Sign In Forgot Password

Shalom From Rabbi Chalom

No, Me First

November/December 2022

One of the best parts of my sabbatical leave (thank you again!) was learning how to say two important phrases for self-care: “No” and “Me First.”

By personality, I like to be helpful. I see myself as a resource for Kol Hadash members and for our broader movement of Humanistic Judaism with some knowledge, expertise and experience. I sometimes compare the role of a Humanistic Rabbi to being a travel agent – tell me where you want to go and I can help you get there! And so when someone asks for a favor, or for some information, or for reading recommendations, or for ideas for a future program, my natural impulse is to help out.

On my sabbatical, however, I set myself the task of learning how to say “no,” nicely. Or “not now, maybe later.” Being able to say “no” is not an admission of failure or inadequacy, and it is not being unresponsive. Having appropriate barriers and creating space for self-care requires being able to say “no” when “no” needs saying. Certainly in response to unreasonable requests, but also when we need to save our resources for ourselves.

That is why it is also sometimes necessary to say “me first.” In Pirke Avot, an early collection of rabbinic proverbs, we find this insight in Chapter 5:

There are four types of people: One that says, “mine is mine, and yours is yours”: this is average; though some say this is terrible. Another says, “mine is yours and yours is mine”: this is an unlearned person. Another says, “mine is yours and yours is yours”: this is a pious person. Another says, “mine is mine, and yours is mine”: this is wicked.

While an ideal might be to be eternally generous, always giving of oneself, it can be entirely appropriate to be willing to assert one’s own importance. What good is done by giving charity to the point that one needs charity? It is good to help others, but sometimes we get to help ourselves.

Obviously, we must avoid being so selfish and self-centered that we are oblivious or indifferent to the genuine needs of others. At the same time, it is prudent and reasonable to step back from work to have time with family, or to take a break from family to have time and interests for oneself. If we only live for others, we may lose ourselves in their needs.

Sometimes it’s healthy to say, “No, me first.” Just remember that other people might do the same thing to you!


2022 - High Holidays - 5783: Morality in Crisis

 September/October 2022

What do we do when it feels like the world is falling apart? Can Jewish culture and Humanistic values be relevant, even inspirational, in moments of crisis? And how can we find shared purpose and action in our personal diversity?

 Safety and Fear
Rosh Hashana Evening     September 25, 7:30pm

The basic social contract of a moral society promises reasonable physical safety. Yet today we are afraid in schools, while traveling, and at mass events. We fear both strangers and our neighbors. How can we find the confidence and courage to leave our homes and live our lives?

Personal Values, Public Responsibility
Rosh Hashana Morning     September 25, 10:30am

If the morality of our choices depends on results, then we must live our values in the real world. From the Biblical “thou shalt not murder” to the Rabbinic “pikuach nefesh – saving a life” to the Utilitarian “greatest happiness for the greatest number,” our action or inaction is truly a matter of life and death.

Being Good
Rosh Hashana Family     September 25, 2:00pm

Most of us want to be good people, but that can be hard to do. We need to remind ourselves that other people like good people, that we like ourselves better when we are good, and that everyone needs help sometime!

Isolation, Tribalism and Community
Yom Kippur Evening     October 4, 7:30pm

We are more interconnected, and more isolated, than ever. The lonely sometimes hide from the world before exploding outward in anger. Cultural, social and political bubbles create echo chambers, reinforcing “our” virtue and “their” villainy. How can we transcend our instinctual limits to include everyone in our orbit of concern?

Freedom and Autonomy
Yom Kippur Morning     October 5, 10:30am

Radical individualism corrodes social bonds, but radical communal authority imposes on the individual. We want our public schools free of religious coercion and our intimate choices of identity, partnership and reproduction to be our own. When we no longer agree on what “freedom” means, how can we assert our right to be in charge of our own lives?

Being Better
Yom Kippur Family Service     October 5, 2:00pm

How can we make better choices in the New Year just begun? We can look back at our mistakes and look inside ourselves to learn more.

Anger, Grief and Consolation
Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding     October 5, 3:30pm

The old model of stages of grief is passé. Anger and grief can all appear at once or reappear in unpredictable waves. We must have realistic goals for our mourning and consolation, knowing that we never get over a loss; we simply get used to it. Our pain motivates us to do better for others and for the future.


We Say What We Believe

July/August 2022
Originally published in The Shofar, August 2009
 

I am asked often what differentiates Humanistic Judaism from other liberal branches of Judaism. After all, now that Conservative Judaism ordains gay rabbis, Reform Judaism welcomes intercultural/interfaith couples, and Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism are both politically/socially liberal and theologically exploratory, what space is left for us?

A very important space. While we share many values with those other movements, our priorities are different. One of the easiest ways to summarize our approach to our personal beliefs and our Jewish practice is we say what we believe, and we believe what we say. We recognize that what we believe is different from what our ancestors believed, so we have decided that speaking our truth and celebrating our Jewish identity honestly and consistently is more important than saying the same words or performing the same rituals as our ancestors.

Others in the liberal Jewish world take a different approach. They argue (explicitly or implicitly) that continuity with the past and a deep connection to the language and liturgy of our ancestors is more important and therefore we must find a way to harmonize our personal philosophy with our religious liturgical inheritance. They are certainly free to pursue their attempts to redefine traditional prayers, or to try to re-frame traditional theology in modern terms, even if we find these attempts unsatisfying for us.

Words have meaning. And the God of the Bible—a God who cares what you eat and what you wear and rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—is far removed from the loving, fuzzy force of certain contemporary theologies. Is it reasonable to use the same word for both concepts/characters? Redefining “God” is itself a Jewish tradition, from the early rabbis who changed the primary worship ritual from animal sacrifice to verbal prayer after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, to the medieval Maimonides whose Aristotelian rationalism tried to harmonize philosophy and revelation, and to our own day. So who are we in Humanistic Judaism to break tradition?

The truth is that we are following a different Jewish tradition: the tradition of not speaking “one thing in the mouth and another in the heart” (ekhad ba-peh v’ekhad ba-lev) [Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 113b]. The rabbis who wrote those traditional prayers, who created those traditional rituals, were not doing so because they were trying to create something old; they did so because they believed in those prayers and rituals. Our Jewish ancestors refused to say words they did not believe, and they insisted on affirming what they did believe, despite adverse consequences. They changed and adapted Judaism over the centuries to respond to new circumstances and, yes, new beliefs; and as we change what they created we, in fact, honor them.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it very well in his last book Open Closed Open, drawing on the rabbinic legend of Abraham smashing his father Terakh’s idols in his monotheistic zeal (my translation):

We are all sons of Abraham,
But we are also grandchildren of Terakh, father of Abraham.
Perhaps now time has come for the grandchildren to do
To their father what he did to his father,
When he smashed his images and idols, his faith and belief.
But that, too, will be the beginning of a new religion.

Ours is the continuity of change.


Rabbi Chalom’s Four Month Sabbatical in 2022         

May/June 2022

Dear Members of Kol Hadash:


It is a great privilege and honor to be rabbi of such a wonderful community. We have weathered many changes over my 18 years here, evolving from the “wandering Jews” to permanent office space to our home at the North Shore Unitarian Church and expanding services, programs and classes. The work is challenging, interesting, stimulating, and inspiring, even more now than when I started. This Fall, I will officiate at the wedding of a woman who was one of the first Bat Mitzvahs I led at Kol Hadash; that only happens with a long and positive relationship between rabbi and congregation.

This summer, I will be taking a long-planned sabbatical this summer to allow me to rest and recharge, have some family time, and work on projects that never seem to make it to the front burner. It is not an accident that “sabbatical” and “shabbat” sound alike, since they both signify a temporary but meaningful moment of pause. From May 7 through early September, I will start stepping back from ongoing KH (and International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism) responsibilities. (You’ll still see me at a handful of May KH events, including our FUNdraiser Bocce social and a Bat Mitzvah)

Here is what we’ve planned to cover KH’s needs during June, July and August:

  • Our offices will remain open, with our amazing administrator Jeremy Owens handling requests, putting out KH communications, and keeping the lights on!

  • If a KH member dies or there is a family emergency, I will serve the family and officiate the funeral, if desired. I take those responsibilities very seriously.

  • If a KH member’s family who lives in another household dies, we have KH members who have been trained to lead memorial services. David Hirsch worked with our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman and has led services for KH members in the past, and Marla Davishoff will graduate this month from the IISHJ’s Life Cycle Officiant Program.

  • We are doing our best to schedule upcoming KH life cycle events before my sabbatical starts. I have also been working with B Mitzvah students who will be celebrating in Fall 2022 and early 2023 so their presentations will be in good shape by then.

  • To keep our community connected through the summer, Kol Hadash will run a reduced schedule of Shabbat celebrations, some in-person and some online. The technical details of running hybrid programs that are simultaneously online AND in-person are very complicated, so our summer events will be online OR in-person but not both. We have a very interesting lineup of guest speakers and programs – special thanks to our Steering Committee chair Victoria Ratnaswamy for taking the lead on organizing these events. Stay tuned to your May-June and July-August Shofar newsletters and weekly emails for dates, topics and speakers.

  • Rosh Hashana starts the evening of September 25. If all goes well, we’ll be back to full in-person services, though we expect to still have an online viewing option. I’ve already spoken with our Music Director Ellen Apley about our plans, and I’m looking forward to a wonderful opportunity to reconnect and revitalize KH at the start of 5783.

Between May 7 and September 7, please contact our Administrator Jeremy Owens at 847-383-5184 or jowens@kolhadash.com. I am deeply grateful for the ongoing support KH has offered me and my family over the last 18 years, as well as this opportunity to recharge my batteries!


Inheritance and Authenticity         

March/April 2022

All modern Jews are heirs to Jewish tradition and culture. One of the challenges of being heirs is choosing from our inheritance while being authentic to ourselves.

The generations of Jews who came before us created their Judaisms in their own image, based on their own beliefs and values. In some areas we agree with them: we too would love our neighbor as ourselves and be kind to the stranger because we too have been strangers.  In other areas, however we disagree, sometimes vehemently: our values do not prioritize men over women or Jews over everyone else, and we do not feel commanded to praise and petition a cosmic King. It does not help our sense of self to deny our disagreements, or to squelch our discomfort with texts and rituals that clash with our commitments to equality, freedom and human agency.

We are entitled to living our own lives by our values; if we only did what our parents, our grandparents and their grandparents would have wanted us to do, then it would not be our life. Yet we also want to remain connected to them beyond genetics or adopted ancestry. We find meaning in celebrating the holidays they celebrated, using the menorahs and kiddush cups they used, singing melodies and eating foods that have been treasured Jewish experiences for generations even if we do not believe what they believed.

Naturally, different Jews today have different beliefs, so they will also have differing points of discontinuity with their Jewish inheritance. Yet even Jews who share core values and beliefs, like Humanistic Jews, may still differ on what they choose to do with their inheritance. Some are comfortable standing for a Torah scroll as a sign of respect for Jewish wisdom, others feel uncomfortable doing so because of objectionable content. Some may feel inauthentic wearing traditional religious garb like a kippah/yarmulke [skullcap] or tallit [prayer shawl], others see them as emblematic of Jewish communal life. Some may even find the terms “rabbi” and “congregation” too religious and thus inconsistent with their secular lifestyle, while others are comfortable understanding them functionally as “teacher/leader” and “community.”

Like scientists and scholars who agree on methods but not conclusions, we must each find our own balance of inheritance and authenticity. We agree that both are important, and we agree that there should be consistency between the two. The space between individual choices is our opportunity for meaningful dialogue and building community through diversity.

If you want to explore the topic of Inheritance and Authenticity further, join us for a panel discussion with Rabbi Adam Chalom, Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld and Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas on Saturday morning, April 23 – look inside The Shofar for more information! This program will be offered both in-person at Kol Hadash and online.


The Paradox of  “Love Your Neighbor"

 January/February 2022

There are many versions of the so-called “Golden Rule” in human cultures around the world; there are even many versions within Jewish tradition alone!

  • “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18
  • “The stranger living with you shall be treated as the native born, and  you will love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34
  • “You shall love the stronger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:20
  • “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” Rabbi Hillel in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

Even if we assume that we DO love ourselves in a healthy enough way that we can be generous to others by caring for them as well, there is an inherent paradox in this commandment: how do we know how THEY themselves would want to be treated?

We could simply take the statement more generally – we should treat them as just as important, worthy of respect and care and consideration as we do ourselves and as we want to be treated by others. In that sense, these rules are early expressions of human rights, personal dignity, and social justice. We also know that these rules appeared alongside other, more objectionable laws and in societies that accepted slavery, gender discrimination, and further injustices.

The essential truth, however, is that no one person can think or feel exactly what another person thinks or feels. We can hear what they say and watch what they do, which we will interpret in our own way, which may or may not be close to what they meant. In the end, the individual freedom to say what one thinks, to express how one feels, and to pursue what one desires is vital to our treating them as we would be treated.

The paradox is that to truly love our neighbor, we have to let our neighbor be themselves and tell us HOW they want us to love them! Too often we think that caring for others is like magic – positive intent covers any unintended or unforeseen collateral damage, and we “just know” what is good for them even if they disagree. We may feel a need to give them a hug, but they may not want it – whose needs are we really meeting?

Rather than assume, we should first listen carefully, and then offer to help in the way they prefer; that is the best way to love our neighbor as themselves.


Advising Independence           

 November/December 2021

There is a paradox to being a Humanistic rabbi. On one hand, we are heirs to a legacy of Jewish learning, wisdom and authority. As such, people rely on us for guidance and advice, insisting on referring to us using our titles. On the other hand, our philosophy of Humanistic Judaism encourages each person to direct their own life, to define their own values, to create their own sense of meaning and purpose. At our best, Humanistic rabbis are authorities without being authoritarian, which can be a challenging line to straddle. The balance can be even more complicated when we try to guide people to find their own directions.

When I applied for my first full rabbinic position at age 25, I was asked how could I help people deal with the challenges of life given my age. It was a fair question: I was unmarried with no children, my parents were all alive and fully independent, I had never bought a house or even my own new car. I was not even ordained – that would happen the next year! How could I possibly counsel couples getting married, parents grappling with children and money and adult life, adult children dealing with aging parents, or anyone facing the pain of loss and grief? I offered two answers: “I’m getting older as fast as I can,” and “One of my most important jobs when helping people is just to listen – to be a caring ear and shoulder and embrace, to offer support and encouragement. If I can find parallels in my own experience or what I have learned about life through reading and listening, that can be helpful. In the big picture, though, my job is not to tell them what to do; it is to help them figure out their options so they can choose for themselves.”

Twenty years after my ordination, I certainly have much more of my own life experience to draw on, with my own teenage children, bought and sold houses, mourning a parent and making it through 19 years and counting of my own marriage with our own unique challenges and triumphs. And twenty years of rabbinic work also provides a wealth of insight into the human condition. Rabbi years, with all of our contact with death and loss and marriage and life, are a bit like dog years, worth multiple years of ordinary human life. If nothing else, gray hair and a beard add a bit of gravitas if that is what people are looking for.

With all that, I still see my job as pastoral counselor the same way as I did at that job interview – to listen, to support, to encourage, to uplift, and most important to empower. It is your life, not mine, and telling you bluntly what I would do will not help you steer your own ship. If I can provide a new perspective to understand the challenge, motivation to face it, and encouragement on your chosen path, then I have met my goals on your way to meeting yours.


2021—High Holidays — 5782 After Disaster         

 September/October 2021

We respond to tragedy through mourning and learning. After what seemed like disaster after disaster over the past year, how best to move forward? We are told that asking questions, and answering questions with questions, is very Jewish. What must we ask and answer today, now, in this moment?

The Plague
Rosh Hashana Evening     September 6, 7:30pm

While the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, most of us have re-emerged from fear and isolation. What have we learned about ourselves and our society from this stress test of ethics and institutions? We must discover what failed, what succeeded, and what we need today. Past Jewish experiences rebuilding after disaster may offer lessons for our future.

Hatred and Indifference
Rosh Hashana Morning     September 7, 10:30am

Are we really “all in this together?” As active personal prejudice recedes, structural inequality has been revealed. Racism and antisemitism are both officially rejected and more complex than ever to understand and address. Our challenge remains choosing active empathy when indifference is easier. The Jewish New Year invites self-examination and self-correction.

The Jewish House Divided
Yom Kippur Evening     September 15, 7:30pm

Last century’s American Jewish unity faces multiple fractures in 2021. Diaspora Jewish responses to Israel range from support to frustration to anger to disengagement – sometimes within the same person. Divisions between the Orthodox and everyone else now extend to politics, lifestyle, and cultural values. As the Jewish family becomes ever more diverse, will we stay one people?

The American House Divided
Yom Kippur Morning     September 16, 10:30am

“The People’s House” was torn apart on January 6, making angry divisions in America impossible to ignore. As we learn more about dark sides of our history, the depth of our current divisions and radically different visions for our shared future, what can we do to bind up our nation’s wounds and steer our ship towards light and truth?

The Many and The One
Yom Kippur Memorial & Concluding     September 16, 3:30pm

The reality of over 600,000 American COVID-19 deaths is overwhelming enough. Each individual loss was a world of relations, connections, and love. During the Jewish year just ended, any loss was made more challenging by distance and isolation. This year, as we gradually reunite, we feel the full weight of the many and the one.


We Are Not Alone

 July/August 2021

Sometimes we all need to hear the phrase, “We are not alone.”

I do not mean this in the sense of extra-terrestrial life, though public conversations about UFOs have been in the news. I do not mean this as an affirmation that a cosmic personality is watching over us or personally connected with each and every person. And I do not mean “we are not alone” as a linguistic tautology – “we” as first person plural generally refers to a group, unless one is royalty, divinity, or egotistical.

As we gradually exit our pandemic-fueled isolation from other people, I suspect there is a quiet epidemic of pent-up loneliness. There are those who lost loved ones who did not have the opportunity to mourn surrounded by caring companions at memorials or shiva visits, and who now must adjust to re-emerging without their partner at their side or their parent to visit. There are some whose community of friendship and support was strengthened by in-person gatherings (health clubs, neighborhood activities, even attending congregational services) that did not do as well during quarantine. And maybe there are cumulative effects of not being with people for many months: from crowd anxiety to socialization withdrawal, we are reminded to be careful what we wish for because we just might get it.

It is entirely understandable that our orbit of concern contracted during a period of great stress, fear and challenge. Parenting during online school, grandparents unable to visit grandchildren, adult children unable to care for their aging parents as they would have liked – while some took advantage of Zoom and no work commute to reconnect with old friends, others constricted their circle to its essentials. At the same time, part of a mature Humanism is both to understand human nature and also to choose to act differently if our values or other people’s needs require it.

This month, we will be returning to in-person services. It will be wonderful to see our congregational family again that we haven’t seen in person for so long. It will also be a time to make new connections, to reach out to those we don’t know well, to open our doors to those seeking a community of meaning that celebrates human power and responsibility through our cultural Jewish inheritance.

The first chapters of Genesis state a universal human truth: “It is not good for humanity to be alone.” There is no guarantee that we will not feel lonely; it takes human attention and effort to make “we are not alone” ring true.


What Do We Learn 

  May/June 2021

As one of the strangest Sunday School years I have ever experienced (aside from last year!) draws to a close, I noticed a fortunate calendar conjunction: our last day of Sunday School falls on the eve of Shavuot, which many years takes place after the Spring conclusion of our youth education programs.

Shavuot [“weeks”] is celebrated 50 days after Passover – a “week of weeks” or 7 days x 7 weeks. Historically Shavuot was the summer harvest holiday, paralleled by Passover in Spring and Sukkot in Fall. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot was a major pilgrimage festival to the Temple in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 CE. And as happened with other harvest- and Temple-focused holidays, rabbinic reinterpretation added a new layer of meaning by connecting Shavuot with the giving of the Torah from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Over time, this last layer led to a tradition of late-night adult Torah study on the eve of Shavuot, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

So what can Shavuot mean for Humanistic Jews? Most of us do not harvest more than a modest backyard garden, and the Jerusalem Temple has been gone for 2000 years. And we believe that all Jewish literature and thought, including the Torah, was created by human beings. However, that last detail is what opens Shavuot to new possibilities.

Our Sunday School teaches Jewish cultural literacy, which means exploring Jewish life in all of its diversity and creativity. Yes, our foundational myths and literature, but also stories beyond the Bible and art and music and celebrations of life and food and everything else that gives Jewishness its unique textures and rhythms. They were all created by human beings, and they are all available for us to learn from at any age, on Shavuot or any time of year.

And our learning must be more than for learning’s sake alone; our study should lead to doing good and better in the world.

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza's house, in Lydda, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: "Practice is greater." Rabbi Akiva answered saying: "Study is great, for it leads to practice." Then they all answered and said: "Study is greater, for it leads to action." (Bablyonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b)

Last year, the Society for Humanistic Judaism organized an online Shavuot learning program as one response to the isolation of the early months of the Coronavirus pandemic. This year, we are preparing for our second – stay tuned for more details as the program comes together. The first year something new is innovation, even heresy; the second year it becomes a tradition!


Inclusion and Exclusion       

 March/April 2021

What is the right balance of inclusion and exclusion?

Kol Hadash prides itself on being an inclusive congregation. We welcome families and individuals of every variety: young and old, straight and LGBTQ, multi-heritage/intermarried and single, born Jewish and “Jews-by-choice”, and any location now that our programming is online! One of the reasons we created our Contributing Membership was to eliminated the economic exclusion of rigid membership dues.

We also celebrate the Jewish pluralism of individual choice. Some of our members choose to fast on Yom Kippur, while others do not. We create Values in Action community service events as opportunities rather than guilted obligations or mandatory participation. Some host family seders, others only celebrate Passover with Kol Hadash if at all. We had and will have no formal dress codes for in-person services or required (or prohibited) ritual clothing. And we try to include a variety of elements in our shared services: English balanced with Hebrew and other Jewish languages, prose and poetry, music and silent reflection.

But there is a limit to our inclusivity, because we do have shared core values as a congregation of Humanistic Judaism; we are not just a social club of our members. If someone insisted on having the congregation gender-segregated or reciting traditional Jewish prayer liturgy, it would be right and proper for us to respond, “You are welcome to find communities that practice their Judaism like that, but that is not who we are.” If we do not stand for something and never say no, then we do not stand for anything.

It may feel contradictory, but both of these statements are true for us:

· Individuals are free and encouraged to make up their own mind about their beliefs and Jewish practice.

· Some of those beliefs and practices may not be consistent with Humanistic Judaism.

We have no Inquisition; we have no interest in pursuing “thoughtcrimes” or enforcing a new secularist orthodoxy on anyone. We have some members who, in their homes, choose to use both Humanistic and traditional Hanukkah candle blessings because of nostalgia, emotional attachment or Jewish literacy; and other members only use Humanistic blessings because of their desire for integrity and consistency. We have many varieties of theological belief that call our community home. When we celebrate together, we meet on the shared ground of Humanistic Judaism: a focus on this world and this life and what we can do together to understand and improve it, and a celebration of Jewish culture as the creation and re-creation of people over the centuries.

For some, it takes getting used to, balancing acceptance of pluralism with maintaining self-definition. But most of us would not have our community any other way.


More Light is Coming         

 January/February 2021

It’s not an accident that many cultures light lights as the days get shorter and the darkness grows. Perhaps it stems from imitative magic, wanting to show the sun how to burn brighter and brighter – and it works every year! Or maybe it was an early psychological insight that human creation and effort can counteract the indifference of nature. If there is less light outside, we can make light ourselves to be a little less cold, a little less dark, a little less alone.

So there are deep human roots and needs behind Hanukkah, and Diwali, and Christmas lights, and Kwanzaa, and the Roman festival of the Unconquered Sun (marked on December 25, by the way) among others. As we face a challenging winter in 2021 between COVID spread, shutdown blues, economic difficulties and political turmoil, we could use some reminders of light and hope and future.

Despite the rising cases, there has been some progress in dealing with the coronavirus – better treatments for those infected, progress on a vaccine in record time using revolutionary new techniques, and thus a light at the end of the tunnel from shutdowns and isolation. It may still be another year until we can gather together again “like normal,” but there is a horizon. Now if only we can convince more people to keep their distance sufficient and their masks on for that time….

We have also seen millions of people do the right thing – cancel family events, avoid taking trips, wearing their masks, walking around us in grocery store aisles. We remember the jerks, the viral videos, the hypocritical politicians telling us to stay home….from their vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (see Mayor of Austin, TX). But the large numbers of people being considerate of others and staying safe get less attention than they deserve.

There are all those people working to help others – the hospital and nursing home staff, essential personnel, teachers facing novel challenges whether online or in-person, grocery store employees, and so many more. Some of us may be retired, or able to work from home relatively easily, so our lives may have been more limited but not more dangerous over the last several months. But we would be helpless without the help of others in more ways than we even know.

And there is the power of life. People are still getting married, and sometimes more people can attend online than would have been able to celebrate in person before the pandemic! Children have still been born and adopted and fostered, pets have found new homes, gardens have been planted and harvested. We still have sunny days and starry nights and brilliant moons, and while we live and breathe we can laugh and sing.

The darkness is real, but so too is the light we create, alone and together. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.


Jews and Democracy

November/December 2020

Which kind of society is truly “good for the Jews?”

There are risks to every system; anything made and run by people can fail. Historically, capitalism has created wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs, misery for factory workers, and antisemitic accusations against both
“Jewish-owned” capital and “Jewish-inspired” labor unrest. Socialism officially banned antisemitism but has also accused Jews of being “bourgeois nationalists,” “European colonialists” in Israel, and stubbornly particular in Diaspora in opposition to internationalism.

At times, dictatorships have been nicer to Jews than popular will might have demanded – the Tsar of Bulgaria
refused to deport Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, and the Shah of Iran was certainly nicer to Iranian Jews
and the State of Israel than Ayatollah Khomeni and his revolutionary successors, who were much more
popular. By the 20th century, democracies had finally granted Jews rights as individual citizens, though it was
the democratic Weimar Republic that collapsed into Nazi Germany. And, as we have seen in recent years, free
speech and the right to bear arms can be used for evil as well as good.

Still, it is not an accident that the overwhelming majority today’s 15 million Jews live in democracies: over 13
million are in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and
Argentina. While some of these democracies give Jews communal recognition with chief rabbis and
government funding, others prioritize free association and the separation of religion and government. In all of
them, Jews can vote and serve in public office, they live and work without legal discrimination, and they
advocate for causes they value.

There is no traditional mitzvah to participate in democracy; no one ever voted for God, Moses, the Torah or
the Talmud. Much of traditional liturgy, reflecting the politics of its era, suggests either monarchy or theocracy
is the ideal - rule by a human king from the line of King David, or rule by a divine King of Kings as managed by
his deputies (aka the clergy). So the fact that Jews vote in higher numbers is a learned behavior from recent
centuries of democratic experience. It is also a reflection of not taking those rights for granted, or assuming
they will always be there. Most important, it is a reflection of modernization that has dignified the individual,
their free choice and their voice in what happens to themselves and their society.

So when you feel fed up with democracy and its flaws, or campaign season and its ridiculousness, recall the
words of a recent hymn to democracy: “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” {Hamilton}


A New Year Unlike any Other

September/October 2020

Sometimes adversity really is opportunity in disguise.

The only Jewish New Year in my rabbinic experience remotely comparable to this one began on September 17, 2001. Just six days before, the world was turned upside down by 9/11, and we had to change everything. I had already written a sermon based on the metaphor of tearing down the old foundation to build anew – that definitely had to go! And what people needed to hear was very different from whatever we had planned before.

This Jewish New Year, we had 6 months’ notice that things would be very different. We might not have realized how different immediately at the Ides of March, 2020, but by now we are very familiar with the rules: no large gatherings in person, no group singing, lots of video time, and learning to do things differently.

Of course, Zoom existed before COVID-19, so we could have been doing online programming all along. And some celebrations may be permanently changed – the Zoom Passover seder bringing together family across the country may be here to stay. The challenge of new circumstances has often sparked Jewish creativity in the past, as the rabbis adapted to Judaism without animal sacrifices after Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and new beliefs and opportunities led to “reforming” Judaism to adapt to the Enlightenment and Emancipation.

So we at Kol Hadash will be definitely doing Jewish VERY differently this year. We are preparing gift bags for each member household with creative items to mark the New Year, from suggested foods to reflective readings for each of the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to apples and honey. Thanks to our Values in Action volunteers, these should arrive a week or so before Rosh Hashana, along with a printed booklet for our special online High Holiday services and other goodies.

We could have created this all along, of course, but the distance we predict we will feel when we are not in the same room to hear Kol Nidre demanded extra effort to reach out and be connected. These may become a long-term tradition in some form too – only time will tell.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and safe Shana Tova/New Year.


A Thousand Words  

August 2020

In the language of multiple intelligences, Humanistic Judaism is usually a verbal approach to Jewish life.

Howard Gardner’s famous educational theory described various intelligence and learning styles: verbal (reading, writing, talking), spatial (drawing, design, engineering),  mathematical (calculation, counting), kinesthetic (body awareness, movement), and musical intelligences. This approach is a wonderful way to understand the diverse value of individuals and to push yourself to think differently. I am terrible at drawing, decent at calculations, and given my professional choice and love of crossword puzzles most inclined towards the verbal. Yet I love to experience the talent of someone who is differently brilliant.

Humanistic Judaism has historically been very word-focused – we care what we say in any language, we use English poetry and prose in our services to find inspiration, and we have tried to explain who we are and why we do what we do at length for over 50 years. For some, those words resonate deeply and they come back for more. At the same time, we have to find ways to celebrate that speak and sing to more than just the verbal.

Music has been an important part of Kol Hadash from its founding, and because of our verbal inclinations we have also put extra effort into our design and aesthetic presentations. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially in the age of Instagram. If we can’t explain our Humanistic Judaism in visual vocabulary, our outreach will remain limited.

Hopefully you’ve already noticed the fruits of some of our Social Media work with Sarah Best Strategy – in addition to helping us with messaging and posting on Facebook and Instagram, they are sharing their visual expertise to help us express ourselves visually. In 2020, a complicated celebration of the Fourth of July required more than platitudes (see https://hjrabbi.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-jewish-american-dream/ for the poem referenced in the image).

When it comes to communication, sometimes less is more – fewer words, more meaning. Be sure to follow our Facebook page and “Insta” (as the kids say) over the coming months!


Being Alone, Together    

 June/July 2020

Some years ago, I realized that when I was training to become a rabbi twenty years ago, I never expected to spend as much time in front of a computer screen as I actually did. Little did I know…

Centuries ago we were told to beware the Ides of March, but the knives we face are much harder to see and avoid than those used by Roman senators to kill Julius Caesar. We have learned to live with a level of fear in our daily lives that we never anticipated, and this stress has affected our rest, our dreams, our relationships, and the very act of leaving our houses. We know more about epidemiology, supply chains, cleaning methods and our rate of toilet paper consumption than before. Technology that already existed and was already infringing on our reality has become omnipresent through our children or grandchildren’s e-learning, our own business and social lives, and most forms of entertainment. I count it a victory that my children enjoy playing cards with me – real, physical, tangible playing cards with no screen!

We have also had new insight into ourselves. Some couples and nuclear families have drawn closer together through the challenges and enforced isolation, while others are uncomfortable spending so much time together – it may depend on the particular day which one of these your household is! We can get used to almost anything, from leaving more space in the grocery store to wearing masks to protect others. Even the introverts and people used to living alone are starting to miss seeing people in real life.

No doubt, this has been a difficult few months so far, with more difficult months to come. There have been a few nonfatal cases of COVID-19 in our Kol Hadash extended family, and deaths not connected to the disease whose mourning processes have been affected by our isolation. And as we move forward, there will be more challenges, more illness, and possibly returning to more restrictions after a period of more freedom. Returning a limited life would be both easier and harder than experiencing it for the first time. And there are many more new experiences yet to come – a socially-distanced summer and then High Holidays and a national election and more.

Through all of this, I draw strength from the resilience of the Jewish people, who have adapted to new challenges and circumstances many times in their long history. I am inspired by the hard-working people who are performing the real miracles: feeding the hungry, curing the sick, helping all of us to survive and even thrive. And I am grateful to be part of a caring and concerned community which asks often how and whom it can help, a community that draws strength from each other. Though we are alone, we have been and will be alone, together.

If context matters, then we need to both understand this new context and then be flexible enough to change and adapt – as Judaism always has.


Context Matters

April/May 2020

For most of Jewish history, Judaism was a portable tradition. While there were ancient ties to a far-off promised land, Shabbat could be celebrated in Poland or Algeria or Central Asia or the American Midwest. Of course, sleeping outside in a sukkah [festival hut] in mid-October might have been more comfortable in Algeria than in Poland. And in their dispersions, Jews were always influenced by the peoples and cultures around them. We know they mixed personally by how different Jews look from different parts of the world, and we know they mixed culturally by the wide range of Jewish language, foods, music and clothing they used.

Context matters. Celebrating Passover with its traditional ending of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” would feel very different if it were done in Israel versus in Chicago or in Poland (or on a cruise ship – yes, people do that for Passover now!). And the gathering makes a difference – these days, non-Jewish family and guests change the dynamics of most Passover seders. In Israel, the national Yom Ha-Shoah/Holocaust observance later that Hebrew month includes two minutes of public silence while an air raid siren sounds. Outside of Israel, it is generally an optional observance in the private spaces of synagogues, community centers museums and memorial events.

Context matters. We are working to create community for the 21st Century Jewish family, not the Jewish family of 1950. So old ideas like what it means to “look Jewish” or “sound Jewish” need to change – they were often “ashkenormative” [acting as if all Jews are Ashkenazi/European] ideas anyways. The new concept of “doing Jewish” being open to anyone and including a wide range of activities beyond prayer and Torah study fits well with our Humanistic Jewish approach to cultural Jewish identity celebrated through individual freedom and choice. And we have great experience celebrating partnerships and families who are “Jewish AND” other cultural and religious heritages.

Yet the context today is not always in our favor: an era of declining religious identity may also mean a decline in community attachment, less curiosity about one’s family past, and the attenuation of immigrant memories. To survive and thrive, our Jewishness needs to be more than nostalgia, and in the internet era of free and new instant and individualized, it can be hard to turn the ancient ship fast enough.

If context matters, then we need to both understand this new context and then be flexible enough to change and adapt – as Judaism always has.


Values Voting

February/March 2020

Ready or not, here comes another national campaign year. Primaries, debates, rallies, fundraising appeals, op-eds and Facebook posts. And finally, long after we have had enough, a chance to vote and put an end to our misery. Or perhaps to see a new misery begin.

Ever since election pundits coined the term “values voters,” it has been applied to religious and social conservatives who vote based on their “values” of opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Every year the Christian fundamentalist Family Research Council hosts a “Values Voter Summit” with an explicit goal: “to preserve the bedrock values of traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government that make our nation strong.” In 2016, then-candidate Mike Pence called it "the greatest gathering of conservative pro-family Americans in the nation.”

All of this rests on the false belief that people need religion to be good people, and that religion defines the complete set of positive, socially-desirable values. It is feared that without the belief that a god commands you to love your neighbor as yourself or to care for the widow and orphan or thou shalt not kill or steal, the alternative is amoral anarchy of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” [Tennyson] And so people who vote with their values, it was assumed, must be religious since they have values.

We all know that this is not true. Secular people, and for that matter adherents of liberal religions, DO have positive values and beliefs, even if they differ from those of traditional and fundamentalist religions. We believe in the dignity of human beings to choose how they live and whom they love. We believe in equal treatment for all, and thus see through a ploy to use “religious liberty” to continue discrimination and disparate treatment. We are “pro-family” – we have a broader definition of “family” (see illustration, except for “Batman” example). We value scientific literacy, and cultural diversity, and much more.

So if and when you choose to vote, feel free to vote your values. After all, you too are a values voter.


Time and Space     

 December 2019/January 2020

As some of you know, I live near the site that was formerly Congregation Bnai Torah in Highland Park. After the congregation closed, it has sat there vacant for many years. As of this writing, the demolition has begun. In a few months, new arrivals to the area will not know what used to be there, just as many people driving on Deerfield Road just west of I-94 only see an apartment complex. They cannot imagine the Congregation Beth Or building that was there for 40 years, a site of Humanistic Jewish celebration and memory for most of its lifespan. Time moves on, and so do we; time has no memory, but we do.

This is likely the last Shofar column I will be writing in our offices in Lincolnshire, which we have occupied since 2006. Most of our members have no idea where the Kol Hadash offices have been, unless they have come to an adult education class or a Steering Committee meeting, or met with me for a wedding or a funeral or just to talk. Most of the time, it has been our administrator Jeremy and I, and all the High Holiday services and Sunday School supplies, and our congregational library (yes, we have a small congregational library), and our shabbat services, and our files and files and files.

Our space is not been fully defined by our things, of course. What makes a house a home is more than clothes and dishes. There are also the phone calls and the emails, the sermons written and the ceremonies created, the emotions felt and the memories made. The art on the walls, the view from the window, even the annual luncheon hosted by the office building where we see all of the other businesses that work in their own worlds the rest of the year.

My next Shofar column will likely be written in our new offices in the North Shore Unitarian Church, where we held our classes and Shabbats and High Holidays for the last several years. This will put our behind-the-scenes office space and committee meetings with our public events and programs, and it will certainly simplify administrative work to organize everything. Still, transitions are worth noting, and I have no doubt that this next stage in our congregational life will be an important step forward.

In the future, if you drive by the corner of Olde Half Day Road and Milwaukee Avenue, maybe you’ll remember that once upon a time, there was a space in the office building behind the Walgreen’s that was the home of Kol Hadash. We do not need an historical plaque if we remember to remember.


Doing Jewish

May 2018

There’s a new conversation happening on the cutting edges of the Jewish community. Should we stop talking about “being Jewish,” and instead focus on “doing Jewish?”

A generation ago, Jewish identity aka “being Jewish” was the core focus. It was a feeling, a sense of self, a group identification that, it was assumed, would inevitably lead to joining a Jewish community, supporting the Jewish state of Israel, remembering the Holocaust and raising Jewish children. Assimilation and intermarriage were the greatest dangers because they would undermine “being Jewish” now and in the future, and thus they were resisted with great effort and expense. And we heard endless discussions of “who is a Jew,” “are you a Jewish American or an American Jew,” and other varieties of identity policing.

These conversations have become tired and irrelevant for many reasons. When over half of marriages involving Jews are to people of other religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and an increasing population of children of intermarriage who may choose to be “both” rather than “either/or,” a Jewish community primarily focused on “being Jewish” can be alienating. Identity labels themselves have become less attractive, be they political parties, religious denominations, or other tribalist markers. Anyone can DO yoga whether or not they believe or identify with the traditional theology behind it.

So what is meant by “doing Jewish”? It could be reading Jewish literature, from Torah to today, for insight and discussion. It could be preparing Jewish food for a holiday or special occasion. Singing Jewish music, studying Jewish history, traveling to Jewish sites – all the activities that Humanistic Judaism has emphasized count in addition to more conventional examples like attending Jewish services and studying Jewish texts. Anyone, no matter their personal heritage or self-identification, can “do Jewish” in these ways; what’s changed is extending that openness to Jewish services and celebrations, and also how we do them.

I still see a place for “being Jewish” as having a positive place in Jewish community life. For some, identifying with their people and heritage is meaningful. For those who have become Jewish, the “being Jewish” is clearly important to them. Yet I also see the shift from “being” to “doing” as very consistent with our Humanistic approach to life in general – what you think and feel are important, but what you DO is just as important to express your values and reinforce your beliefs.

Pedigree is less important than performance, and hope without action does little. It’s why we sing, “Na’ase shalom – let us make peace.”

As the 19 th century Humanist Robert Ingersoll put it, “Labor is the only prayer that nature answers; it is the only prayer that deserves an answer – good, honest, noble work.”

So let’s get doing!


Being Traditional

March 2018

I sometimes wonder if people really know what “tradition” means. They say they want a “traditional” Jewish wedding, or they say in their family’s Jewish life they “keep the traditions” – but they never mean that they follow the kosher dietary laws or avoid turning on lights or using money on Shabbat. (after all, Jews that do that are unlikely to come to ME for their celebrations!) By “tradition” they usually mean the episodic traditions of Hanukkah and Passover, or they are looking for the visible symbols of a Jewish wedding like a huppah [canopy], sharing wine, and breaking a glass.

I respond by clarifying that in some cases there IS no one tradition; for example, Ashkenazi/East European Jews often name babies after deceased relatives while Mizrahi/Middle Eastern Jews name after living ones. And in the 21 st Century, traditions are not carved in stone. If BOTH the groom and the bride want to break a glass at the end of the wedding, they can!

Of course, I understand what they really mean when they are asking for a “traditional” ceremony. They don’t want women separated from men or long passages in Hebrew they don’t understand or believe. What they want is the endorsement of Judaism. They want their ceremony to feel authentic, to be accepted by their Jewish family and friends. Whether or not it fits their lifestyle or agrees with their personal beliefs is not the question; whether it “feels Jewish” is the point.

The genius, and the challenge, of Humanistic Judaism is to strive for both – to feel authentically Jewish and to live with the courage of our convictions. There are times it is easy to do both, like experiencing a klezmer music concert or learning something new about Jewish history. And there are times it is more challenging, particularly when more religious family members have very definite opinions or when our Humanistic beliefs push for changes in our Jewish inheritance.

It can feel easier to fall back on “this is what Jews do and say,” and accept what is conventional. But I’ve found in my life, and part of my job is encouraging others to discover, that living out Jewish integrity can make experiences meaningful in new ways. Sharing a Lea Goldberg poem about memory at a funeral is not the same as reciting the traditional kaddish; it is moving, differently.

And that’s the real goal of these ceremonies and celebrations – to be moving, to open ourselves to emotional experience and connection. Sometimes tradition does it, and sometimes creativity is more effective. Our privilege is to be able to use both.


Values in Action

February 2018

One of the major attractions of Humanistic Judaism is our relevance. We focus on what people can know and do to understand and improve their lives. Our attention is on this life, this world, and real human experience. Our celebrations emphasize action and responsibility, the need to make a positive difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. When we are asked, “If you don’t pray for divine intervention, what do you do?” we can answer, “we DO.”

As simple as “we do” is, the devil is often in the details. “We” are a community of individuals, and we would not want to be part of an organization that demands we agree on every important issue. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we should avoid telling them exactly what to think!

There are also legal limits on what congregations can do in the public square: advocacy on specific issues related to its organizing philosophy is kosher [acceptable], but endorsing or opposing specific candidates or political parties is trayf [forbidden]. And this extends to using congregational resources; an endorsement or opposition in this column, even if only in my name and not officially by the congregation, could jeopardize our tax-exempt status, aside from also being divisive and exactly the kind of religious meddling in politics we object to when others do so.

So how can we balance being involved in the wider world with our legal and philosophical commitments? We can create a clear set of guidelines for the kinds of issues that emerge directly from our Humanist and Jewish perspectives: protecting religious freedom and civil rights, opposing antisemitism and discrimination, promoting peaceful debate and the like. We can create a process to create consensus rather than division before acting on behalf of the congregation. And we can encourage members to connect with each other while making sure we remain a community of Humanistic Judaism rather than a vehicle for political organizing.

To be sure, this approach is more complicated than either abstaining from public affairs entirely or diving in to take stands on every current event. It requires contemplation, conversation, and willingness to live with disagreement. Yet these are all key elements of both Humanistic philosophy and a pluralistic Jewish culture. To put our values into action, we need to live our values as well.


Sat, December 3 2022 9 Kislev 5783