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Zalman Schachter-Shalomi brought old world gravitas to New Age Judaism

Sun, 07/06/2014 - 15:40

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi pioneered groundbreaking ritual innovations that went mainstream. (Daniel Sieradski)

(JTA) — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was one of the world’s most innovative and influential Jewish spiritual leaders.

To his followers, he was their Hasidic rebbe. But what other rebbe had dropped acid with Timothy Leary and dialogued with the Dalai Lama?

Schachter-Shalomi, who died last week at 89, wasn’t the only rabbi who tinkered radically with Jewish tradition. No one else, however, did so with the sense of gravitas and authenticity that came with carrying a living memory of the richness of prewar Jewish Europe.

Though Jewish Renewal, the movement he helped midwife, remains marginal by the standards of the major Jewish denominations, many of the ritual innovations he fostered have long since gone mainstream — from the use of musical instrumentation during services to the incorporation of Eastern meditative practices.

Few Jewish spiritual leaders could match the scope of his erudition, steeped as he was not only in sacred texts and Jewish mysticism but contemporary psychology and Eastern spirituality. He was a Yiddish speaker proficient in the vernacular of modern science and computer technology, an academic capable of creating transformative religious experiences for his followers.

“He was a whole world,” said Rabbi David Ingber, spiritual leader of the Manhattan congregation Romemu and a leading figure among the younger generation of Renewal rabbis. “There was no one like him when he was alive, and now that he’s gone, there will never be anyone like him.”

Born in Poland in 1924 into an Orthodox family with Belzer Hasidic roots, Schachter-Shalomi was raised in Vienna and arrived in the United States in 1941. He was ordained as a Chabad rabbi but strayed far from his Orthodox roots, eventually helping to found a movement that fused the ancient and postmodern into a kind of liberal Hasidism.

Like the Hasidic masters of Europe, Schachter-Shalomi encouraged his followers to seek a direct experience of the divine through practices inspired by the Jewish mystical tradition. He embraced a decidedly liberal ethos, championing equal roles for men and women in religious life, welcoming gays and lesbians, and promoting doctrines like eco-kashrut that integrated contemporary concerns into Jewish practice.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, which for a time was joined with ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, recalled a moment in 1971 when Schachter-Shalomi was leading a service in Washington and asked permission to separate the men and women.

Mindful of the feminist critique then gaining currency in progressive circles, Waskow objected. Schachter-Shalomi explained he was seeking to create a polarity between masculine and feminine energies and asked if it would be acceptable to keep the genders physically together but separate their voices. Waskow agreed.

“He was clearly a great and knowledgeable teacher — and he listened when a newbie said ‘No!’” Waskow wrote last week in a remembrance. “That made him a real teacher.”

Schachter-Shalomi pioneered ritual innovations that were groundbreaking at the time, including meditation, ecstatic dance and drums and other musical instruments in religious services. He led prayers in the vernacular, reading Torah from a scroll but translating it into English on the fly while maintaining the traditional cantillation — a feat he could carry off with seeming aplomb well into his ninth decade.

Though he lost family members to the Nazis, Schachter-Shalomi believed it was a mistake to attempt a restoration of the Jewish world destroyed by the Holocaust. Instead, he felt that Jewish traditions needed to be renewed, harmonized with new ways of viewing reality that emerged in the 20th century, much in the way theology had to be reordered following Galileo’s demonstration that the earth was not the center of the universe.

Schachter-Shalomi spoke often of a paradigm shift made necessary by worldview-busting events — the moonwalk, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were favored examples — that were so earth-shattering they rendered traditional Jewish modalities irrelevant. He wanted Jews to get over what he called their “triumphalist” sense that they had a monopoly on religious truth in favor of an “organismic” model that saw Judaism as one of many tributaries of the divine river.

He was a believer in a radical ecumenism, fascinated by the ways other traditions “get it on with God.” During the historic Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 1990, Schachter-Shalomi captivated the Tibetan leader with a a lengthy presentation on kabbalistic cosmology.

Along with the legendary composer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi was among the earliest emissaries dispatched by the Lubavitcher rebbe to do outreach on college campuses. But he drifted from the strictures of Orthodoxy, exploring other mystical traditions and immersing himself deeply in the counterculture. His LSD experience, Schachter-Shalomi said later, had confirmed certain “intimations” he had previously about the nature of the spiritual world.

He was a leading figure in the growth of the Havurah movement, the small prayer groups that emerged in the 1960s and rejected institutionalized synagogue Judaism in favor of home-based worship, presaging the rise of today’s independent minyans.

Schachter-Shalomi married four times and fathered 11 children, including one through a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi.

An inveterate boundary crosser, he declined to choose between the social justice imperatives and progressive politics of Reform Judaism, the spiritual rigor and devotion of traditional Orthodoxy and the mystical impulses of Hasidism. He wanted all of them.

The other Jewish streams “all had their own truths and languages, but they were partial, and Reb Zalman didn’t want a partial expression of religious life,” Ingber said. “He wanted a holistic expression of religious life.”

In the 1990s, Schachter-Shalomi left Philadelphia, where he had held a teaching post at Temple University, to assume the World Wisdom chair at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo. There ensconced as the “Boulder rebbe,” Zalman received scores of visitors in his basement study, many of them seeking inspiration and solace on their own journeys away from Orthodoxy.

In his later years, as Schachter-Shalomi began to relinquish many of the leadership responsibilities of the Renewal movement, he came to focus his declining energies on preparing himself and his followers to face his inevitable death. Schachter-Shalomi was driven by a belief that the existing Jewish toolbox was lacking the instruments to navigate the later stages of life — what he came to call the December years.

In 1997, he co-authored “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” an attempt to recast the golden years as something other than a period of decline. And in March, journalist Sara Davidson published the book “The December Project,” the product of nearly two years of weekly meetings the two conducted in Boulder.

“The whole teaching that he wanted to impart to people was that you will come to the end at some point, and at that point the work is letting go — letting go of your ties, letting go of your loved ones, letting go of everything,” Davidson said.

Despite his failing health, Schachter-Shalomi continued to teach until the very end. One month before his death, he led a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwestern Connecticut for Shavuot. His appearance there had been an annual event, though he had missed the year before because he was too unwell to travel.

After the holiday, Schachter-Shalomi fell ill with pneumonia and spent a week in a hospital in Hartford, Conn., before being flown back to Boulder, where he died in his sleep on the morning of July 3.

Czech Jews Slam Honor for Mel Gibson

Sun, 07/06/2014 - 08:55

Leaders of the Czech Jewish community criticized a local film festival’s decision to honor actor and director Mel Gibson. Gibson is due to receive a lifetime achievement award Friday at the Karlovy Vary film festival.

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Algeria Plans To Reopen Shuttered Synagogues

Sat, 07/05/2014 - 08:01

Algeria intends to reopen synagogues that were shuttered in the 1990s for security reasons, an Algerian minister said.

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Algeria to reopen shuttered synagogues, minister says

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 18:31

(JTA) — Algeria intends to reopen synagogues that were shuttered in the 1990s for security reasons, an Algerian minister said.

The statement about Algeria’s synagogues by Religious Affairs Minister Mohamed Aissa was published on Thursday on the online edition of the Algerian daily Liberte.

“There is a Jewish community in Algeria which is greeted in our cities and it has a right to exist,” Aissa is quoted as saying earlier this week at a conference organized in the capital Algiers by Liberte.

Algeria, he added, “is prepared to reopen Jewish places of worship.” But he said that “for the moment the state does not plan to do this right away because of security reasons. We need to first set up security arrangements before we open them up for worshipers.”

Tens of thousands of people died in terrorist attacks and government reprisals in Algeria during the 1990s, during an insurgency by the Armed Islamic Group.

The number of Jews living in Algeria is not known, according to the Jeune Afrique magazine, but historians estimate the country’s Jewish population is made up of a handful of people who practice their faith in secret for fear of being targeted by Islamic extremists.

Algeria used to have more than 100,000 Jews, but the vast majority of them left after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and during the country’s bloody war of independence against France.

Brazil School Forces Jewish Child To Say Lord's Prayer

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 12:27

A Brazilian man accused a teacher of forcing the man’s Jewish son to recite a Christian prayer at a public school.

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Brazilian public school accused of forcing Jew to say Christian prayer

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 08:54

(JTA) — A Brazilian man accused a teacher of forcing the man’s Jewish son to recite a Christian prayer at a public school.

The incident is said to have happened last month at the Ciep Cecilio Barbosa da Paixao school in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, according to a report earlier this week by the Brazilian daily O Globo.

According to the boy’s father, the 9th-grade boy was instructed by a teacher to say the Lord’s Prayer during a group prayer on June 5 at the school, which is located at the city of Engenheiro Paulo de Frontin north of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

“He left the group and the other students  looked at him critically,”  the father is quoted as saying. “The inspector called him to return and told him that the Lord’s Prayer is a universal prayer even though he told her it was a Christian prayer which does not correspond to his faith.”

The boy told his father of the incident last month, vowing not to return to school, said the father, who added that he had filed a police complaint against the school’s management.

A spokesperson for the school denied that the boy had been forced to pray and said the payer was “a voluntary action by a group of students and faculty.”

The boy’s father filed the complaint based on the Brazilian constitution,  which grants freedom of worship to all.

The case prompted Jayme Salim Salomao, president of the Jewish Federation of Rio de Janeiro, to demand explanations  from the school and from the state secretary of education.

More riots erupt in eastern Jerusalem over youth’s slaying

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 08:23

(JTA) – Israeli police prevented dozens of Palestinian rioters from breaking through a gate into Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound in violence connected to the slaying of a Palestinian youth.

The attempt to break into the compound through the Old City Chain Gate was one of a number of violent clashes on Friday between police and Palestinians expressing outrage over the murder of a Palestinian boy earlier this week, Army Radio reported.

The 16-year-old boy, Muhammed Abu Khieder, was abducted from his eastern Jerusalem neighborhood in what police suspect may have been a reprisal by Jewish extremists for the June 12 abduction and murders of three Israeli youths in the West Bank. Abu Kheider’s burnt body was found outside Jerusalem.

His funeral is scheduled for Friday. Police are looking into his death and upped security in Jerusalem in anticipation of riots before and after the funeral.

In addition to the Chain Gate incident, clashes occurred also near Ma’aleh Hazeitim, a Jewish neighborhood bordering on the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amud. A large riot involving hundreds of Arabs happened at Wadi al-Joz, another Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem.

Additional incidents happened near Ramallah, where Palestinians hurled firebombs and stones at Israeli troops in three locations. Eight Palestinians were wounded when the Israeli soldiers fired back at the rioters, Haaretz reported.

The clashes occurred amid reports that Hamas and Israel were nearing an understanding that would end the exchange of fire between Gaza, where militants fired dozens of rockets at Israel over the past week, and Israel, which retaliated with aerial strikes on Hamas targets in the Strip.

But during a tour of Sderot, an Israeli city that is regularly targeted with rockets by Hamas and other Palestinian groups, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that declaring a ceasefire would be “a serious mistake, ”according to Army Radio.

“We do not accept the approach of appeasing Hamas,” he said. “We do not accept a situation where Hamas dictates the sequence of events — they decide when to escalate, when to deescalate, controlling the flames, initiating when we only react.”

Czech Jews slam festival for honoring Mel Gibson

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 07:49

Mel Gibson (Shutterstock)

(JTA) — Leaders of the Czech Jewish community criticized a local film festival’s decision to honor actor and director Mel Gibson.

Gibson is due to receive a lifetime achievement award Friday at the Karlovy Vary film festival.

But the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities said in a statement Thursday that Gibson was unworthy of the honor both because of a 2006 drunken anti-Semitic rant and because of his controversial 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” which some critics had called anti-Semitic.

The federation called the film “one of the most offensive movies ever shot” because of “classic stereotypes” about Jews, which may serve to “justify anti-Jewish hatred.”

Uljana Donatova, spokeswoman for the festival, held in the western spa city, said organizers respect the federation’s opinion, “but we are only assessing Mel Gibson’s career as a filmmaker,” she told AFP.

The organizers of the 49th edition of the festival, which runs from Friday to July 12, will also award a lifetime achievement award to U.S. filmmaker William Friedkin, known for his thriller “The Exorcist.”

'The Search' Relives Auschwitz — in Chechnya

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 06:00

Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius has updated the classic Holocaust melodrama ‘The Search.’ Yet he gives the film a haunting new setting: Chechnya.

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Reb Zalman Married Counter Culture to Hasidic Judaism

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 21:12

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the important Jewish innovators in postwar America, inspiration to a generation and ecumenical spiritualist, has died at 89.

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Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Father of Renewal Judaism, Dies at 89

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 16:41

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, has died at age 89.

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Pope calls Rome chief rabbi to offer condolences for teens

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 15:49

(JTA) – Pope Francis phoned Rome’s chief rabbi to express condolences on the murder of three Israeli teenagers.

Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the pope called him at home on Tuesday afternoon, the day the teens were buried side by side and within hours of the Vatican releasing a strong statement condemning the killings, according to the daily Il Messaggero.

Di Segni told Il Messaggero that the pope said, “Good evening. This is Pope Francis. I wanted very much to personally express my grief for the death of the three youths.”

The rabbi, who said he first thought the call was a prank, also said the pope had said he would pray for the boys and their families.

Earlier in the day, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi had called the murders “terrible and dramatic.” He said “the assassination of innocent people is always an execrable and unacceptable crime and a serious obstacle on the path toward the peace for which we must tirelessly continue to strive and pray.”

Lombardi said Pope Francis “participates in the unspeakable suffering of the families struck by this homicidal violence and the pain of all persons afflicted by the consequences of hatred, and prays that God might inspire all with thoughts of compassion and peace.”

Also Tuesday, clashes in Rome between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators left several injured, including one pro-Palestinian demonstrator who reportedly was beaten up by supporters of Israel.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, father of Jewish Renewal, dies

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 15:32

(JTA) — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, has died at age 89.

A maverick rabbi from an Orthodox background who spent time in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Schachter-Shalomi transitioned over time toward a New Age, neo-Hasidic approach, gaining a substantial following on his own but also influencing other Jewish denominations.

His nontraditional approaches to Jewish spirituality, including services marked by ecstatic prayer, drumming and dancing, eventually morphed into the Jewish Renewal movement.

Known to friends and followers as Reb Zalman, he lived out his later years in Boulder, Colo., where he died Thursday morning after being ill for some time. An associate told JTA that he had been battling a pneumonia infection in recent weeks.

The movement he started had its origins in the 1960s, when Schachter-Shalomi began instituting meditation and dance during prayer services. He sought to fuse the mystical traditions learned while he was Lubavitch with the sensibilities of the modern world in an effort to revitalize a synagogue practice he found stultifying.

He eventually broke with Chabad, founding the P’nai Or Religious Fellowship in 1962 and a havurah — a lay-led congregation with no central leader — in Somerville, Mass., in 1968. He ordained the first Renewal rabbi, Daniel Siegel, in 1974.

Schachter-Shalomi led prayers in English set to popular tunes, translated Hasidic texts on mysticism into English, promoted ecologically friendly kashrut and encouraged Jews to create their own colorful tallitot, or prayer shawls.

In 1993, P’nai Or merged with Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center to become Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The Philadelphia-based institution has ordained some 80 rabbis.

Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna, Schachter-Shalomi’s family fled the Nazis and eventually landed in Brooklyn in 1941. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1947 from the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva. He later got a master’s degree from Boston University in the psychology of religion and a doctorate from Hebrew Union College, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.

His last teaching post was at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired Colorado institution that is now home to Schachter-Shalomi’s archives.

“This man is a Hasid,” Rebecca Alpert, a professor of religion at Temple Universty, told JTA several years ago in an interview about Schachter-Shalomi’s influence. “No one could possibly duplicate his sagacity, presence and magic.”

Video Archive: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi talks to JTA and offers a bracha

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 15:01

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, pioneer and leading light of the Renewal stream of Judaism, died Thursday morning at the age of 89 in Boulder, Colo.

He sat down with JTA in 2010 for this video interview:

And then he offered our reporter a blessing:

Hillary Chapman Extended Interview

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 12:01

Watch additional moments from our conversation with Hillary Chapman about the Baha’i faith.

The post Hillary Chapman Extended Interview appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Hundreds of Israel-Bound Jews Say Adieu to France

Wed, 07/02/2014 - 17:19

Hundreds of soon-to-be immigrants to Israel gathered at one of the French capital’s largest synagogues for a sendoff ceremony celebrating their departure.

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Hundreds of French Jews bid adieu at pre-aliyah party

Wed, 07/02/2014 - 16:15

PARIS (JTA) — Hundreds of soon-to-be immigrants to Israel gathered at one of the French capital’s largest synagogues for a sendoff ceremony celebrating their departure.

Some 700 people attended the ceremony Wednesday at the Synagogue de Tournelles, which began with a moment of silence in memory of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, the Israeli teenagers whose bodies were discovered Monday near Hebron. They were kidnapped and killed on June 12.

Immigration levels from France are at record levels, which Jewish Agency officials attribute to the community’s strong emotional attachment to Israel, rising levels of anti-Semitism and a stagnant economy in France.

Many of the new immigrants cited anti-Semitism, which has increased in frequency since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the early 2000s.

“When I was a child, I could leave home wearing my kippah,” said one of the soon-to-be immigrants, Lionel Bresso, who is moving this month to Netanya. “Now I wear a baseball cap and my daughter leaves home only to go to school. I don’t want her to grow up like that.”

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, were among those on hand at the ceremony along with Israeli Immigration Minister Sofa Landver and Haim Korsia, France’s newly elected chief rabbi.

During her address, Landver announced new regulations passed last month that she promised would ensure that most French professional diplomas — especially in paramedical fields such as optometry and physiotherapy — are automatically recognized in Israel, making it unnecessary for the new arrivals to retake exams.

“If you were good at your job here, you will be excellent in Israel,” she said. “We want you back home, our home.”

From January to May, a total of 2,254 French Jews have immigrated to Israel, or made aliyah, compared to 580 during the corresponding period last year. Another 1,000 to 1,500 are expected to immigrate this summer, according to the Jewish Agency.

In 2013, immigration from France crossed the 3,000-person mark — an increase of 31 percent over the annual average of new arrivals from France between the years 1999 and 2012 and a level reached previously only four times.



After 20 Years, Mourning for Chabad Rebbe Takes on Orderly Rhythm

Wed, 07/02/2014 - 13:01

20 years after Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s death, Hasidic followers still throng to visit his tomb. It’s a shrine that those who thought he was the Messiah shun.

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Fifty Years Later: A Reflection from Rabbi Marc Saperstein

Wed, 07/02/2014 - 12:00

By Rabbi Marc Saperstein

On the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are pleased to share this recollection from Rabbi Marc Saperstein.

My first active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was on March 25, 1965: the final day of the five-day March from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King.

I was then a third year undergraduate at Harvard, and had recently been elected as President of the Harvard-Radcliff Hillel Society. Earlier in the week I was contacted by someone at the United Ministry office, saying that clergy and student leaders from all the religious denominations at Harvard and at several other Boston area universities would by flying to Alabama on a chartered plane overnight, and that they would like me to represent Harvard Hillel. Needless to say, I was thrilled to go.Landing after the overnight flight, we were brought to a church yard in the African-American outskirts of segregated Montgomery,  where we stood up to our ankles in pink Alabama mud for several hours as the increasingly large crowd was getting organized. Finally we began to march, six abreast. During the first half-hour or so, we saw only African-Americans on the sidewalks. Their faces were beaming with joy at the realization that so many Americans, mostly whites, had come to show support for the right to demonstrate peacefully in the streets of our nation.

At one point, we saw organizers of the March holding up signs that said “Keep Smiling.”  Very soon I understood why. We turned a corner, and suddenly we were in the white part of the city, and the looks on the faces of the crowds were totally different from what we had seen until then: frozen looks of hatred and contempt. I remember thinking that I had left the realm of the living and entered the realm of the dead.  Now at every corner there were federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents to ensure our safety. We tried to “keep smiling”, but it was difficult.

Finally we reached the Montgomery Statehouse and it was time for the speeches. As usual, there was an over-abundance of fine speakers.  The final address was given by Martin Luther King, with his characteristically inspirational eloquence.

It was a temporary triumph, but a long road lay ahead. Back in Boston, we learned that Governor George Wallace had refused to accept a petition from the Civil Rights leadership, and that Viola Liuzzo, a Michigan housewife, who had come as a volunteer and was driving demonstrators back home, was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

My second experience occurred during the summer of 1966, immediately following my graduation from Harvard College. The Dean of the College, John Munro, had established a program whereby recent Harvard grads in English and Math would teach their subjects to Birmingham African American students who were preparing to enter Miles College the following September. My field was English literature; I taught two two-hour classes, each with ten students, five days a week, working to improve their reading and writing skills, with brief writing assignments every day. They were grouped based on performance on a standardized test; I had one group of excellent students, while the other was composed of high school graduates who could barely write a single sentence without serious errors in spelling and grammar.

The Birmingham church bombing had occurred less than 3 years earlier; some of my students knew children who had been killed.

The temperature was consistently in the 90s, and there was no air conditioning. But I never sensed a lapse of attention. The students were like sponges, soaking up new nourishment. In many ways, it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had in 37 years of College teaching.

One Shabbat I went to services at the Reform Synagogue in a totally different part of the city. The rabbi knew my father and welcomed me, but when I told him what I was doing, he became considerably more cold. He was the only rabbi who signed the letter from six local clergy that produced King’s immortal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

One day I was standing on the porch of our dormitory watching a group of Miles College students in the middle of the small campus practicing hitting golf balls with clubs. I remember thinking: What an expression of optimism this is: do they really think that they will ever be able to use this skill on golf courses in the South. Decades later, when Tiger Woods was winning national championships, I thought back to that moment and realized that their optimism was justified.

The following year I was studying at the University of Cambridge. Several of the students wrote to me, and I of course wrote back, describing my experience. One of them responded, “That sounds like a wonderful place to study. Do they allow colored students there?” I recall how staggered I was that a former student of mine would have to ask such a question, and I responded, Of course Cambridge does, and Harvard does, and the day will come when there will be no place in the world that refuses to take students on the basis of race. I guess that optimism was also justified.

Rabbi Marc Saperstein is the principal of the Leo Baeck College and Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics. He has also taught at the George Washington University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of books and articles on various aspects of Jewish history, literature, and thought, and is widely recognized as an authority on the history of Jewish preaching. Before leaving the United States, he was Vice President of the American Academy for Jewish Research. 

Crying Out Against Homelessness

Wed, 07/02/2014 - 10:45

By Rabbi Benjamin Zeidman

A couple weeks ago, my son turned one year old. Before he was born I thought I knew what it meant to worry about the future. Now, I realize that “naïve” is a nice way to describe me just over a year ago. For all my best intentions, I didn’t have a clue.

We live in New York City, which means we live in the largest city in the country. With more than eight million people, it is twice as large as the next largest city (Los Angeles). That means we live in the city which is home to the largest population of homeless people in America: At least 53,615 as of January, with more than 22,000 of them children.

In a city like this one, my son encounters evidence of homelessness several times a day. As he grows more and more aware of his surroundings, it won’t be long until he’s asking the most difficult questions about the things he sees. So now I’m worried in a way I’ve never been before about the kind of world my son will grow up in. And I’m especially concerned that when he looks around, he sees himself in a world that strives for justice, equality and possibility.

I know that I am not alone. As the book of Exodus begins we learn that the legacy of Joseph—the man who saved both his family, and the entire population of Egypt from starvation (and therein homelessness)—is forgotten. Israel is born not in joy but through the horrific experience of slavery. As a people, united in anguish, our Torah tells us that finally a generation couldn’t bear injustice any longer: “The Israelites were groaning under bondage and cried out. And their cry for help from bondage rose up to God” (Exodus 2:23). It’s been something like 400 years, and finally the Israelites come to call out to the Holy one for help. The pain and the suffering has finally reached a boiling point.

In their cry, the Israelites remind God of the Covenant made with our ancestors (Exodus 2:24-25), as if God is the forgetful type. Maybe the Israelites finally remembered the covenant and invoked it! So, ready to hold up their end, God looks upon the Israelites and takes notice of them. Then what does God do? God doesn’t free the Israelites with some miraculous snap of the fingers. Instead, God calls upon Moses, a human being.

Today, tens of thousands in New York City and around the world cry out and groan in their chains—there is no miracle in sight, not even a burning bush lit to inspire a particular individual to lead the masses out of their slavery. And yet, as Moses was called upon to be God’s hands and voice, our tradition and our Torah calls upon us to do the same.

Briskly walking home from an evening meeting in December, it was 24 degrees and windy. All I could think was, “I just need to get home; I can’t believe how cold I am.” That was until I passed a woman sitting outside under a blanket, hunkered down for the night. She was just one of thousands people sleeping on the streets that night. The number of homeless people in our country, just over six hundred thirty three thousand, is frighteningly similar to the number of Israelites who departed Egypt in the book of Exodus.

Bound by circumstance, chained by bad luck, mental illness, addiction, an uncaring populace, or some combination thereof, the homeless suffer winter cold and summer heat, along with hunger, thirst and awful conditions in shelters and out of them. That’s not to mention the horrible situation that homeless children and teens face, who suffer without the power, skills or the legal rights to help themselves.

As those tasked with the responsibility of creating a better world, we are obligated to do everything we can for those who suffer. In the Talmud, Rav Hama said: Torah teaches we must “walk after God.” This means we must imitate the attributes of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, so too we also clothe the naked (Sotah 14a). It isn’t a choice, and it isn’t something that we can afford to have on our radars only occasionally.

As Divine instruments in this world, there are those who groan and who cry out in misery every day and every night, and if we strive to mimic the Holy One we cannot ignore them. Many of us have so much. We can rush home through the dark and cold to light and warmth. But we are empowered to do God’s work in the world, and that means we have an obligation to do so.

So many issues require our continual attention and energy. Homelessness continues to be one of them. We have always understood that we are judged on how we treat the most unfortunate in our midst. Each of us is made in the Divine image, and each of us has an individual obligation. It’s about respect for human dignity. It’s about taking care of those others who are made in the divine image too.

We must ensure that our own local leadership and our national government understand that they are as obligated as we are. How our society treats and copes with the downtrodden is a direct reflection on our success as a community and as a nation. We must strive for that day when we can tell our children that we as a people and as a country are successful. Every day we delay is a day we have to answer for.

Rabbi Benjamin Zeidman is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York in New York City and a Brickner Fellow with the Religious Action Center.