua appeared on none of them. Why? Because I never finished writing it. In fact, we never again performed it … until the new recording below.

The text of Or Zarua is lovely. It comes from the 97th Psalm. “Or zarua la’tzadik ul’yishrei lev simcha … light is sown for the righteous and the upright of heart.”

I knew there needed to be another section of music for the song to be complete and I’m not sure why but it would be 40 years before I noticed that the very next verse of Psalm 97 would fit perfectly: “Simchu tzadikim b’Adonai v’hodu l’zecher kodsho … the deeds of the righteous celebrate God; every kindness radiates holiness!” That’s not an exact translation but one, I believe, that conveys the beauty of the text.

A bit more about the text.

If you’ve met me in my work as a rabbi, you likely know that while God is very much at the center of my faith, it’s not a literal belief. I don’t know that God actually exists, but I choose to believe in God because it helps me organize the principles by which I try to live my life. I like thinking that the universe wants us to be good to each other. I also like thinking that the universe feels the goodness that radiates from our acts of love and generosity. Less necessary to me is the notion that the universe will reward us for being good to each other. Frankly, if that’s why we’re doing good things, we’ve already missed the point.

In this video I made with Or Zarua as the score, I’ve provided lots of visual examples of people who are being kind and generous and selfless. They’re being the kind of people that I, in my better moments, would like to be. These are the people who bring light into our world. Light is not only “sown” for them, but they have “sown” light for all of us.

And you know what I say to that? God bless them all!

Ellen and I recorded Or Zarua with our dear friends, The Levins (Ira Levin and Julia Bordenaro), in June 2022. I added a fifth voice — a cello — to join the four of us as a quintet.

Hope you like it.

Billy

The sheet music (lead sheet and/or instrumental parts) is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/or-zarua). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

Old: A State of Mind (in More Ways than You Might Think)

On Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

“Abram went forth as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:4)

Careful there. Reading that first sentence, you might think this is a duplicate of the other D’var Torah I wrote this week (“When I Become Old”).

You wouldn’t be entirely incorrect.

This past August, I stopped by ye olde stomping grounds at Woodlands Community Temple to attend a Shabbat Evening Service. Having retired, I’m no longer on the bimah but I do drop by every now and then. On this particular evening, WCT welcomed Cantor David Frommer who sang (cantors do that!) and he spoke (I love when cantors do that!). It might interest you to know that David has a couple of other titles he uses on occasion. At his place of employment, David is addressed as Chaplain Frommer. On his stationary, it reads, “Maj. David Frommer.” If you want a cool title like that, first become a rabbi or a cantor, then get yourself a commission at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Chaplain Frommer spoke that evening about the privilege of serving his country and how more members of the Jewish community should do so. I wasn’t exactly David’s target audience, but I was really inspired by his words.

Despite the many failures and disappointments in American governance that we hear about each day, I’m deeply proud and grateful to live in the United States. I never served in the military (the Vietnam War-era draft having ended just prior to my 18th birthday) but I did spend a summer in the USO. Our small company performed for American and NATO troops, presenting to hundreds of soldiers on major bases throughout Germany and Italy, and to a dozen or so soldiers at a time who were serving in tiny command posts located in the farthest reaches of the European theater. I felt extremely fortunate to be able say “Thank you for your service” in such an exciting and rewarding manner.

After that evening’s Shabbat service, I sought out Chaplain Frommer and told him how much I enjoyed his presentation and, were I younger, that I might very well have taken him up on his request to enlist. But now counting myself among the long, greying line of the aged (as opposed to “the long grey line” of West Point cadets), the best I could do is offer to help out if he felt there was something I could do for him.

And that’s how I found myself at West Point for lunch this week.

Sixty or so college-age cadets were seated cafeteria-style in the large dining space, buoyantly chatting with each other as they heartily consumed kosher Chinese food from Monsey. It was during their meal that I was introduced and given 25 minutes or so to share some Torah.

While you teachers out there might shudder at the thought of trying to speak to a roomful of young, hungry students while they sat with friends during one of the few breaks in their day, these kids were as polite and attentive as one could ever imagine. And I loved the gone-too-quickly 25 minutes I was able to spend with them.

I began by telling them about my other D’var Torah that I wrote this week for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a piece about getting older and, like Abraham (who the Torah says lived for 175 years), making sure those later years are filled with new experiences built atop a foundation of ever-increasing wisdom.

But, I continued, that’s probably not the most relevant topic for a group of 18-22 year olds. As I began to look for something else in Lech Lecha that I could share with them, it occurred to me that, with a bit of adjustment, these texts, and almost this same point, could work.

My thesis for the cadets was simple: Over time, regardless of age, many of us grow old in a metaphorical manner. We might be stung by disappointment. We might lose our youthful idealism. We might calcify, petrify, and otherwise toughen up into old and hardened ways. We might not become hard-of-hearing, but unhearing. We might not become blind, but unseeing. We might not die, but our feelings might.

I quoted General Colin Powell (not someone who frequently figured in sermons when I was un-retired). “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

I told the cadets that I love this text, because it emphasizes the humanity of the military leader and of the military soldier. Both need to retain their most human emotions and feelings, and respect the same in others.

The young people at West Point are enrolled in program that grooms them to become leaders, militarily for a while and then perhaps something else when their period of service is complete. While they train, it’s crucial that they think about what it means to be a leader. Giving troops the orders that may determine whether young men and women live or die, this is certainly part of the military leader’s job description. But remaining approachable — especially by those whose lives might one day be placed in the line of danger — preserving and nurturing those parts of themselves that will allow a solder to bring them their problems, that is extraordinary leadership.

I served as a congregational rabbi for 34 years, 28 of those years with the same congregation. Throughout that time, I observed in myself, and in other rabbis too, an evolution; namely, that through the repetition of tasks we have mastered, our attitudes can and probably will change. I have hurried people along who shouldn’t have been hurried, not because I was in a hurry (although sometimes I was) but because, owing to my mastery of the tasks at hand, I was able to move more and more quickly. What’s curious here (and what I should have learned far earlier) is that, in my line of work, not only do laypeople not move as quickly as their clergy, ofttimes they don’t want to. The work we do (in my case, as a rabbi officiating at B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, funerals and so much more) includes moments when the everyday rush slows down because these are moments that are too special to rush.

But there I was, this young rabbi who, at times, grew impatient and frustrated when it took more time to bring someone to a place of understanding or completion. I lashed out (perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not) when I felt my time was more important than their experience. And I saw others do this too — other rabbis, as well as doctors, teachers, police officers, salespeople and more.

Life, I told the cadets, isn’t so much about slowing down as about paying attention, taking the time to pay attention. For them, maybe not in the heat of battle, but when they could make the time, take the time, and that it might make a difference. Human lives aren’t only at stake on the battlefield; every moment of contact with another person is a moment during which that person can be ordered, or they can be honored. Admittedly, both can happen at the same time but I hope they understood what I meant.

In Genesis 12:9 we read, “Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” I learned from Onkelos (in preparing my other D’var Torah) that Negev is related to Hebrew verb that means “dry.” The desert is dry. The land after the Flood became dry. And if we’re not careful, we too can “dry.” We can lose our youthful exuberance, our ideals, our sense of sympathy and, yep, our patience. We have so much to offer each other but, in the rush to success, we can lose sight of the purpose of our journey. We pursue grand ambitions (and we should) but because we have “dried,” because we have hardened, we have less and less to offer the people around us.

The I quoted General Douglas MacArthur. “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

There is wisdom that comes with advancement. To these cadets I suggested it was the wisdom of resolving conflict with words rather than with weapons, and what a truly magnificent achievement that is. Soldiers or not, we all face moments of choice between words and weapons, when we can work to resolve differences and disagreements through mutual respect for common hopes and dreams, or we can strive to impose our desired outcome without the hard work of negotiation and compromise.

When I think about the number of heads I butted in my youth, and how much more adept I became, as the years marched on, at working with people to find shared resolutions, I’m so glad I moved in the direction of growing attentiveness and compassion, rather than of well-honed skills alone.

In Genesis 14:14-15, seventy-five year old Abram “heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive. He mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them.”

At a time when that baton would have already been passed and such tasks would belong to a new generation, Abram took note. The new generation was being held captive somewhere and it was up to an old man to save the day.

This is where time and experience pay off, when we understand difference between biding our time and knowing it’s time to act decisively. Whether we are truly old (speak for yourself!) or we are well-seasoned, the key for all of us is to remain inspired and determined, to maintain our principles and integrity from day one (as cadets or rabbis or wherever are skills lie) to day last (as perhaps 5-star generals, CEOs, veteran educators, etc).

Then, as I wrapped things up, I quoted a general one last time. This time, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.”

Time will pass. Perhaps enough time to gray our hair and go on Medicare. Or enough that people have begun to look up to us as the voice of experience and (we should be so lucky) of reason. The trick is to not allow time to pass us by, to do what’s needed to remain strong of principle, of ideals, of conviction, of action. And we need to do so until the day we finish our own service – service to country, to ourselves and those we love, and our service to God.

Shabbat shalom.

Billy

P.S. Many, many thanks to Chaplain David Frommer for inviting me up to West Point. It’s hard to say whether this or my time in the USO was more fun!

When I Become Old

On Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

“Abram went forth as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:4)

Numbers in the Torah are an odd thing. We love that people lived such a long time in that world, but our rational selves don’t buy it because science tells us that, back then, folks probably only lived into their mid-30s.* It’s reasonable then to assume that this age was ascribed to him either because Abraham looked older than he really was, or that he became quite renowned for his remarkable vigor and strength in old age.

So when we read that Abraham (here, referred to as Abram) was 75 when he left Haran, 100 when Isaac was born, and dies at 175, these are probably not literal years but are conveying the idea that he was no spring chicken when important things were happening in his life. We’ll probably never know, but we might be able to learn something from this about our own old age.

I am recently retired. I no longer work full-time. I have Medicare health insurance. I have to be more careful about what I eat and how I move. And I’m positively thrilled to have entered this chapter of my life.

Retirement is often a choice, of course. I know lots of people who continue their careers well into their 70s, their 80s, and some even into their 90s. For those of us who’ve left our workaday world behind, old age (okay, maybe just “advancing age”) can open new vistas that bring incredible excitement and challenge.

Whatever one’s choices during these later years, the opportunities which lie before us can reinvigorate, almost like (dare I say it) a Fountain of Youth! I not only meet each new day with an eagerness I’ve not felt since my twenties, I am savoring every day in ways I’d just not had time for when I was younger.

There’s a price, of course, for growing older. A friend of mine tells me all the time, “Old age isn’t for sissies.” The aches and pains, the doctor’s appointments, the unfortunate dismissiveness-because-I’m-old by some — all these are ever-present and incontrovertible evidence that we too, like Abraham, have arrived to an advanced age.

In 12:9, we read, “Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” Onklelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic, understands negev (in Gen 8:13), when describing the receded waters following Noah’s flood, as meaning “dry.” Onkelos’ point is that the Negev is a desert, not too far away from viewing advancing age as a time when life “dries,” when we lose our youthful appearance and have little to offer the world around us. But while Abraham may be experiencing the inevitable physical progression of aging, our story makes clear that his life is anything but “dry.”

A bit later in the parasha (in 13:8-9) we read, “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herders and yours, for we are kin. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate. If you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go north.’” Rashi asserts that not only has Abraham come to value the art of compromise, he also works hard to preserve the relationship he has with his nephew. Rashi rewrites this verse as, “Wherever you settle down I will not go far from you and I will stand by you as a shield and as a helper.”

There is wisdom that comes with advancing age. And the wisdom of resolving conflict, rather than reaching for weapons, is truly a beautiful (and far more reassuring) thing to behold. When I think about the number of heads I have butted in my youth, and how much more adept I became, as the years marched on, at working with people to find shared resolutions, I know that I wouldn’t want to be any other age than the one I am right now.

Lastly, in 14:14-15, we read, “When Abram heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them.”

Whatever the man’s age, there was plenty of fight still in him. His nephew had been taken captive and Abraham wouldn’t stand for it. A time for action had arrived and he would lead his retinue into the breach to restore justice and order.

Old age definitely does not mean checked out. Take at look at these late-achievers:

• In 2011, Minoru Saito from Japan sailed non-stop, by himself, around the world at the age of 77.

• In 2012, Yuichiro Miura, also from Japan, became the oldest person to conquer Mount Everest. He was 80 years old.

• In 2010, Nola Ochs, at age 98, became the oldest person to receive a master’s degree from Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

• In 2007, Leonid Hurwicz of Minneapolis received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in mechanism design. He was 90 years old.

• And one of my very favorites, in 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown in England, Captain Sir Thomas Moore celebrated his 100th birthday by asking for pledges as he walked 100 lengths of his garden. He raised more than $37,000,000 for the National Health Service.

No matter what fights our body may give us as we age, there can be plenty of fight left in us. We may relish the calm, quiet which we’ve settled into but, when it’s needed, there’s a tiger that can be let loose.

Lech Lecha is best known for God’s command to Abraham, “Lech lecha … go!” These words initiated the greatest adventures of Abraham’s life at a time we might dismiss as being past any period of productivity. Well, as the Gershwins told us, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Abraham has shown us that, regardless of age, we can literally change the direction of the world.

Half a lifetime ago, when I was thirty-one and performing with a music group called Beged Kefet, I wrote a song entitled, “When I Become Old.” I considered it a declaration of human rights for the aged. Thirty-four years later, I’m finally in a good position to critique my younger self’s efforts to understand what old age might be like.

Here’s what I wrote:

When I become old, I want to live
Where I can keep my self-respect.
When I become old, I want to know
I won’t be cut down by others’ neglect.

People are the same, we’re all people.
We’ve got rights that are basic,
Regardless of whether we’re female or male
Or we’re black or we’re white.
To tell me I can’t ‘cuz I’m old, isn’t right.

When I become old,
I want to work, have a career, ply at a trade.
Or maybe instead, I’ll volunteer,
Reach out to those alone and afraid.

People have a right to contribute
To the world that we live in.
Regardless of whether we’re tall or we’re short
Or we’re weak or we’re strong,
To tell me I can’t ‘cuz I’m old, simply is wrong!

Find me a place. Open your heart.
Give me a chance. Let me become a part
Of my life and my dreams.
Let me be more than it seems that I could ever be.

People, these aren’t just other people.
If you look in the mirror,
The person you see may be selfish or kind
Or in prison or free.
But that person will one day be old.
That person is you. That person is me.

When I become old,
I pray to God the prayers of my youth
Will not be denied.
When I become old,
I hope that old doesn’t mean … I merely … survived.

The way I figure it, if God felt that Abraham wasn’t too old to start a new career (creating Judaism) or have kids (Ishmael and Isaac), you and I shouldn’t think we’re too old to pursue our own dreams.

And you youngsters out there, don’t think for a moment that you’ll be too old to pursue your dreams either. In many respects, you’ll be just getting started!

Shabbat shalom,
Billy

You can listen to Beged Kefet perform “When I Become Old.”

*en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

Fix the World – Try Not to Get Swallowed

“Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram” by Gustav Dore (1832–1883)

“The ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16:31-32)

Rebellion sure does get a bad rap in the Torah.

Perhaps the condemnation was well-deserved. After all, Korach gathered two hundred and fifty well-positioned leaders of the Israelite community to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership. “Why do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” they railed. (Num. 16:3)

Midrash Tanchuma (Korach 4) blames it on nepotism. “If you have taken royal rank for yourself, you should at least not have chosen the priesthood for your brother — it is not you alone who have heard at Sinai, ‘I am Adonai your God.’ All the congregation heard it!”

Sforno thinks Korach’s 250 followers infiltrated the crowds that awaited meetings with Moses, seeking to incite them. Then, when Korach besieged Moses and Aaron, he would have a sympathetic, if not outright zealous, entourage.

Ibn Ezra perceived Korach, in a lie worthy of Donald Trump, as accusing the brothers of political corruption and greed. Granted, we only know what we read in the Torah, but it sure seems to me that the Israelites would have been hard-pressed to find two more selfless servants of God.

But none of that is actually in the Torah. All we know is that Korach rebelled. So why don’t we sympathize with, rather than spurn, Korach? After all, we ourselves live in a nation that embraces the right, even the responsibility, of public protest. Is that not an important demonstration of the freedom of expression and dissent upon which this nation was founded? “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (1st Amendment, U.S. Constitution) If we value having the right to say what’s on our mind, why not accord this same right to Korach?

We are certainly living through (please, God, let it be “through” and not just “in”) an era of rampant rebellion. Here in the United States, we continue watching in embarrassment and disbelief and profound concern as Donald Trump twists the truth to his own ends, while his opportunist supporters of a stolen election continue to dismiss the hateful violence of January 6, 2021, in order to ride the populist wave to their own election victories. As distasteful a person as Trump is, what roils me even moreso is that he lies about it, and he lies so boisterously that people don’t think twice about believing him.

Now add to this equation Anti-Vaxxers, Pizzagate, the 9/11 Conspiracy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School Conspiracy, and The Great Replacement theory.

There is a widespread proliferation these days of made-up tales regarding myriad issues. And while such balderdash has been around throughout American history (think Salem witch trials, the Illuminati, and McCarthyism), it is perhaps cable television and social media that have made the ridiculous into truly frightening threats. As we all witnessed on January 6, 2021, the wide reach of conspiracy theorists enabled a gathering of like-minded, ill-informed people to break down the doors of the U.S. Capitol and place the integrity of our entire democracy at risk in their attempt to disrupt the election process.

The lesson is clear: People who are in a position that commands the respect and allegiance of a multitude, they have a particular responsibility to refrain from abusing that position.

While it’s difficult to get a complete and accurate read from the Torah of what exactly transpired when Korach stood against Moses and Aaron, it seems (in my opinion) as if Korach’s sin was not that he rebelled but that he used his position of considerable influence to manipulate and exploit those who looked up to him. Great Torah Study discussions often leave much unresolved but, in the end, we should walk away with a strengthened understanding of how we can help make the world a safer, kinder home for everybody.

So here’s what Korach’s story is saying to me: If you’re going to rebel, make sure you do so for the right reasons.

Andrée Geulen holding two of the children she saved

Which brings me to Andrée Geulen, who was a schoolteacher in Brussels, Belgium, during World War II.

Upon invading and occupying the country in 1940, the Nazis deported and murdered 25,000 of Belgium’s 65,000 Jews. Among the many laws imposed during the occupation, Jews were required to wear yellow stars on their clothing. Geulen, who was teaching primary-grade children in a boarding school at the time, distributed aprons to all of her students in order to cover the stars that had been forced upon her fearful Jewish students.

This was only the beginning for Andrée Geulen. Soon, she was enlisted and became one of very few non-Jewish members of the Committee for the Defense of Jews. From 1943 to 1944, she sought out Jewish families and pleaded with them to let her take their children and place them in hiding for the duration of the war. Amazingly, she was able to save the lives of three hundred Jewish children.

After the Holocaust, Geulen became involved with the relief organization Aid for Israelite Victims of the War, seeking to reunite with their families as many of these “hidden children” as possible.

In 2007, Andrée Geulen was awarded honorary Israeli citizenship. During the ceremony at Yad Vashem, Geulen said, “What I did was merely my duty. Disobeying the laws of the time was just the normal thing to do.” (“Woman Honored for Saving Kids from Nazis,” Associated Press, April 18, 2007)

This was the rebellion of Andrée Geulen.

People in positions of prominence and power usually don’t like rebels. They’re often a nuisance and, whether they’re correct in their grievances or not, they’re a threat to the status quo. In my own career as a rabbi, I was from time to time on the receiving end of a few rebellions having to do with our B’nai Mitzvah program, the temple budget, and even what was served at the Friday night Oneg. And if these don’t sound very significant to you, try to imagine what it might feel like to have someone publicly and forcefully excoriate you and your team. I actually preferred it when they were right and we could apologize and implement the proper corrections. That was far preferable to having to mount a campaign that would publicly and forcefully demonstrate our innocence.

In the end, public dissent is a vital ingredient to the preservation of freedom. And when freedom has been squashed, it’s a vital ingredient to the sacred work of restoring freedom. Amanda Gorman writes, “The point of protest isn’t winning — it’s holding fast to the promise of freedom, even when fast victory is not promised.” (“Fury and Faith,” Amanda Gorman, Call Us What We Carry, Viking Books, December 2021)

But there’s a fragile line between righteous protest and self-serving manipulation.

Donald Trump represents one of these. Andrée Geulen represents the other. She died just last month at the age of one hundred. Her memory and the legacy of her rebellion will always be for a blessing.

This piece was originally published online by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Thank You! (Final Sermon @ WCT, Jun 25, 2021)

This past Friday, I said goodbye to my congregation of twenty-six years. It’s been a wonderful adventure. These are my words before departing.

*         *          *

In 1986, when I was Woodlands’ rabbinic intern, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro invited me to explore whether or not temple members might like to participate in Hands Across America, whose goal was to bring millions of us together in an unprecedented attempt to form a continuous human chain across the country.

While the chain wasn’t quite complete, participants did raise about $15 million to feed and shelter America’s families in need. Back here at Woodlands, we filled three school buses which were supposed to drop us onto the George Washington Bridge. We only managed to get as far as the ramp leading up to the bridge, but it was still pretty exciting. If I hadn’t yet fallen in love with this temple, I certainly had by the end of that day.

Pretty much every intern who’s ever been lucky enough to spend time at Woodlands has dreamed of coming back as its rabbi. When I actually succeeded in doing that back in 1995, I received messages from many past interns letting me know that I was carrying all of their dreams with me.

That’s the effect that your synagogue has on people. There’s a reason Cantor Jonathan was here for 22 years. There’s a reason I’ve been here for 26 years. And there’s a reason that Rabbi Mara’s internship just kept morphing into new roles for her. We all stayed because we love this place.

At one time or another, you’ve probably heard mention of “The Woodlands Way.” It’s the special sauce that makes so many of us cherish this place. And while there’s absolutely no agreement as to what that “sauce” is, it leads us all to the same conclusion: Woodlands Community Temple … makom shelibi oheyv … it’s the place that our hearts hold dear.

When I was attending rabbinical school, I had two dreams about the congregations I would serve. First is the one we all had, let it be a place we like — which isn’t as easy to find as you might think. And God knows, some of you have given me quite a few challenges through the years but, on balance, Woodlands is just about as easy-going as a synagogue could possibly be. There are, of course, wisdoms for clergy to acquire that has made living with y’all possible. But once those had been learned – and admittedly, it took me far longer to do so than it did either Cantor Jonathan or Rabbi Mara – Woodlands became what constituted my second dream while in rabbinical school: to stay in one congregation for a generation.

And that’s what I’ve done — what you’ve allowed me to do. I’ve blessed your babies, blessed your Consecrants, blessed your B’nai Mitzvah, your Confirmands, your Graduates, and blessed your brides and grooms. I’ve sat with you in hospitals and stood with you in cemeteries. We’ve learned together, celebrated together, cried together, and worked to change the world together.

That’s what it means to stay in one congregation for a generation. And I am so lucky to have done that, and to have done that here at Woodlands.

I’ve had many favorite moments across the years, and I couldn’t possibly list them all. But here are just a few of them.

The Million Mom March in 2000, the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, and the Darfur Rally in 2006, all in DC. Our very first visual t’filah in 2006. Traveling to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in 2007 to help with Katrina Relief, and the fact that the project continued annually for ten years. Israel trips. Tent Sales. Hevra Torah. Talmud Study. The Christmas Eve Midnight Run. Thanksgiving Morning cooking (and how it always took me most of the morning to get the Macy’s Parade onscreen for us). Exotic Shabbat, nine Friday nights between 1996 and 2003 that we dedicated to laughter. Seventh Grade Family Torah. The night in 2002 when we said goodbye to the old sanctuary. Moving the temple offices into Elmsford while the temple was being renovated in 2002, and a prospective wedding couple asking me if I could prove I was really a rabbi. Everything interfaith: from shared learning to shared grieving, responding to Charlottesville with the Rivertowns Rally Against Hate, an interdenominational babynaming during the Friday night after the Tree of Life shooting. sTorahtelling. Hanukkah 2006 when WoodSY hijacked our Shabbat service to replace the Ner Tamid with a more energy-efficient bulb. The arrival of A Joyful Noise in 2007. Yoga Shabbat. Nashir, a national teen songleading program that landed several times here at Woodlands. Sharing with you the incredible story of the Yanov Torah, and your overwhelming response that resulted in bringing the Azizi family to America from Afghanistan. The fun we had when Shavuot fell on Memorial Day weekend and we replaced services and learning with “The Sinai Challenges” on the front lawn. Texting Shabbat in 2017 when we forced you to use your phones during services! Placing the “All are Welcome Here” sign on our front lawn when the Trump administration began slamming gates everywhere else. Mitzvah Hero Training before Jammin’ Shabbat. After Super Storm Sandy in 2012, Mara and I opening the Ark for Alenu only to find it empty because we’d forgotten to return the scrolls from safe storage. Michael Ochs and Alaa Alshaham, a Jew and a Palestinian on our bimah for Shabbat in 2014, and hearing Jewish prayers sung, for the very first time in our lives, in Arabic. Then there was everything we did for each during the pandemic. And of course, everything you did for me and my family when Jonah died, including the Jonah Maccabee Concert which not only brings great Jewish music to Woodlands and raises much-needed funds to help kids get to URJ summer programs, but ensures that Jonah’s memory lives on.

While those may be some of my favorite moments, they’re still just the tip of the iceberg. In twenty-six years, there have been tons of holidays, High Holy Days, Shabbat services, adult ed classes, Confirmation classes, stories at religious school t’filah, committee meetings, family meetings, pastoral meetings, and the list goes on and on and on. Which I mention not at all to brag, but to thank. A job like this has never been doable by one person. The support that I have had every step of the way has been invaluable and crucial. And so, here are a few thank yous that must get said.

First, my family. First and last and everywhere in between – my sweet, loving, precious family. No one has given more to this temple than you. The number of times I have had to leave you, the number of times I haven’t come home, the number of times you’ve taken a back seat so I could take care of someone else, and the number of times you have supported me when things got a mite heavy around here. I owe you everything. And for that I give you my thanks, my love, and this promise: From here on out, it all gets dropped for you.

For perhaps the first time in twenty-six years, you all take a backseat to them. But only a backseat. Because I owe you all so much too, for helping me succeed, helping me grow, helping me take care of you, helping me help you to build vibrant Jewish life at Woodlands.

And so I thank my temple presidents: Lois Green, Maxine Howard, Lance Rosenthal, David Fligel, Chuck Fishman, Rochelle Stolzenberg, Stu Berlowitz, Dayle Fligel and Andy Farber. Only your Boards know how much work you do around here. It’s unbelievable what you do. And I am grateful for every bit of it.

I thank my temple Boards. You have partnered with me to ensure Woodlands has stayed strong, weathered the bad, and built a spiritual home for thousands upon thousands through the years.

I thank everyone who’s ever worked in the office, from Renee Doynow and Marilyn Alper to, most recently, Liz Rauchwerger, Marjorie Mattel and Michelle Montague. All of you have kept this place on an even keel, making sure every staffperson and clergyperson has what they need, making sure every volunteer has what they need, and making sure every congregant is cared for in their moment of need.

I thank the three men who have cared for our building in the years that I’ve been here: Dominick DeFabritis, German Franco and Hernando Carmona.

I thank my Joyful Noise family. You guys have been so much fun. And you’ve let me push you around; I think you’re the only ones at Woodlands who’ve let me do that. Thank you for making music with me. And thank you for sticking with me … for fourteen years! What a treat and a delight you have been.

I thank my cantors: Cantor Julie Yugend-Green, Cantor Jonathan Gordon and Cantor Lance Rhodes. And Cantor Ellen Dreskin. Because she’s a cantor. Because she actually was my cantor during my interim year. And because, well, she’s my wife – and nothing beats that!

I thank my Directors of Cong’l Learning: Cantor Ellen Dreskin (yep, that interim year), Harriet Levine and Rabbi Mara Young. An army may march on its stomach, but a synagogue? On its kids. The care you have given them, the learning you have provided them, and the calm reassurance with which you have swaddled their parents – you are a mighty army of your own. Your deeds have been feats of magic, and our congregation owes you so much. As do I.

I thank my Directors of Youth Engagement: Scott Newman, Ross Glinkenhouse, Tara Levine and Lily Mandell. Just the other day, I was speaking with Rabbi Jonathan Stein, who had been my youth group advisor when I was in high school, telling him that one of the strongest, most persistent reasons I became a rabbi was to pay back some synagogue for what mine was able to do for me when I was young. Scott, Ross, Tara and Lily, thank you for giving our teens the safe and loving place of experiential learning that every young person needs while growing up. More than anyone else, you guys have been my proxies, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thank you to my summer interns: Rabbi Josh Davidson, Rabbi Serena Fujita, Rabbi Craig Axler, Rabbi Judith Siegal, Rabbi Rachel Shafran, Rabbi Rachel Maimin, Rabbi Andy Dubin and Rabbi Andi Feldman Fliegel. Yes, you were a nuisance. You made me work harder during the only time of year we might have slowed down around here. But you were also the only interns who got to be around full-time, who got to go to hospitals with me, and to cemeteries. And you made me feel wonderful for being able to share all of that with you.

Thank you to my year-round interns: Rabbi Fred Greene, Rabbi Leora Kaye, Rabbi Darren Levine, Rabbi Vicki Armour-Hileman, Rabbi Erin Glazer, Rabbi Mara Young, Rabbi Dan Geffen, Rabbi Jason Fenster, Rabbi Deena Gottlieb and Rabbi Zach Plesent. I’m so glad to have shared with you the essence of this amazing synagogue, and to be able to send you out into the world and carry the spirit of Woodlands far and wide.

And to all of you who made it possible through your pledges for me to have these interns, I shall always be especially grateful. It’s been well-known how much I love our intern program, and how much the interns have enriched my time at Woodlands. But we also know how much our congregation enjoys having these young whippersnappers around here, watching them grow, and sending them off to their careers, feeling like we’ve done something really important to get them ready to be rabbis. We have. So please, make sure Rabbi Mara can have her interns too.

A word about Corey Friedlander. He most certainly should have become a rabbi. But instead, he decided to spend his career selling toggle bolts. A strange choice, but lucky us. Because of his not serving the congregations that would have benefitted so enormously from his leadership, this has been our great fortune. And mine as well. Thank you, Corey. We called you Shaliakh K’hilah but, truthfully, I still don’t know what to call you. I’m just glad you’ve been here. Thank you.

And a word about Cantor Jonathan Gordon. For twenty-two years, this man ridiculed and embarrassed me in front of my congregation. In spite of that, because of this man’s humanity and his poetic, principled soul, he never let me forget that I had important work to do. He supported me, guided me, and comforted me. Together, we did a whole lot more than joke around; we reminded us all that we are, first and foremost, human beings. We are flawed, but we are capable of doing great things. Highest among them, sholom … peace. Thank you, my friend.

I need also to thank all of the other rabbis who have served this congregation across the years: Rabbi Dan Isaac, Rabbi Samuel Kehati, Rabbi Stephen Forstein, Rabbi Sandy Ragins, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and Rabbi Avi Magid. They not only paved the way for me. They helped you to create this amazing little synagogue. They cleared the way for the Woodlands Way, and we are all forever in their debt.

Which brings me to Rabbi Mara Young. People have always given me more credit for being clever than I’ve ever deserved. I’m continually asked if there was some master plan for bringing Mara on as my successor. Yeah, that plan took shape at a Board meeting last August when I announced my retirement and, fifteen minutes later, the Board had offered the position to Mara. Prior to that, we hired her as our intern, then as our sabbatical rabbi, then as our rabbi-educator. Each and every time, we just kept falling in love with her all over again. We watched her learn, watched her do, and watched her be a perfect fit for Woodlands. No master plan. Just a gradually evolving understanding at each step of the way: “She’s right for us.”

For me personally, Mara, I can only say what a delight it has been to work with you these twelve years. To have a rabbinic partner – not just any partner, but one with character, with integrity, with brains, with a kind heart, a creative spirit, and who has enjoyed being here – what a privilege that has been. And to now walk away from this place and know it’s all going to be great, that you and your team are going to carry Woodlands to unimaginable new heights, that’s the best retirement gift of them all.

Okay, I need to end this thing, my last sermon. I think I’ll do so by invoking the words of President Barack Obama. Recently, he’s been recording a podcast called “Renegades” with Bruce Springsteen. In one episode, Springsteen asks when Obama first thought he’d want to run for president.

Obama responded, “If you’re doing it right, running for President is not actually about you. It’s about finding the chorus, finding the collective.”

He talks about visiting a town in South Carolina, to which he’s gone to get the endorsement of a particular state legislator. It’s a long drive, Obama’s down in the polls, it’s pouring rain, and there’s a bad article about him in the New York Times.

So when he walks into whatever center he was appearing at, he’s in a bad mood. But as he’s shaking people’s hands, he hears a woman’s voice chanting, “Fired up? Fired up! Ready to go? Ready to go!”

It turned out to be this wonderful woman named Edith Childs. She had a great smile, a pretty flamboyant dress and hat, and apparently a habit of chanting, “Fired up! Ready to go!”

Obama first thought, “This is crazy.” But everybody was doing it, so he thought, “I better do it too.” And little by little, he started feeling kind of good.

Later, when Obama left that town center, he asked his staff, “Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?” And that’s when he discovered that when you’re doing something hard that you care about, other people will lift you up.

Which is what this congregation has done for me. Again and again, you’ve lifted me up. When the work was exhausting, you reenergized me. When the work was frustrating, you appreciated me. When the work was saddening, you gave me back my smile. And when the work was successful, we reveled in our success together.

If this congregation is great – and it is – it’s because we have done this together. We have loved this place, we have cared for this place, we have kept it strong. And now, you will do the very same with Mara, and with Lance, Abby, Avital and Lara. With Andy, with his Board of Trustees, with all of your committees, and just by showing up, saying hi, and lending a hand. That is always what has made Woodlands. Maybe it’s the Woodlands Way, I don’t know. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the Woodlands Way is, only that each of you knows there must be a special sauce, a special secret, and you keep loving that and you keep treasuring that and you keep sharing it with the next family that walks through these doors.

For all of these moments, and for ten thousand more like them, thank you. I am so blessed to have been here. And that blessing will most assuredly sustain me throughout the journey to come.

At last Friday’s service, Mara blessed me with words that I now use to bless you.

A man was traveling through the desert, hungry, thirsty, and tired, when he came upon a tree bearing luscious fruit and affording plenty of shade, underneath which ran a spring of water. He ate of the fruit, drank of the water, and rested in its shade. When he was about to leave, he turned to the tree and said, “Oh, tree, with what should I bless you? Should I bless you that your fruit be sweet? Your fruit is already sweet. Should I bless you that your shade be plentiful? Your shade is plentiful. That a spring of water should run beneath you? A spring runs strong and true beneath you. But there is one thing with which I can bless you. May it be God’s will that all the trees planted from your seed should be like you.”

Woodlands Community Temple. You have given birth to so many fulfilling spiritual moments in your members’ lives. May it be God’s will that you continue bringing such blessings into our world. God knows, we need them. And may it be God’s will, Woodlands, that all of us who have benefitted from your gifts, may we be your seedlings, and bestow upon others the blessings you have given us. And in that way, your blessings will be your great legacy for countless decades yet to come.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

MLK Day … What’s to Celebrate?

Growing up in Cincinnati in the early 1960s, we had exactly one television in our home. It was in my parents’ bedroom and it was black-and-white, not color. While Disney’s 1961 offering, The Wonderful World of Color, helped the sale of color TV sets, color did not actually overtake black-and-white until 1970.

Yep, that’s me in the picture. What do you think, five years old? So that’d be about 1962.

When Star Trek first aired in 1966, I was nine years old. We watched it on the TV set you can see there in my parents’ room (which was okay because that was also the only room with an air conditioner). The television picture was black-and-white.

Star Trek, as you know, follows the crew of the U.S. Starship Enterprise whose five-year mission was to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man (later, “no one”) had gone before. As it turned out, Star Trek took us to some pretty exotic places and it became pretty clear to most viewers that none of those places were in outer space but actually were right here on earth. Captain James T. Kirk and crew explored issues of racism, religious fanaticism, human rights, sexism, feminism, and nuclear warfare.

For me, who at nine years old understood little of the contemporary parallels that Star Trek had been throwing my way, when Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura shared a romantic kiss, it was the first time in my young life that a black person and a white person had smooched.

The world was changing. A ton of that change would be for the better, and I was growing up right in the middle of it!

By the way, Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura (on the left there), was thinking of leaving Star Trek after its first season. None other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, however, convinced her to stay. Dr. King, it turned out, was a devoted fan of Star Trek and told Nichols that she was breaking new ground in her role, showing African-Americans what was possible for them.

Not just as Capt. Kirk’s romantic interest, but as a person of color who served as a commissioned officer on the bridge of the Enterprise. Okay, so she had to wear a mini-skirt. You can’t win all your battles at one time, can you?

In this week’s parasha, we begin the book of Shemot, Exodus, which of course retells the epic saga of the Israelites’ own bold forty-year mission to also boldly go where they’d not been in a long, long time. Namely, to the Promised Land, the land of freedom.

How poetic it is tonight to begin on Martin Luther King Shabbat the tale of our people’s ancient rise from oppression, which will culminate three months from now with our annual Passover celebration of our people’s freedom and, because of that even in our ancestors’ lives, our ever-renewing commitment to all people’s freedom.

America isn’t perfect. While most of us share a common vision of the United States as a land that should provide opportunity and self-determination, some employ ideas of intolerance and bigotry en route to fulfilling their personal dreams. Thank God for the United States Constitution whose Bill of Rights strives, even as it bumps into a variety of challenging interpretations, strives to offer every American essential protections – like free speech and religious freedom – that while not every American yet enjoys the full complement of our nation’s protections, we’re inching our way there and the promise of such freedom for all remains a possibility and a realistic goal.

As we celebrate the advancements toward full participation in American society regardless of superficial differences between us, we can certainly note how many times we’ve fallen short, but we mustn’t forget the victories either. They remain the key evidence that we might yet reach the goal of truly offering the American dream to every American citizen.

Growing up in Cincinnati, every elementary school student had to study the history of Ohio.

Now while that might not sound very interesting to you, do note that Cincinnati sat right on the northern bank of the Ohio River. On the other side was Kentucky.

So in the late-1700s until Emancipation in 1863, an escaped slave could set their sights on getting into my hometown, a transportation hub (so to speak) for the Underground Railroad, America’s secret network of travel routes which, if you “follow the drinkin’ gourd,” the star formation of the Big Dipper, you could head steadily northward to safety and freedom. It’s been estimated that more than 100,000 slaves escaped via the Underground Railroad, an undertaking that took the brave participation of hundreds, if not thousands, of “conductors,” “station managers” and more – whites and free blacks – who acted selflessly to free as many as they could until America came to its senses and abolished slavery altogether.

For a Cincinnati kid, other than Skyline Chili and Graeter’s Ice Cream, nothing makes me prouder of my midwest upbringing. And at this dangerous moment for America’s immigrant population, that Woodlands is considering becoming a temporary refuge, a stop on a new Underground Railroad if you will, for immigrant families who fear arrest and deportation, not much could make me feel prouder were this congregation to choose to do such a brave thing.

Also a favorite moment of mine in the leveling of human indifference in America is the New Deal. While this wasn’t a Cincinnati deal, and it was well in place long before I was even born, the New Deal – a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between the years 1933 and 1939 – changed this country as it struggled to emerge from the Great Depression, providing support for farmers, the unemployed, young people and old people through the Works Progress Administration, fair housing standards, the creation of a minimum wage, and Social Security, which allowed for the possibility that old age wouldn’t have to be a time of poverty and despair.

For me, the New Deal represents some of America’s greatest possibilities, that every American can be assisted and lifted up by our united efforts, that our government can be a source of progressive, color-blind policies that help everyone, not just the advantaged and not even just the disadvantaged. The New Deal represented an America that cared for everyone, and that benefited from everyone’s contribution toward truly making this country a home for all.

In 1969, I was twelve years old, far too old and sophisticated to be caught watching Sesame Street, which began airing that year. We still only had a few TV channels and PBS was on the UHF channel so there was no guarantee it would even come in clearly. But something special was happening on that hazy frequency, and I wouldn’t really get to know about it until 1975 while participating in an video production internship and we analyzed episodes of Sesame Street in order to learn how to create educational television.

Across the years, Sesame Street would teach us about the natural and un-offensive beauty of breastfeeding as popular singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie introduced her son, who carried the exotic and impressive name Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild, lovingly and tenderly became the first baby to ever be nursed on national television. President Bill Clinton and Kami, an HIV-positive muppet, delivered a stereotype-busting message about having friends with AIDS. There have been episodes that introduced the young audience to a boy with Down syndrome, a child explaining the parts of her wheelchair, a muppet whose dad was incarcerated in jail, an Afghani Muppet who promoted girls’ rights and the importance of providing them with an education. In the 1980s, characters Susan and Gordon Robinson announced that they’d adopted a son named Miles, and in 2006, “Gina” announced she was adopting a little boy from Guatemala. And perhaps our favorite muppet, Julia, who has autism and was created by Woodlands member Leslie Kimmelman, joined the Sesame Street cast. With these episodes, characters and so much more, Sesame Street has championed diversity and inclusion, introducing the youngest members of American society to these vital understandings about the beauty of difference, and the essential commonalities that persist between us all.

Let me share with you one more shining moment in the history of America’s march toward becoming a gleaming beacon of acceptance and hope. It actually started in Europe during the 19th century but gradually found its way to America, actually, you guessed it, to Cincinnati! That’s the temple where I grew up. While it wasn’t the first Reform congregation in America (that was in Charleston, South Carolina), it was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise who came to Cincinnati, wrote the first Reform prayerbook, founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), built Plum Street Temple, established Hebrew Union College to educate and ordain American rabbis, and founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis which gave these HUC graduates an avenue for mentorship and support throughout their careers.

But while Cincinnati was the place where a lot of this was happening, it was the ideas of Reform Judaism that made its greatest contribution to American society. With its emphasis on democratic values that included full participation of all (with no preferential treatment for kohanim and levi’im), equal participation of women alongside men, and a powerful passion for tikkun olam, for working toward the betterment of life for every member of the human family, Reform Judaism has become an expression of the very best of American values, and what can come to pass when religion is encouraged to express its individual ideas through the prism and crucible of a nation that expects its citizenry to rise to its greatest potential for building a world that supports and respects all of its inhabitants.

Every year, when Martin Luther King Day arrives, I thank my lucky stars to be living in a country that sets its sights for the loftiest of dreams, that learns from its mistakes, and that continually strives to build a nation that stands firmly on a foundation of acceptance, understanding and, barring the wholesale acceptance of those first two, on hope … that the day will come when we complete the building of a United States that offers these promises to everyone.

Dr. King, with his life and with his death, taught me to value dreams and to take steps each and every day toward bring the dreams to fruition. On this Martin Luther King Shabbat, I hope you will reaffirm and recommit to these ideals.

While spending the first year of my rabbinic education in Israel, I stumbled across a book entitled Touching Heaven, Touching Earth, inside of which I first encountered one of the most powerful and continually challenging stories our Jewish tradition has ever offered me. Rabbi Moshe Leib, the Zaddik of Sassov, was known for his love of all people. One night, when heavy snow was falling outside, he heard someone tap at the window of his small room. Moshe Leib looked up and saw a strange man dressed in tatters, lacerations on his hands and face, and a gleam of madness in his eyes. The rebbe hesitated for a moment, considering whether to allow such a man into his house. But then he thought, “If there is room for someone like that in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.” And with that, he opened his door and welcomed the man in.

It has been taught, kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od … all the world is but a bridge. We must all walk it together. That can be scary and dangerous. Our fellow travelers are not always very nice to us, or to others whom we meet along the way. We may be frightened but we mustn’t let that stop us. Not only must we travel the bridge, but we must conduct ourselves appropriately along the way. If we will do that, not only will we quite likely feel better about ourselves, but we’ll probably also enjoy the honor of sharing that feeling with others who are also witnessing the betterment of their lives. If any of us are looking for a team to be on, that’d be the team I’d want to choose.

Happy birthday, Dr. King. You may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten. Thank you for your gifts to the entire human family, the possibility of making this nation, and perhaps one day the entire world, a home to be shared in trust, in kindness, and in love.

Watching a bunch of small sticks and leaves being pushed along in a the waters of a local river, tumbling around one bend only to be caught as it navigated another, an observer was overheard saying, “Clearly we are not in control of where our lives are going.” But another responded, saying, “Yes, but we are nevertheless responsible for how we conduct ourselves along the way.”

May we ever be inspired by the courageous actions of individuals and communities who have staked their very lives on our responsibilities to care for one another. And whether the journey is easy or tough, we are to take it together, helping one another along the way and, should we be so fortunate as to form bonds of friendship with our fellow travelers, to enjoy moments of respite and maybe even a celebration when that old bridge finally meets the other side and we can rejoice that we’ve done our best to help one another along the way.

Billy

October 27, 2018 … A Year Later, Now What?

A year ago, both tragedy and profound beauty struck at the heart of the United States of America. On a Shabbat morning in October, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, fear and sadness blanketed their lives, rapidly sending tremors of concern and shared sympathy across our nation and across the world. One week later, hundreds of synagogues hosted crowded services that were attended by Americans of every stripe who simply wanted to stand and be counted among the kind and inclusive of our nation.

Here at Woodlands, we named a baby. Camila Chesterson, daughter of Tiffany and Jedd, had been born on October 21, just thirteen days earlier, and was only expecting one of her rabbis to bless her. Instead, while she did get a rabbi, she found the hands of a Christian and a Muslim were blessing her as well. It was a beautiful, powerful moment and the first of many responses that we and so many others have made, and will continue to make, whenever hate tries to ruin people’s lives.

On a related note, our sukkah fell down. Again. A year ago, one good storm sent it toppling. This year, we were certain no rains would bring it down. But we didn’t expect as hard a rain and as unyielding a wind to ravage our harvest home, and down it came a second time. But don’t you fret. Next year, we’ll be back, and better than ever!

Our fallen sukkah is as good a metaphor as any for the difficulties and challenges this nation finds itself confronting in recent times. As wonderful as America has been for us, for our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents, and for new Americans everywhere, it takes a special kind of vigilance to ensure that the rights enshrined in our Constitution remain strong and protected. Not only must legal and political vigilance be maintained, but how we treat one another, including people who may not like us, may very well be the keystone that locks America’s humanity into place.

Consider this.

In 2017, when the current administration first enacted a travel ban preventing entry into the United States by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, mass protests appeared at airports throughout the nation, with pro bono lawyers climbing over each other to provide representation to individuals and families who had arrived from those countries by plane only to find themselves unable to enter. The response was swift, merciful, just and unforgettable.

When America’s sukkah of welcoming shelter was toppled by the hard-hearted winds of xenophobia, crews appeared almost out of nowhere to set that sukkah upright again. At the very moment when so many of us thought America’s soul had been overrun, we learned just how amazing the citizens of this nation can be.

Perhaps the most compelling story that I’ve heard of acting against hate comes from a man name Daryl Davis, a blues musician who, after a set one evening, found himself talking to a man who’d never heard a person of color play the blues. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. To which Davis replied, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” The man objected, “Jerry Lee invented it. I’ve never heard a black man except for you play like that.” And as Daryl Davis spoke about the music of Fats Domino and Little Richard, the other man interrupted, saying, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.” “How is that possible,” asked Davis. Came the reply, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

So began Daryl Davis’ travels across the United States, welcoming the opportunity to speak with members of the Klan, starting as enemies, in time always finding commonalities that then became the basis for a relationship, and then a friendship. In time, because of Daryl Davis’ willingness to meet his enemy, more than two hundred of these men gave up their robes. Davis would ask, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” He’s been a good salesman, that’s for sure. But Daryl Davis wasn’t selling Toyotas; he was selling love.

Here’s a photo of Daryl Davis standing with Richard Preston, who participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago. Here you can see the two of them visiting the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. First Davis invited Preston to his home. In time, Preston invited Davis to his wedding. “That’s a seed planted,” Davis said, as he continues his truly sacred work of bridging the divides between people.

This past Sunday evening, we celebrated Simkhat Torah. What a blast! Music, dancing, juggling(!) and unrolling an entire Torah around this sanctuary. All to celebrate the completion of our year-long reading of the Torah and then, without so much as a single breath, because we love the Torah and what we learn from it, starting all over again. Which means that this week we’ve been reading and studying Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, which tells the story of the beginning of everything! And while we don’t look to the Torah to teach us the science of how things began, we do look to it to try and understand what life is all about.

In Genesis chapter one, throughout the story of Creation, God is continually noting that the things being created are good. Light is good. Land and seas are good. Plants and animals are good. Sun and moon are good. You know the one thing God doesn’t say is good? Us. Human beings. Why not? Are we bad? Of course not. We’ve been created b’tzelem Elohim, with the spark of God inside of us. But even that doesn’t make us good. Not yet, anyway.

What we are, the Torah teaches, is “in process.” We’re neither good nor bad until we establish that for ourselves. Each one of us determines our own status. Each one us must decide what we stand for. That’s why it’s so important to learn from our parents and from our teachers and, yes, to come to temple and learn from our rabbis. And it’s also so very important to be a good role model for others, because we never know who’s watching.

In the early 1960’s, a first grader went off to her first day of school. It was a newly integrated school down south, at the height of the desegregation storm. That afternoon, a very anxious mother met her daughter at the door as the little girl returned home. Once inside and sitting for a snack, her mom asked, “How did everything go, Honey?” “Oh, Mother, did you know that a little black girl sat next to me?” This had been a new experience both for the child and her mother, who didn’t know how to respond. Finally, she asked, “Well, what happened?” The little girl said, “Oh, Mommy, we were both so scared, we held hands all day.”

America is a great country. It’s built on a mighty foundation of fairness and understanding. It doesn’t always work but, given enough time and sufficient attention, things get better. It’s each of our jobs to do what we can to see it stays that way.

During the story of Creation, God never says that human beings are good. Because God’s waiting, waiting to see what we do, and waiting to decide whether we become worthy of the words, “kee tov … and they were good.”

October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will not determine God’s final declaration. We mustn’t allow days like that one to become the face of our humanity. It’s in the days following October 27 that showed the real beauty of our species. Plus all the pro bono lawyers, and all the Daryl Davises, and little kids who hold hands to take care of each other. Let these be what show the beauty, the compassion, and the real future of humankind.

Jackie Pilossoph, a freelance columnist in Chicago, writes, “Hate is exhausting. Hate makes a person lose sight of life’s beauty and goodness. Hate destroys others. Hate destroys the hater. Love, on the other hand, rejuvenates. Loving and being loved makes a person want to help others, sustain compassion, and make the world a better place. Love makes people grow and prosper. Martin Luther King Jr. said: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’”

Shabbat shalom!