Last week we had a great book discussion at PCS about the book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi. It is not only a thoughtful exposition of the Jewish narrative, but also a sincere invitation to Palestinians to engage in dialogue and find a way to a shared future living side by side in two states. Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, he co-directs the Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Yossi published his book for free online in Arabic, in order to foster real dialogue. So in preparation for our program, I shared the online book with Imam Nadir Farris, my dialogue partner and cofounder of the Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue of San Antonio which was active in the early 2000's. He is also an engineer and businessman. (You can read about our activities here. ) Nadir wrote me a beautiful letter in return which I shared with everyone at our discussion. He gave me permission to post it here, and I hope that his words will give you hope as they do me. He also asked me to put him in touch with Yossi Klein Halevi, which I will do.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all the good people in our world like Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Nadir Faris, who work for peace and coexistence on our precious planet Earth. (And be sure to join us for our next Israel program, Nov. 28, 7:30pm, with Adam Finn, about his work for an Israeli Human Rights group.)
Here is Nadir's letter:
Salam / Shalom Dear Friend,
First of all, let me express my condolences to the Jewish community at large for the recent massacre in Philadelphia. My prayers and thoughts are with the families and friends of innocent victims. This senseless incident is a testimony that some people continue to have hate towards others instilled deep in the upbringing just for the fact they are different. I continue to have faith that love and peace will eventually prevail.
I read a few pages from the book you texted me about. My apology that though the subject is interesting, but I have not had enough free time to read the rest. Soon I will though. From the pages I read, I can tell you it was great to know that there are Israeli citizens who think that way, especially in the midst of all hate and extreme wings in charge that continue to agitate hate among the two nations. While reading it, I felt the writer was talking to me. It took me back years while I lived in Palestine and seeing the Israeli soldiers often with all the emotions charged on both sides. Reading the book made me want to travel to Jerusalem to meet the writer and say him I'm a Palestinian Muslim, so let's talk and we will definitely have lots to say. I truly admire such people who are able to go beyond the politics and reach out to "the enemy" and open the heart and the dialog in order to humanize the other side.
Today's politics of the Israeli government is definitely dehumanizing to the Palestinians. They have the upper hand over Palestinians and the ability to reach out and have some peace if they wanted. Had they done that, I'm convinced they would have found acceptance from many or at least some Palestinians. As always, I believe it is the duty of the strong to reach out to the weak and so I blame Netanyahu and team for the continued conflict. Palestinians have their own shortcomings with bad leadership that is marred with corruption and does not represent the population. I know my people and believe if they got good honest leadership and had more peaceful Israel government they will go for peace. My dad always told us the conflict is merely political because he had many Jewish neighbors while growing up in Haifa as a young man and that was normal to coexist together.
In summary, I believe there are still many peace-loving people on this earth. Majority of people want to have good life for themselves and their children, but the problem is that these are not active in politics and left the stage to the minority who have agenda to dominate and take advantage of others. This minority is ruling in most parts of the world and dictating the outcome.
I pray things will get better overall and especially between Israelis and Palestinians so one day you and I can travel to Jerusalem together in celebration where we can go anywhere in the area without check points and seeing many security guards or soldiers. Amen.
Best Regards to you, your family and community.
The days since Shabbat have been a time of sadness: vigils around the country, listening to members talk about their grief and fear, their love and respect for the holiness of synagogue and community.
As we are drawn into the next Shabbat, it is different from most. It's a time of shivah, of mourning for our 11 fellow Jews who were murdered doing what we love to do in our own community: gathering for Shabbat fellowship, prayer, and Torah. It's a time of mourning for their precious families and their shattered community, both the three congregations that meet under one roof - Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash - and the larger Jewish community that centers around the normally peaceful neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. It's a time of mourning and loss for Jews all over America and worldwide, because we are all one family.
Grief may combine with shock and fear. We are shocked that this anti-Semitic massacre has happened here in America, the worst attack on Jews on American soil. Unfortunately many are not so shocked that another mass shooting has happened, because such events have become a terrible and unhealed part of American culture.
I think that the first thing that we should do is to support one another and not succumb to divisiveness because we focus on this or that aspect of the whole picture. As Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Scholar in Residence of UJA-Federation wrote, "Some see this as primarily an expression of anti-Semitism, which it is. Others also understand this in the context of American gun violence and white supremacy, which not only affects Jews." Indeed, it is both of those things and both must be addressed. Recognizing one does not diminish the importance of the other.
One of our congregants asked me, how do we go forward now? I turn back to the words of Hillel that we studied last year on the High Holidays: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
We go forward by combating anti-Semitism, continuing to do the things that our community learned to do after the Holocaust, and supporting the organizations that are experts in doing them. The long-term, unglamorous work that groups like the AJC, ADL, and United States Holocaust Museum have done to build coalitions and raise awareness bears results and deserves our support.
We go forward by working for connection and tolerance in a time of deep division. I continue to affirm that we can only be for ourselves as Jews in America of 2018 when we realize that we are interconnected with the rest of society, and in particular with other minority groups (being aware our own Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse). The current rise in hatred, xenophobia and intolerance hurts all of us.
It is not just a matter of enlightened self-interest. The Torah demands the mitzvot to love our neighbor, love the stranger, and pursue justice. That’s why we see Jewish groups and individuals so engaged in civil and immigrant rights, and forming new alliances with other minority groups, notably those with Muslim Americans. These alliances have born fruit as Jewish communities have been surrounded by loving neighbors during this time of trial, including Musim Americans who raised money to help Jewish victims.
As Professor Sarah Tauber told me, Hillel’s famous saying, encompassing being for ourselves and for others, “is not a segregation model or a zero-sum. Racists say the opposite of Hillel: ‘If I am for others, I lose.’ Jewish tradition is the anti-zero sum. If we are for others, we are for ourselves as well.”
Finally, we go forward by being proud, active, and engaged Jews. Terrorists, whatever their stripe, aim to make us cower with fear and avoid life. Thanks to the UJA-Federation for declaring a Solidarity Shabbat, and the AJC for starting #ShowUpForShabbat campaign, not just this week but every week. Read More
To quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." In this week's Torah portion, we read that Abraham mourns the death of his wife, Sarah. He mourns and cries, but then he turns to finding a wife for Isaac and ensuring the next generation. That is the Jewish way: to feel the grief, to express our pain, and then to choose life and to take the actions that affirm life and love.
With love and support,
Rabbi Julie H. Danan
This morning at PCS we gathered with a small group for Shabbat morning prayer and study. It was a beautiful and spiritual morning and some of us stayed late for our study session on Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.
As I got ready to leave, I saw text messages about the horrible attack at Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. As we prayed in Pleasantville, eleven of our fellow Jews had been murdered in their own congregational home by a gunman who shouted antisemitic hatred. Others, including police officers, were seriously wounded. The attacker had recently posted on social media of his hatred for HIAS, the Jewish organization that sponsored last week's national Refugee Shabbat.
As those of us still at PCS got this dreadful news, we gathered in front of the open ark for a prayer. Together with our synagogue president, Leyla Nakisbendi, I offer deepest condolences and healing and support to the community in Pittsburgh and to all of Am Yisrael.
Please join us Sunday morning, October 28, at promptly at 9:15 for a short vigil of prayer and mutual support during Hebrew School. Grades K-6 will be dismissed to their rooms from morning prayers and the B'nei Mitzvah class, parents, and any interested PCS members are encouraged to remain for a short memorial prayer, 9:15-9:30am. If you want to stay after that in the company of our community, there will be a space in the back room for you to visit with one another. (Those who arrive after 9:15 will need to go to the back door and ring the bell, as we are continuing to keep doors locked during Hebrew School.)
We are also attentive to security for our own PCS community. Pleasantville Police Department will add special attention to our synagogue to their patrol, and we are planning an additional security review to those we have already conducted.
Prayers offer us comfort and a way to connect to God and community at this difficult time. But after we pray we must also act, to oppose the current rise in hatred and inflammatory speech, defamation and irresponsible verbal violence that leads to physical violence.
This terrible antisemitic crime, perpetrated with firearms, is also the latest in our scourge of mass shootings. Unless we can come together to take action about the plague of gun violence, there will be no place of sanctuary left in our schools, businesses, places of recreation or houses of worship. For those who eschew guns as well as those who embrace their rights as responsible gun owners, I implore all of us to get together and work for sensible laws such as those promoted by Everytown for Gun Safety: https://everytown.org/ .
May God comfort all those who have lost loved ones in this devastating event.
With blessings of healing and peace,
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan Leyla Nakisbendi, PCS President
Shalom! I'm back blogging after a post-holiday break to travel to California. I'm very excited to share about my trip, but first feel it's important to post about a couple of national and world issues that I find reflected in this week's and last week's Torah portion.
I'll start with this week, Parashat Lech Lecha. HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), has invited congregations around the country to mark a Refugee Shabbat, and PCS will be among them. As we read the Torah portion about how our earliest ancestor was a Hebrew, literally one who crossed over "from someplace else," it's a good time to recall the Torah's preoccupation with the well-being of the stranger and refugee.
We also remember the long Jewish history of being immigrants and sometimes outcasts, including at our darkest hour of the Holocaust, when even good countries like the USA turned away Jewish Refugees from the Nazis. Today there are some 65 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide, and our country could do so much more to alleviate their plight, but in fact we are going the opposite direction and raising the barriers. On Yom Kippur we heard from Evan Kingsley about our local organization, PART One, through which members of our PCS community and of B'nei Yisrael in Armonk, are helping to resettle refugee families. The families include individuals who helped the United States during wars abroad in their own countries and now seek safety with us.
On the broader subject of immigration, last night I participated with several other local rabbis in offering a prayer at a vigil on the steps of Congregation Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco. A couple of hundred people had gathered to light candles, speak up, and pray for the return home of Armando Rojas, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in the USA for 30 years and worked as custodian of the synagogue for much of that. Armando is not a refugee and he did come into the USA without documentation, as an 18 year old leaving a dangerous environment where family members had been murdered. After 30 years as an exemplary member of the community, with a wife and two sons who are American citizens, he has suddenly been separated from his family and faces permanent deportation. (Read more details in a letter from Rabbi Aaron Brusso).
It's true that Armando long ago violated U.S. immigration law by coming here as he did. But since then he has lived an admirable life as a kind, responsible, and contributing member of the community. In Judaism we have two concepts: Din and Hessed. Din means that you adhere only to the strict letter of the law, while Hessed means that humanity and compassion play a part. Recently, the Din of immigration law was also tempered by the Hessed of an individual's circumstances, and hard working, peaceful, contributing people like Armando were not a priority for deportation. It feels so cruel to the family of this gentle person to have to face permanent separation from their husband and father. To me it is part of a disturbing trend of nativism, that is coming just at a time when there are so many people in the world who need a home.
As a Jew, when I see any ethnic group or nationality being targeted with words and harsh policies lacking in Hessed, I know that I have to care, because the Torah reminds us (36 times) to know the heart of the stranger/immigrant/refugee or to love and care for them, because we were in that person in the Land of Egypt. Not to mention that a society where nativism and xenophobia prevail is not a healthy one for the Jewish community.
That's why I have emphasized the issues of refugees and immigrants in so many sermons and Tikkun Olam projects. In this case it is very personal and comes close to home. If you want to support Bet Torah, follow the link I provided above to their rabbi's letter to the community.
Yom Kippur: spending a whole day in prayer, song, chant, and deep introspection while fasting with a whole community is quite a way to open up one’s soul connection. I'm incredibly privileged to work with Cantor Abbe Lyons and extremely grateful for all of our fantastic PCS volunteers, on and off the bimah.
I always find Yom Kippur a soul-stretching experience. I want to say "transformative." I'm not sure that I'm actually transformed, but my soul definitely feels more transparent and my ethical aspirations feel challenged and stretched. A few years ago, I published a personal essay about the holiday's deep JOY (yes, joy) that you can find here.
I was very moved by all of our community interactions over the High Holidays, as we learned and prayed together, and especially as I heard some of our members talking about the wonderful mitzvot that they do and how we can participate. As I said, I have #mitzvahaspirations. If you want to be involved with Tikkun Olam/Social Action, Refugee Resettlement, Greening the Synagogue, or the Chesed/Caring Committee, please be in touch and I'll connect you to the appropriate person.
It amazed me the day after that exalted state on Yom Kippur, to find myself outside, hammering nails into the sukkah with my husband Avraham. I felt how much Judaism values our spiritual lives but also our embodied, physical lives. We have to come down from that holy mountain in time and create something very concrete and grounded, to start the New Year right.
It was great to host many of your for dessert and great conversation (and a little singing!) in our Sukkah on Sunday evening, and then to jump into so many fun events for all ages over the week! I also enjoyed leading an Erev Shabbat Hike and a B'nei Mitzvah parent-child hike at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. It's a joy to help people to discover their spiritual connection in nature. Wishing everyone a great Sukkot and hope to see you at my "favorite" holiday of Simchat Torah!. (We are having a 3-piece band; hooray!)
We often call the Days from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the "High Holy Days," or the "High Holidays." Their original name is Yamim Noraim, or "Days of Awe." I used to think that meant they were days that evoke fear and trembling, but now I think that it means they are 10 days to really tune in to the awesomeness of life.
I loved seeing so many from our community and beyond on Rosh Hashanah. It was also a special family time for us as we welcomed a new grandson. What a blessing to celebrate with our family and our community at the same time!
Today, as I walked in the park to reconnect with my body and nature after two days of prayer in the synagogue, I found the themes of the holidays echoed in nature. I thought of the way our deeds ripple and touch others, and saw the round ripples created by raindrops in the lake (as my photo header on this post).
I thought how we are all connected in the web or mandala of life, and saw raindrops adorning a spider's web:
And just as I was hearing Cantor Abbe's gorgeous melodies of Unetaneh Tokef running through my thoughts, with the image of how we are like sheep to a heavenly shepherd, I saw that sheep had returned to the meadow!
If you would like to spend some time in nature with me, I'll be leading a Shabbat walk at Rockefeller State Park Preserve on Friday, Sept. 14, from 6-7pm. If there is interest I hope to keep enhancing our outdoor spiritual activities as part of my project with Rabbis Without Borders.
A highlight of the Holidays for me is just to to immerse in the holiday music from our wonderful holiday Cantor, Hazan Abbe Lyons, and our other musicians, choir, and Torah chanters. The melodies are almost all special ones just for this season. Prayer is about both the content and themes but also the deep emotions that are evoked. Especially on Tuesday, which was the anniversary of 9/11, I felt the meaning of these days very deeply. When I chanted "Avinu Malkenu, act for those who went through fire and water for your sake," I felt the words in my body, like it was almost hard to stay standing. On the other hand, when we did the prostrations during the Great Aleynu, it felt transcendent and expansive, almost an out-of-body experience.
Also: I truly enjoyed our Torah study and discussion on Tuesday about the sources of the two sayings that Rabb Simcha Bunim kept in his pocket. It was cool seeing everyone engrossed in dialogue and then hearing what you had to share. I learned so much from your insights! As Bruce Gutenplan noted, when you see the sayings in their original context, it almost reverses the meanings, and it certainly adds a lot of depth to the way that we understand them. You can find the source sheet here.
What is meaningful or emotional for you during this season? I would love to hear from you in the comments (or in person!).
Looking forward to seeing many of you on Shabbat and Yom Kippur.
“The King is in the Field,” is a teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism. He likened Rosh Hashanah to a time when the king is in the palace and it is very formal act to approach the throne.. But when the king is traveling to the palace anyone can approach him as he travels through the fields.
The Rebbe used this parable to explain that during this month of Elul prior to the New Year, it is easier to access our connection to the divine. That doesn’t mean that you literally have to go out to a field. It’s in your heart. But at a recent Shabbat morning meditation, PCS member Peter Schaffer shared a teaching of a contemporary Torah teacher, Gavriel Strauss, who encouraged that at this time of year we literally go out in nature, to a real meadow or field, as a wonderful way to feel that spiritual closeness.
I have found that advice very helpful during the month of Elul. Hearing the crickets and cicadas, seeing the drying flowers and hints of fall foliage, feeling the texture of the air at late summer, all these connect me to the change of season and the Divine Presence that pervades all things. May I suggest that you take some time in these waning days of Elul to go outside and seek your inspiration for the new year? If you don't manage to do so before Rosh Hashanah, I will be leading an Erev Shabbat walk at Rockefeller State Park Preserve at 6pm on the Friday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and would love to have you join me then.
Other customs of this month include hearing the Shofar, saying Psalm 27, giving additional tzedakah, reaching out to friends and family (as well as those with whom we need to make amends), sending Rosh Hashanah greetings (I love the old fashioned cards!), recalling departed loved ones (visiting their graves if possible), and doing our Heshbon Hanefesh (taking stock of our souls and lives)
In addition, I have made that effort to be outside, in the field, for spiritual connection. Of course, I find being outside a spiritual experience at any time of year, but in Elul I try to give it extra Kavannah (focus, intention). This morning, for example, I was at a Labyrinth walk for clergy led by Rabbi Pam Wax of Westchester Jewish Community Services. I also went on a photo walk earlier this month and did a series of photos, titled "The King is in the Field," which I posted @wellsprings on Instagram, and one at the heading of this post. (You can now also find them in a gallery on my website.)
Another idea for Rosh Hashanah preparation: Sign up for "Do You 10Q?" and you will get an email a day over the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a question about your life. Then the answers are sealed away and emailed back to you next year just before Rosh Hashanah. A lot of PCS members do this and find it very meaningful and a great way to get perspective on life.
And here is a bonus High Holiday tip: if you are a coffee drinker, start to dilute your caffeine with decaf until you are gradually weaned off caffeine before Yom Kippur. This can help to make your Yom Kippur fast much easier because you won't be dealing with caffeine withdrawal!
Whatever you can do to prepare for the Days of Awe ahead will make Rosh Hashanah more meaningful for you...and for our entire community. Shanah Tovah!
August 30, 2018
Two Truths in Our Pocket
Did you take a trip this summer to a location that awed and wowed you? That feeling of standing before a wonder of nature like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, or Yosemite Falls can evoke two different feelings simultaneously and powerfully. We sense at once both how small we are and how incredibly blessed to be part of the greater whole.
That is the kind of feeling that our Days of Awe were intended to awaken within us, and that is the source of my theme for these upcoming holidays. Each year on the High Holy Days, I seek an over-arching theme to help organize my sermons, remarks, and even some of the songs led by Cantor Abbe Lyons.
This year, 5779, I will focus on two favorite sayings of Rabbi Simcha Bunem, an 18th-century Hassidic teacher. It is said that Reb Simcha carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one was inscribed, "For my sake the world was created." On the other he wrote, "I am but dust and ashes." He would take out and read each slip of paper as necessary for the moment. My friend Rabbi David Zaslow who, with his wife Debra, was our guest at PCS this spring, commissioned a company to make wooden coins with one of these sayings on each side, and they will be available for you to take on the holidays as a reminder to contemplate the messages of this season.
I think that the two sayings on this coin mesh perfectly with the themes of Rosh Hashanah (the creation of the world and celebration of our lives) and Yom Kippur (the reminder and enactment of our mortality). By holding the two sayings in tension, we can appreciate our lives even more deeply, while experiencing a sense of humility and humanity that opens us to others. (On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we will have a short Torah study/discussion on where the two sayings come from.)
I have been pondering these two sayings for a long time, and they are often evoked for me in nature. Here are a couple of posts that I wrote on my Wellsprings of Wisdom website that I hope you will enjoy:
I would love to learn what personal experiences these sayings mean to you, and look forward to exploring with you in the upcoming season.
Wishing everyone L’shanah Tovah Tikateyvu ve-Techateymu! May you be inscribed and sealed for a Good and Sweet New Year!
Rabbi Julie and Avraham Danan