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Monday, September 17, 2018

Looking Heavenward

I noticed the slender form of the moon high in the sky a few nights ago. I noted how starkly different I felt looking at it, from how I greeted the moon from about mid-July on. For well over thirty years my eyes would glance skyward from mid-summer on, noting the progress of the phases of the moon as my kishkes were telling me that the High Holy Days were advancing. Though my survey has hardly been scientific, I have noted that my Rabbinic and Cantorial colleagues share this astronomic awareness during the summer months.

The summer of 2017 was the first in many decades when I was not feeling the pull of the moon. It was the first year, since high school, when I would play no role in leading High Holy Days services in one community or another. But this year, having accepted the invitation to head to New Hampshire’s North Country and the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation to lead services throughout this year’s season, I found the moon’s pull grabbed me anew this summer. Now that Rosh Hashanah has passed, and with Yom Kippur very much on the horizon of tomorrow’s sunset, noticing the moon is not as daunting as it was but a month or even just weeks ago. I might add, gazing skyward here in the White Mountains is a truly awe-inspiring experience. So too is looking out with a more earthbound gaze.

Over the past 4½ months I have been carrying a heaviness in my kishkes – and I am far from alone. It, too, has to do with looking towards the sky. In early May, a former student, teacher, mentor and longtime friend was tragically killed in an accident which took his life at way too young an age. Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion died in early May. I know that his family, whom I have known on both sides for almost 40 years is shaken to its core. All of us, his colleagues, friends, students – all of us who knew Aaron are still finding it hard to assimilate the reality of his death. Aaron was a teenager and participant in what was then known as CRaFTY – City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth, (as NFTY’s New York City region was then known) when I first met him. While serving at my first congregation, NYC’s Temple Shaaray Tefila I had the privilege of serving as CRaFTY’s Rabbinic Advisor. It was a volunteer role. The young people I met in those early years of my rabbinic raised me as a rabbi (as did many of their parents.) Many of them are still close friends.

Aaron, who must have been fifteen when I first met him, was always full life. He was the perfect blend of serious student and teacher; and playful friend and companion. Over the almost 40 years Aaron and I knew each other we went from Rabbi and student, to colleagues working with NFTY youth and at Eisner Camp, to rabbinic colleagues. In more recent years Aaron became my teacher and mentor, as well as President of HUC-JIR. Throughout all the transitions, he was always Aaron. NO matter what accolades and titles he earned, he remained one of the most genuine and menschlicht human beings I have ever known.

Preparing for these Holy Days I was reminded of an article Aaron wrote which was included in my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman’s masterful set of prayerbook commentaries, My People’s Prayerbook, published by Jewish Lights. Aaron’s piece is in a volume dedicated to unpacking the prayers of these High Holy Days which in a challenging reality is entitled Who By Fire, Who By Water. The volume tackles the challenging task of helping contemporary Jews and others face some of the most disturbing imagery contained in our High Holy Day Liturgy – the U’netaneh Tokef prayer.  Aaron’s essay is entitled, “The Eternal and the Ephemeral: The Stark Contrasts of U-n'taneh Tokef.” Additionally, a small commentary of Aaron’s was included in the Reform movement’s new High Holy Day Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh  as one of a number of study texts on the U’netaneh Tokef.
Aaron’s words are especially chilling as Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement looms: “Our actions help us live in such a way that when we suffer life’s darkest depredations, we will always have ways of coping with them. Our actions may not change the ultimate outcome one iota, but they alter our attitude, bolster our ability to withstand challenges, and help us handle unavoidable misfortunes better, and see life’s value amid chaos and dismay.”  Aaron, even in death, you teach us. Your words, your words speak to the dark and disturbing reality so many of us have been trying to grapple with since May 5th.

I have been thinking about Aaron daily. I have been unable to push myself to write anything about him since his death. The best I was able to do was post a picture from a few summers back when my son Aaron and I, along with several friends, ran into Aaron Panken on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street after Shabbat had ended. But I set as my task, speaking some words about Aaron at Yizkor (the Memorial service) on Yom Kippur. That time has now come. So too will some words.

Being up here in NH’s North Country, where one cannot help but look at the sky, I have thought often of Aaron. May his soul be at peace.  May the hearts of his loved ones find healing and some new form of wholeness in the aftermath of this tragedy. May all of us who knew Aaron, who learned, laughed and cried with him continue to feel his presence. May his memory be for each of, every day, a blessing.

To those who will be fasting, may it be an easy fast; and rather than making us fearful or sad, may Yom Kippur awaken us to life’s blessings and all the opportunities that lie before us in the New Year just begun.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Trifecta in the Dark - A Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon - September 10, 2018

I don’t know about you, but one thing I look forward to during summer is some escape to the movies. Sometimes it’s more about sitting in air-conditioning for a few hours. Often, it’s a time for me to catch up on films I have missed during the busy Winter and Spring. Inevitably, I am also looking for inspiration for these Holy Days. While I saw a small handful of films in theatres over the summer, one night in late July I hit the trifecta: air conditioning on a very hot night; escape from the chaotic realities of our world; and inspiration. It all came together as I ran to catch the very last showing in Great Barrington, MA of a film so many had told me I had to see. As I left the theatre with a friend that night, we were both emotionally drained, and deep in thought as we were trying to wrap our minds around what we had just seen and its relevance for our time. I spent several weeks bouncing that thought around; as well as reading everything I could lay my hands on about the subject matter of the film. I saw the film a second time with my wife and youngest son just a few weeks ago. Its impact was the same. Yet by this time I knew where my soul was taking me.

The film was Morgan Neville’s moving portrayal of the message of Fred Rogers, better known to many of us as Mr. Rogers. The film was aptly entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I entered the theatre thinking, “I know Mr. Rogers.” I know his work was admirable. For some reason, I couldn’t pinpoint why I did not know more than I did about him and his show. Shortly after the film began I quickly calculated, “Oh, I was already a teenager when his program first hit the national airwaves.” While I remembered the program from my own children’s early years, let’s face it, by then Sesame Street, Arthur, and other PBS offerings were more in vogue.

What was it about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that hit me in the kischkes so dramatically?  A few things – one, I learned more than I had ever known about the gentle, soft-spoken man who touched generations of young children and their parents. I learned about his philosophy, his life and how he came to be the person we know as Mr. Rogers. I learned about how his program was designed to create a fictitious world and neighborhood which would deal with real-life and real-world issues in a manner that would leave children feeling safe. At the same time, this neighborhood would enable them to learn and grow up to be persons of character and value, who were not sheltered from some of life’s harsher realities. I learned that while a Presbyterian minister (something I had known), Fred 
Rogers had a wide-open ministry in which he sought to speak the language of many faiths as well as to those of no faith. I learned of Fred Rogers’ courage in speaking truth to power as he testified before a Congressional hearing which had all but predetermined that funding for educational programming would be eliminated. His genuine and honest testimony moved a Congressman to do a 180-degree turnabout and immediately concede that the mild-mannered man before him had single-handedly saved funding for Educational programming. It was his courage to face tough issues like racism, the equality of all people in God’s eyes, the harsh realities of war; of people with disabilities; and ultimately the humanity and rights of people whom today we would identify as part of the LGBTQ communities. It was his heart-rending PSA after the events of 9-11, for which he had been coaxed out of retirement. All these, and more turned me from a curious spectator into a person who left the theater thinking, “I need to know more about this man, his message, and his life’s work.” His show lacked the pizzazz of so much else in entertainment, and to hear him tell it, intentionally so. Yet, I believe his message and philosophy were right on for the work he was doing. And, against the backdrop of our noisy, cantankerous, bitterly divided nation and the world, I felt as if Fred Rogers was speaking with an honesty and directness that is as relevant today, if not more so than it was in his heyday. As I mentioned, I left the film and sought out whatever I could find to learn more about this man who’d appeared in my home from time to time. I found only a few books – mostly collections of short teachings from the man himself. But I read and listened. Ironically, a full biography of Fred Rogers was published just a week ago.  Perhaps it too will make its way to my reading list.

There are two things that I read and heard, which struck me as powerful messages for these Days of Awe. And they arise from our Torah readings over these Days of Rosh Hashanah. A short while ago we heard chapter 21 of Genesis, in which we read the news of Isaac’s birth, and at the very same time, of the expulsion of Abraham’s son Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. Tomorrow morning, we’ll read the next chapter, Genesis 22, which we know as Akeidat Yitzchak or the Binding of Isaac. At a very real level, these two chapters, on which we focus for our Torah lessons on two of the most joyous days of our Jewish year are about children – their preciousness, and in a mysterious way, the pains that can come with parenting children. In some ways, these are strange choices for our Torah readings on days which tradition tells us to commemorate Yom Harat Olam – the Day of the Birth of the World. But for this moment I want to pull on the common thread of children and the sons who are so prominent in these two chapters. In our reading this morning, the elder, with his servant mother, is expelled into the desert following the birth of his younger, half-sibling at the insistence of mother Sarah. God assures Abraham that Ishmael and his mother will be cared for. There is a harsh reality at the heart of this story of the expulsion of a young boy and his mother because they are different. It was in this that I found a connection from our portion to Fred Rogers and his “Torah” as I was listening to the audio recording of his book The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember when I heard these words: “Please think of the children first. If you ever have anything to do with their entertainment, their food, their toys, their custody, their day or night care, their health care, their education – listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.”   As I heard those words I could not help but think of the hundreds of children still separated from their families by our government in its execution of a drastic policy as regards illegal immigrants. To be sure immigration is one of the landmark debates of our time. It has been for too many years as our leaders, from all parts of the political spectrum seem to lack the vision and the will to break the logjam that holds much if not virtually all our public policy in gridlock.

Fred Rogers’ words reminded me that in the face of dramatic public and political pressure the administration was forced to reverse its policy of detaining illegal immigrants and separating parents and children. While many of the families detained during that time some months back have been reunited, there are still too many children, hundreds of children, who are still separated from their families. In many cases, their parents have been deported. In many, the record-keeping was so shoddy that our government is unable to make the connections which would allow reunification. This is simply unacceptable – on any level. Reflecting on our Torah portion over the summer, I could not help but see a link between Ishmael’s expulsion (and separation from his father Abraham) and the children whose lives have been changed forever by the cruelty inflicted upon them by these heinous policies and actions. Even one child cruelly ripped from the arms of his or her parents is wrong. That hundreds remain in such a state is beneath the dignity of what we like to think of as our American ethic and values.

The second lesson is a bit broader but also arises for me from our Torah readings for these days of Rosh Hashanah. In tomorrow’s reading, an angel will stay Abraham’s hand as he moves to sacrifice his son Isaac. (I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow) but for now, I read that stay as a reminder of a lesson core to our tradition – that every human life has value and meaning. Again, I am drawn to the words of Fred Rogers, when he says, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have -something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” Whether Mr. Rogers knew it or not, in these words he was channeling a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the Founder of Modern Hasidism, wherein he taught of the infinite value of each person.

We stand on the cusp of a New Year. We spend these days reviewing our lives and asking for a fresh new page in Sefer HaHayyim, the Book of Life. We pray that we will be blessed with a productive, meaningful year. Hopefully, we will return a year from now and re-enact the process again. Undoubtedly, the time between now and then will be filled with imperfections and errors, even as it will I pray, be filled with good health, learning, challenges, successes, and blessings. For this too, Fred Rogers offers us some wisdom: “Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we aren’t perfect.”  Standing on the threshold of this New Year, with our imperfections and our ideals and values, may we stride forth into the year before us committed to doing our part in making this world the best it can be – perhaps by advocating for children – especially those whose lives have so cruelly been torn asunder; perhaps by reaching out to someone – family, friend, even a stranger, who can use to be reminded of their value – even as we remind ourselves during these Days of Awe of our own worth and potential. 

Oh, one more thing. The moment when my emotions burst forth while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It was when I heard Fred Rogers say, “We are called to be Tikkun Olam.” And it happened the second time, just as it did the first, even though I knew it was coming.  It was for a host of reasons. Not the least of them was the reality that in a world as broken as ours, we truly are called to be Tikkun Olam and to do Tikkun Olam.  That must be a part of the year ahead.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for touching my soul and those of so many others.

L’shanah tovah tikateyvu- May you be inscribed for a good year!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Feeling Losses, Counting Blessings

This is our season of introspection and reflection. For me, this is the first Holy Day season in my life as a husband, father and grandfather, when I am not spending the Holy Days with my family. In June I was invited to come join a small and inspiring community in Bethlehem, New Hampshire to be their worship leader and teacher during these Holy Days.  Having now spent two Shabbatot with them, I can say that I surely feel the absence of my family, and that I will miss being with them over these coming days. I also feel embraced and more deeply appreciated than I could have imagined by the community here in Bethlehem.

This summer has found me in my car more than ever, driving long distances. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to quite a number of audiobooks, on a wide range of topics. I have also had a lot of time to think – and given the beauty of my surroundings to take stock of life and the beautiful world in which we live. It’s kind of hard not to be inspired by the beauty of the Berkshires and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Along the way, and in recent days I have learned of the deaths of several people who have been a part of my journey over these past two decades. I was grateful that I was in town to attend the funeral service for Tony Bibbo, with whom I worked over many years in Newton community events, most especially the annual MLK Day commemorations and the Annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfasts.  Sitting in the congregation at his funeral service, thinking about my interactions with Tony and listening to the tributes from family and community leaders was deeply inspiring. It made me realize that in Tony, I had had the privilege of knowing and working with a living embodiment of the so many of the Mussar traits I study and share with others in my work as a Mussar group leader in congregations around the Boston area, in the Berkshires and in youth settings. As I have written on other occasions, Mussar teaches us how to travel a path that leads us to building strong character through developing our soul traits. These include: Anavah (Humility); Kavod (Honor or Respect); Hakarat HaTov (Gratitude); Menuchat HaNefesh (Equanimity); Emet (Truth); and so many more.  s I listened to the tributes to Tony at Thursday’s service, I realized that as much as I have studied and worked at practicing these, and other traits, in the setting of Mussar Study and practice, even more, I have learned them by being in the presence of and interacting with Tony Bibbo. He was a dear man, and a consummate mensch. Tony was a living embodiment of the best of Mussar tradition. He will be sorely missed by his family and by our broader our Newton community.  May his memory be for a blessing – and may he continue to be an inspiration.

Tony’s death, and the news of other deaths in our community, along with the health and other challenges of close friends has had me, as I drive from place to place, and as I prepare to lead a new community into the New Year, keenly aware of the preciousness of life and of those with whom we share this journey we call life. Even as I build new relationships in my temporary home in Bethlehem, I find myself ever more grateful for those who support and nurture me in my life – my family, my colleagues, my close friends, my teachers. I am richly blessed and have much for which to express my gratitude during these Holy Days.

As our Jewish communities prepare, with the setting of the sun this evening, to turn the page to a New Year, I pray for good health and sweet blessings – for my family and my friends. I pray for opportunities to continue to grow and learn. I pray for strength openness of spirit for our Jewish people, and our brothers and sisters in Israel. I pray for sanity and comity across our nation, and indeed for our world. May this New Year see us move towards one another with open hearts and minds as well as tangible acts that move us towards that wholeness we call Shalom!

To my family and friends, and our Jewish community – L’shanah Tovah u-metukah – wishes for a good and sweet year. To all, may we plant and grow seeds of blessing, understanding, and peace – for all!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Message from a 19th Century Teacher For Us!

I’ve spent a good bit of this summer exploring 19th-century Lithuanian Jewish life. And, I have done it from the Berkshire mountains in Western Massachusetts. After staring at two volumes on my growing shelf of Mussar books for several years, I decided that this was the summer during which I was going to take the plunge. And so, I pulled the two volumes ff my shelf and I dove into Professor Immanuel Etkes’ Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, and Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen’s Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar. These biographies of the Founder of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-83), and of one of his primary disciples, Rabbi Simchah Zissel Ziv (1824-98), grounded and expanded my own appreciation of and interest in Mussar. They shed new light for me on some of the realities and tensions within 19th century Eastern European Jewry. Reform Judaism and Hasidism, for that matter, were not the only innovations in Jewish life resisted by the more traditional Yeshiva-oriented world of that time and place. More about that another time. I found my visit to 19th century Lithuania to be enlightening, uplifting and inspiring in a number of ways. Along the way, I uncovered many new insights, and I happened upon a number of new sources, resources, and teachings which have now been added to my growing reading list.

Today I write to share one such teaching, which I uncovered just a few days before the start of our Hebrew month of Elul. This month is a time of spiritual preparation for our coming High Holy Days which begin with Rosh Hashanah (this year on Sunday evening, September 9th). Courtesy of Rabbi Claussen’s work I was introduced to a short piece which Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv posted on the door of his Talmud Torah (study hall) in Kelm during this month of Elul sometime in the 1860’s. As I read this notice from another time and place, I was struck by how much Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv’s missive could have been written for us in our time. Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen published a translation of the piece in the Jewish Review of Books in 2013, from which I share a few excerpts here as we prepare ourselves for the coming Holy Days.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv’s message opens: “As is known, the Sages taught [that God commanded]: “recite verses of Sovereignty (a reference to a section of the Shofar Service on Rosh Hashanah) before Me . . . so that you make me Sovereign over you” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34b). When we meditate upon the power to maintain a kingdom [ruled] by [a sovereign of] flesh and blood, [we find that] the kingdom is maintained only when the sovereign’s subjects are all like one person in their service to him. And if . . . division was to emerge among the subjects of the king, the knot of the kingdom would be untied, and (God forbid) the world would be destroyed. As our Sages of blessed memory said, “were it not for the fear [of the government], a person would swallow his neighbor alive” (Mishnah Avot 3:2). Thus [it is] the unity of the subjects [which] maintains the kingdom.”

As I read these words from a teacher in 19th century Lithuania, speaking no doubt to the divisions within the Jewish community of his time, I was struck by their resonance, both for our Jewish community in this 21st century, but also their resonance for us as Americans in these days.  And Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv’s missive continues ... “There is an obligation upon us, prior to the Day of Judgment, may it come upon us for good, to occupy ourselves during the entire year with the positive commandment “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). And through this, there will be unity among the subjects of the Blessed Ruler, and [God’s] Sovereignty will come into our hands well ...

“If God forbid, the sin of hating people is on our hands, how can we not be ashamed and disgraced to be speaking lies . . . when we ask, in prayer for God to ‘rule over the entire world, in Your glory’? We have not prepared ourselves to do what is essential for maintaining the kingdom of heaven . . . And so we must accept upon ourselves the work of loving people and of unity. With this, one’s path will slowly, slowly improve—and, in any case, one will already have turned a little bit toward repentance. And, if we merit a community that is immersed in this work during the entire year, who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the entire world?

“No one should say that this work is too difficult. It is not only the decree of [our God], but we hope that when one works at this, with appropriate reflection, it will slowly, slowly, become easier, and one will find great joy in it . . . This message should remain before our eyes all year long. And so may we all merit to be written and sealed for good [in the Book of Life] with the whole people of Israel. Amen— may this be God’s will.” 

My friends, these are, I believe, words worthy of our contemplation in these days of prelude and preparation for our Days of Judgment, our Days of Awe! They come to us from a teacher in another time and another place. But they easily could have been written for us. May we use these days to reflect, prepare for the work of Teshuvah- of repentance, and the work of healing ourselves, our relationships, and I pray, our world!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Conduct Unbecoming

Boy is it hot!! Indeed, cities the world over are experiencing record temperatures. Daily we read of wildfires, tornadoes, extreme heat waves and all the while summer is streaming forward towards Labor Day, our Jewish Holy Days, and a new “academic” year. For many, these lazy, hazy summer days provide some respite as many take off for vacations, relaxing and renewal. For me, summer seems to be flowing by all-too-quickly.

As the weeks roll by, our newsfeed fills up with seemingly all-consuming prognostication on this November’s midterm elections. All the while, our President continues his drumbeat of denigrating – his opponents, the news media, leaders and countries the world over, those who serve our country in leadership and security roles, in short, anyone who does not buy his rhetoric and his precise view on any subject. Of course, since his views and interpretations change with the wind, it’s nigh impossible for anyone who might be inclined to agree with him to choose and hold a position, or an interpretation. He surely doesn’t. Yet, it seems that there are many who hold firm with him as he careens from insult to insult, from denial to explanation.

Spending my summer in the Berkshires, without cable TV, and with infrequent Wi-Fi access, has its plusses. It allows me to unplug – at least somewhat, which is a good practice for summer (and probably throughout the flow of the calendar.)  Nonetheless, I am not without any access to news and updates. As I briefly tuned in to check on the news over the past week a few days ago, I was delighted to see that my Red Sox are enjoying continued success despite a recent spate of injuries. I noted that the Patriots and other NFL teams are beginning to prepare for their coming season. And, I was happy to hear that NBA star LeBron James (of whom I am not a big fan) is doing good for the folks in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Though not a fan, I admire his good works that have been reported in recent days.

Of course, reading about Mr. James’ acts of generosity, of both spirit and tangible resources, led to my learning about the President’s unnecessary and shameful attack on LeBron James, and CNN anchor, Don Lemon for an interview Lemon conducted with James about his gift. I also learned about the recent string of insults and statements of denigration that the President has let fly – against Rep. Maxine Waters of California; against media figures from both ends of the spectrum and from across the news channels; of actors; of military leaders who disagree with his “strategic assessments;” of those engaged in the investigations of possible infractions in the 2016 elections; of political consultants from both major parties; and of course of immigrants; and generally, anyone who does not buy his malarkey.

Catching up on the hideous stream of invective I was struck by a notion – couldn’t we hold the President as guilty of “Conduct Unbecoming” – unbecoming a Commander-in-Chief, unbecoming the leader of a major political party, unbecoming the occupant of the highest office in our nation, and by extension a place of prominence in our world, unbecoming a person who holds unlimited access to the Bully Pulpit of our Nation. I could go on. Of course, a Google search alerted me to the reality that this notion, which only struck me in the last week has already been raised over recent years by others.
Our leaders in our Nation’s Capital are on summer break. For some of them, it’s a shortened break owing to political realities and exigencies. Nevertheless, I wish that our elected officials, irrespective of political party, would step back from the fray and recognize that silence in face of the President’s shameful behavior and hateful expressions are, in fact, a silence of complicity to his Conduct Unbecoming.

Last week I wrote about my experience seeing the film that is playing around our country based on the life of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” In my piece, I expressed this wish that all our elected official would avail themselves of the opportunity to see this film, which asks us critical questions about our lives, our actions, and our stance towards those around us. Since publishing that piece I’ve listened to an audiobook about Fred Rogers, and I have become increasingly aware of the latest string of hatred pouring forth from the fingers and mouth of our Commander-in-Chief.

I am grateful that summer still has some run left in which to step back and away. I truly hope that we, as individuals, as community members and as “neighbors” in this great nation, irrespective of our political persuasions, will step back and consider the behavior of our highest official. He is, I believe, truly and daily, guilty of Conduct Unbecoming. I pray that our leaders, from the right and the left, from the Blue States and the Red States, from all parties, will step forward from whatever break they have managed, to bring us back together as a nation rather than allow the antics and infantile behavior of this  narcissist, who should be held as guilty of Conduct Unbecoming any aspect of the high office he occupies, to continue to drive us apart and sow discord across our country – and around our world. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Neighbors We Need - and Need to Be

I’d been hearing the buzz all summer. “Have you seen the Mr. Rogers film?” “It made me cry, and I wasn’t the only one in tears in the theater.” A week or two ago a friend asked, “Do you remember watching Mr. Rogers as a child?” I couldn’t quite recall, though I remember being aware of the show. I certainly knew of it and I had watched during the earliest years of my own children’s lives. 

So last week, I ventured to The Triplex in Great Barrington to catch the film. It was a good thing as it turned out to be the very last showing of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? out here in the Berkshires. It was one of the most meaningful and moving movie-going experiences I have had in a long time. And yes, I was sobbing as the film ended. If it is playing in your neighborhood – or along your travels, GO SEE IT!  As I remarked to the friend with whom I saw it, “This film is an antidote to so much of what we are living with these days.” I don’t think that is an exaggeration. Indeed, I wish we could make it required viewing for all of our leaders in Washington, DC during their summer recess!

I grew up in the generation that just missed Fred Rogers as part of their immediate cultural landscape. I was already preparing for my Bar Mitzvah as Fred Rogers went on the air in 1968. But I am grateful to filmmaker Morgan Neville (who also created the excellent Twenty Feet From Stardom which I recall seeing a few years back at our local Independent Film House in West Newton. While I had been aware of Fred Rogers and his PBS Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood program, Neville’s film is a deep-dive into the man, his work, and his message. It teaches us about his passions, his message, and his abiding and deep respect for and love of children. We also learn about his valiant and, ultimately, successful testimony before a Congressional committee to save funding for PBS and Educational programming.

Seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor has sparked my interest in learning more about Fred Rogers, and his work. I am currently listening to the audiobook version of The Simple Faith of Fred Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth.  Fred Rogers studied for and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. In my eyes, he truly conducted a sacred ministry, through the somewhat unholy medium of television. His interest in creating his iconic program was spurred on by his disappointment in so much of what passed for entertainment on TV as he was embarking on his career: people throwing pies in the faces of others for laughs; noisiness and chaos, not to mention violence; and the degradation of human beings -- all were sparks which kindled Fred Rogers’ mission. I believe that if we tune in, via this film – even now, we can yet be all the better for his life’s work.

We live in a time when our airwaves and our newspapers overflow with insults, incidents of bullying, hatred, bigotry and so much more wherein we are witness to the denigrating of the “other” and the diminishment of human beings and our society. Fred Rogers’ messages about the value of silence; human dignity; and the preciousness of each and every human life are inspirational. They leaped off the screen into my heart and soul and are a balm for the painful realities that surround me – and all of us – in these troubling times.

I learned a lot from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? And it wasn’t just about Fred Rogers, though the viewer certainly is granted an insider’s view of the man, his ideology, and his educational mission. In a world and a time when so many children have been ripped from the lives and arms of their parents, here comes Fred Rogers’ abiding belief in the preciousness and uniqueness of every child. To be sure, he had his detractors, which the film covers as well. He was the inspiration for numerous comedic“ take-offs” from other cultural icons such as Johnny Carson and Eddie Murphy. Some, like Boston Herald columnist Don Feder were downright cruel. But he maintained his dignity and his humanity in spite of it all. This too is a lesson for our time.

In the last third of the film, one views a Public Service Announcement for which Mr. Rogers was coaxed out of retirement to film for the first anniversary of 9/11. Speaking softly, as he always did, Fred Rogers looks straight into the camera, and says, ““We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairers of creation.” He shares that: “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” As I watched that clip I felt a shiver go down my spine. Within minutes, I realized that like those who had told me about their experience of seeing the film, I too was sobbing.

Fred Rogers was speaking to the generations who had grown up with him as their television neighbor. He spoke directly to the hearts and souls of parents who were trying to cope with a harsh new reality ushered in by the horrors of 9/11/2001. Yet, as I listened to his message in the darkened theater in downtown Great Barrington, I realized that he was not only speaking for those early years of this 21st century. He is still speaking – and this movie, which must be seen, enables us to hear what we may have missed back then. Not only should we hear it, but it should call us to action. It should call us to demand that we and our leaders look at one another, not as enemies, but as neighbors, locally, and nationally.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Sheer Delight

Ever had an experience that triggered such a powerful memory that it takes you back in time? I imagine we all had such moments. I had such two such moments this week, within the same 24 hours. I left the Berkshires earlier this week to travel home to Newton for the first time in over three weeks. In part, my purpose was to take care of errands and tasks at home. But if I am really honest, my real motive was to visit my children and our grandson, Ian. I mean, it’s been over two weeks since they were out to visit, and in the lifetime of this grandfather of a not-quite 17-month-old, that felt like forever.

There were moments during both of my two visits while I was playing with Ian when I was transported back almost thirty years to a time when his father, our oldest son, Benjamin, was Ian’s age. It was quite a different time in our lives. Not only were we new parents, and relatively speaking, newlyweds, we were also in the early part of our time in Mississippi. Just three months before Benjamin was born, Laura and I moved to Jackson, Mississippi where I became Rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation. We lived in that community for five years. It was the birthplace of three of our four children. We still maintain close contact with quite a number of folks from those years. Indeed, I am eagerly looking forward to spending a weekend back with the community this Fall as I visit as a scholar-in-residence.

We moved to Jackson from Manhattan's Upper East Side in the summer of 1987. We loved our time in Mississippi. But we missed the "City," and we would periodically make trips to the “big cities” around us in the South. Our most frequent visits were to New Orleans, which became a favorite destination for us as we came to love its many treasures and curiosities. We could also buy bagels and kosher meat there! Most of our visits were made with very young children in tow. We learned to seek out the city's many family-friendly sites.

The Louisiana Children’s Museum became a family favorite. From a very young age, Benjamin loved the place, as did his sister Sarah as she was born just a bit over two years later.I have incredibly vivid memories of Benjamin’s early years - and especially of the time he and I would spend on the floor of our family den playing, reading books, as he taught me to become a father. On one visit to the Children’s Museum, I spied a poem on the wall which I simply loved. To me, it summed up my experience as I learned the role of father. Every time we would visit the Museum I would steal away to re-read the words of the poem which struck me as so poignant and true about learning the role of parenting.

I was even more struck about a year later when, on Father’s Day, Laura presented me with a needlepoint she’d made of the poem. Somehow she had managed to copy down the poem during one visit to the Museum, and then under my very nose surreptitiously create and complete a needlepoint of it for me. To this day it hangs in our den (practically the only non-Pez decoration in the room! For those who don't know, Laura is a serious collector of Pez dispensers, but that’s a story for another time.)

Not once but twice during my visits with Ian this week, I was brought back to those moments in the Children’s Museum when I first encountered that poem. I was sitting in our children’s Dining Room which is, essentially, Ian's playroom. While we were together, more than once Ian wandered off and would come back to me with a book. He’d hand me the book, and proceed to crawl into my lap so we could read. He’s done that on a few previous visits. But for some reason, the intensity and comfort he seemed to find in sitting in my lap took me back to those words I first read on the wall at the New Orleans Children’s Museum. Each time he’d let me know he wanted to read the book again, or that he wanted a different book. If it was a different book, he'd get it, hand it to me, and then crawl right back into my lap. I was transported back to the days when his father would sit in my lap and teach me again and again the truths captured in that poem.

Ian, you filled my heart to overflowing!! I cannot completely find the words to express the love and gratitude which filled my heart and nourished my soul. You made time collapse and you transported me back three decades go your father's childhood.

What a gift children - and grandchildren are! I am grateful for that gift of family, even as I am mindful that there are those in our world, and sadly within the boundaries of our nation, who have been robbed of that joy and those blessings.