The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, August 7, 2015

Humility, Gratitude, Responsibility: Choosing Life through Text

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parashat Eikev
07 August 2015
Humility, Gratitude, Responsibility:
Choosing Life through Text

This week, Israel laid to rest a beautiful soul. Shira Banki, 16 years old, was among the six people stabbed by a religious fanatic at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Tragically, Shira succumbed to her wounds a few days later.

Her parents said she was “full of life and love,” an “intelligent, gentle, curious, musical girl.” She had been a concert pianist from a young age. Her parents went on to say, “All of her innocence, beauty, happiness and goodness fell on the altar of hatred, malice, cruelty, and ignorance… We are left with pain, longing, and shock that every parent would rather die than feel.”

One Israeli rabbi said: “In what upside-down world are the Bankis considered secular and the murderer…considered religious?” To do that is to cede to extremists the religious tradition we claim to uphold.

Certainly, the parade attacker Yishai Schlissel, may his name be blotted out, used religious language in the anti-gay pamphlets he circulated. He described the parade as “blasphemous,” a “march for abomination.” “It is incumbent upon every Jew to risk beatings or imprisonment and together to stop the desecration for the sanctity of His name. If we refrain from declaring war, they’ll feel free to spread this shame all over the world.” He also said on an ultra-Orthodox radio station that it’s worth doing “something extreme” to stop the Jerusalem Pride Parade.

So he acted in the name of Judaism. He acted in our name. And he had Jewish sources to back him up. Leviticus says that homosexual behavior is an abomination. Biblical stories depict zealots rampaging murderously for God, and being praised for it. That darkness is embedded in our texts, and if left unchecked it has consequences that are terrible and very real.

The question for us then is: what is the Judaism that we stand for? How is it different, what does it value, what is its vision? 

It is not biblical literalism, and we should be proud of that. We understand the Torah to be a product of people situated in particular social and historical settings. However divinely inspired the authors were, new contexts render some of their words less relevant in each age. We do not practice bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. Are we selective in our interpretation? Of course. Everyone is. The best anyone can do is be intellectually honest about it. 

God placed before the Israelites life and death and told them: choose life, that you and your children shall live. We also choose life: we choose a life-affirming approach to our text and tradition. We choose a path that doesn’t lead to murderous rampage in the name of religious piety. We reject a death-dealing Judaism.

We choose humility, and responsibility, and gratitude. I’ve spoken about these virtues before, and I find them shining through anew in this week’s portion. There are dark passages here too, about slaughtering all the nations in our way, leaving no one alive. But there is also light.

Let’s start with humility:
“Know, then (says God), that it is not for any virtue of yours that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deut. 9:6) Lest all the talk of chosenness go to our heads — God reminds us God loves us in spite of ourselves, not because we somehow merit God’s rewards and blessings.

Next, gratitude:
Moses describes the land of plenty into which the Israelites are about to cross, and how full their fields and bellies will be. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut 8:10). When you settle and prosper, never forget where you came from. Be grateful for the blessings in your life, earned or not.

These culminate in responsibility:
“Cut away…the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For Adonai your God is God supreme and the Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). Lest you think conquering tribes and settling their land is all we’re about, hear this: God is a champion of the vulnerable, the marginalized, the outsider. Being a follower of this God — being a Jew — means taking up these causes. 

The Pride Parade attacker, like the Jews who burned a Palestinian family home in the name of Judaism, killing the toddler Ali Dawabsha who was inside, thought he was doing God’s will. They call themselves Torah-True Jews. 

But they fail at humility, unwilling to admit their cosmic limitations. They fail at gratitude, so discontented with their lot that they burn to make others suffer. They fail at responsibility, forgetting the command to befriend the stranger, for we were strangers, too. They fail, in the end, at Torah by turning it into an idol. They destroy God’s image in their fellow human being.

To say Kaddish now for Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsha, along with our own, is to accept the burden of their memory. Zichronam liv’racha — may their memories be blessings by reminding us of the Torah we stand for, and agitating us to act more humbly, more gratefully, and more responsibly — in the name of Judaism — for as long as we walk this earth.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"The Man Upstairs?" Concert Reflections

Aspen Jewish Congregation
5th Annual Summer Concert
August 4, 2015

The Man Upstairs? Questioning God Through Music
Rabbi’s Reflections
(Italics indicates songs from the concert program)

In the Beginning
God Shuffled His Feet


Part 1

A watchmaker who wound up the universe and stepped back to let it run?
A puppet-master whose will spins galaxies and electrons, and everything in between?
A man upstairs sitting stone-faced on his throne, a cosmic Lincoln Memorial?
A jealous father, a loving mother, a wizard, a warrior?
A universal force, a caring presence?
Nature’s awesome power, or a still small voice?

We search, we seek. Like a rabbit yanked from a top hat, we try to gaze into the magician’s eyes. In moments of hush, or bliss, or woe, can we catch a glimpse? 
As soon as we turn our head, back into the hat we drop. 
It’s like trying to grasp a wisp of smoke.

Is God there winking at us from a darkened window? 
Is God just around the next corner, so close we almost see, yet always out of reach – 
a mystery that beckons with one hand while the other keeps us at arm's length?

The Chasidim tell a tale about the Rebbe’s grandson, who was playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He found a hiding place and waited for his friend to find him. After a long time, he came out of his hiding place, but his friend was not there. He realized that his friend had stopped looking for him, and left. The child burst into lonely tears and ran to his grandfather. As the boy cried that his friend had given up on him, the Rebbe, too, began to weep. He said, “Dear boy, now you know how the Almighty feels: ‘I hide myself,' says God, 'and yet they stop looking.’”

Adonai S'fatai (me to God)
Psalm 121 (Rossi)
A Nign
Waiting for Life
Yah Ana Emtsaacha
Kadosh Ata


Part 2.

I lift my eyes to the mountains, and I feel... something – wonder, awe, reverence – or something more? Is that “something more” simply a sense that there is something more? That I’m more than this sack of cells, that the world is more than a chunk of rock, that the universe, against all reason, cares?

There are those who say that God is merely a projection of the human mind. I think they need a refresher on the meaning of the word “merely.” If God is how we lift up our hopes and fears; if God is where we distill our values and visions; if God encompasses the collective human striving for purpose – then what more vital study can there be than this so-called projection? 

So let us project. Let us sing, exalt, thank, beseech. 
Let us, indeed, pray.
But what is it to pray, if we don’t believe, exactly, in the addressee of our prayer?

Theodore Bikel, of blessed memory, said that “even though [his father] was an atheist, he liked to go to synagogue because that was the only place you could argue your atheism.”
Not believing, with others, can be a sacred act.

But what of suffering? Of pain and loss that no God we want to worship would allow?
For that, let us question. Let us accuse, indict, impeach! Let us demand, with Abraham, that the Judge of all the earth do what is just (Gen. 18:25)! Let us declare, with Job, that we insist on arguing with God (Job 13:3)! After all, that, too, is prayer.

Elie Wiesel once said, “For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But to simply ignore God, that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference to God, no. You can be a Jew with God; you can be a Jew against God; but not without God.”

Min HaMeitzar- Joey Weisenberg
May I Suggest
Bless the Lord


Part 3.

My wife’s grandmother, Nana, who died a few months ago at 98, was not an overtly religious woman. But she prayed every night to God: please watch over my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. Her list numbered 27 descendants, and she mentioned each one by name. Her love and pride for her family kept her spirit alive. She was blessed.

I once met a man, Steven, with no legs. Complications from diabetes had led to a double amputation. Back in the hospital with failing health, now he was on dialysis. He was a devout Christian and a youth pastor to troubled teens. He called for a chaplain, and I came to his bedside.

He was in pain. 
Pain of the body from labored breathing, fading eyesight, fatigue. 
Pain of the heart from missing his youth ministry and his own children. 
Every visit, I held his hand as he prayed to God: “Thank you, God, for all the goodness in my life. Please, God, give me strength and faith.”
One day, his ill health made it hard for him to speak. That time, I held his hand and I prayed on his behalf – words he couldn’t say, but needed. 

A week later, during morning rounds, I learned Steven had died in the night. Why wasn’t he blessed with long life? Why didn’t he live to see his children’s children?

We want answers. We want to know that there’s a God out there, listening to our prayers, taking care of our loved ones. We want to know that everything will be alright. 

But sometimes it’s not alright. We want answers then, too. Especially then. Why? Why me?

We cry out from the depths – but to what? To whom? The same phantom who failed to provide, failed to heal, failed to appear in the hour of need? 
Are we just spinning our spiritual wheels? Or is there, somehow, solace in the seeking?

One of my mentors says that the question mark is the most Jewish symbol. I like that. 
Maybe God, after all, is the question; and we, in our holy brokenness and yearning, are the beginning of an answer.

Eileh Chamdah Libi
The 23rd Psalm
Laughing With
Avinu Malkeinu Z'chor Rachamecha
Water is Wide / Mimaamakim

Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering Theodore Bikel, the "Universal Jew"

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
for Tisha B’Av 5775

July 24, 2015

Remembering Theo Bikel

Theodore Bikel died this week at the age of 91. He was a legendary talent, creating the role of Baron von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “Sound of Music” and playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” for decades. At an award ceremony in 1999, Bikel said: “One applauds logevity but that alone is not an accomplishment. A taxi driver recently told me, ‘You look like Theodore Bikel, he should rest in peace.’” Now we pray he does rest in peace, עליו השלום / peace be upon his soul.

Several months ago, Leon Wieseltier spoke at a YIVO event at the Center for Jewish History in NYC, honoring Bikel with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In tribute to Bikel’s memory and legacy, I want to share with you tonight that speech, entitled “A Universal Jewishness.”

In America, Jewish heritage is a lively and noisy affair. We have correctly understood that we live in a country that does not require anyone to inhibit themselves in the assertion of identity, and we have tossed aside our inhibitions. We celebrate our origins, our characteristics, incessantly. It is a rich era for Jewish expression, for Jewish identification. All the realms of our existence, all our values, all our interests, all our pleasures, all our pains, are given a Jewish gloss or a Jewish source. American Jewish culture, high and low, is a plenitude, a cacophony, of Jewishnesses.
By the standards of Jewish history, then, we are almost unimaginably blessed. Or more precisely, by certain standards of Jewish history. We are free, we are respected, we may formulate our universality in the terms of our particularity without embarrassment and without opprobrium—but there are qualities of Jewish identity, parcels of the Jewish tradition, that are being lost or renounced amid all our good fortune. There are many disappearances and many abandonments, and they are drowned out in the festive din. More of the Jewish tradition is vanishing in present conditions of security and prosperity than ever vanished in past conditions of oppression and poverty. Speaking strictly, what we are celebrating in America is not Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference, but what is left of Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference.
We in this room are among the saving remnants, gathered to honor one of the greatest saving remnants of all. The joy on our lush island of Jewishness is real, but we must soberly recall that it is indeed on an island that we are toiling and flourishing and reveling. We are surrounded by a vast sea of Jews who are not Jewish except ethnically and biologically. Many of them take pride in a tradition that they know almost not at all. Not long ago Theo Bikel came to Washington and performed his magical one-man show about Sholom Aleichem. The theater at the JCC was full, and the men and women in the audience glowed with enchantment, and when he spoke or sang in Yiddish they understood little or nothing. The less they grasped, in fact, the more they glowed. They were enjoying a warm experience of contentless authenticity.
The diversity of Jewishnesses in America today is no doubt some sort of cultural strength; but I want to suggest, as a way of expressing what I admire about my brother Theo, that it is also some sort of cultural weakness. The Jewish tradition in our community has been splintered and customized. Even when we go deep, we do not go wide. We live in a golden age of partial Jewishnesses. The American Jew is, to borrow a term from a scholar of Jewish law, a yehudi l’hatza’in—a partial Jew. Religious Jews know almost nothing of our secular traditions and secular Jews know almost nothing of our religious traditions. Jews who live in Hebrew know almost no Yiddish and Jews who live in Yiddish—now there is a saving remnant!—know almost no Hebrew, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews anyway live, arrogantly and ignorantly, in no Jewish language at all. Jews who are fluent in the siddur are strangers to Bialik and Amichai. Jews who still sing the old Zionist songs are dead to klezmer, and Jews who are devout about klezmer sometimes act as if their music is all that is required for Jewish continuity. How many students of Jewish film are also students of Talmud, and how many students of Talmud have a shred of an acquaintance with the history of Jewish art? An alarming number of poor souls among our brethren seem to feel that all they require for a genuine Jewishness is Woody Allen and Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld.
Everybody, in sum, appropriates only what suits them, what tickles them, what affirms them, without any sense of obligation toward the totality of our resources, without any appetite for the work that would be required by a more comprehensive fidelity, without any sensation of responsibility for the legacies of Jews who are not like themselves. These ardent but truncated commitments amount to a new manner of sectarianism. The only Jewish thing that every American Jew knows about is politics.
I am not against any of these parts and pieces of our culture. I am for all of them—but all of them is precisely what almost none of us any longer commands. There are currents and strains, movements and organizations, but almost nowhere is there a general Jewish cultivation. As we edit and shrink our patrimony to suit our tastes and our moods and our ideologies, we become masters of subtraction; but we must teach ourselves to add. Not Maimonides or Mendele, but Maimonides and Mendele: a universal Jewishness. Philosophically, of course, all the Jewish figures and the Jewish ideas do not go together—indeed, they are sometimes bitterly at odds with each other. Feuding is also one of the great Jewish traditions. But there is an important way in which they emphatically do cohere, and that is as the elements of a civilization.
What is missing from American Jewishness now is a sense of the whole—a robust and natural awareness of our inherited abundance. We lack the consciousness that we are nothing less than a civilization. A great Jewish historian, adapting an ancient Latin adage, famously remarked that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” Who can say this now? Who has, or aspires to have, an appreciation and a knowledge and a love of this scope? Who any longer remembers how to be an heir to it all?
I have at least one answer to that question. The answer is, Theo Bikel remembers. He is a man of the whole. The range of his Jewishness is as exhilarating as it is rare: He is immersed in the entirety of Jewish expression. He possesses the languages and he possesses the literatures. He knows all the songs, and the meanings of all the songs. He knows how we daven and he knows how we demonstrate. He is a son of Vienna and a son of Tel Aviv and a son of New York and Los Angeles—of the center and the peripheries, the homeland and the dispersion. He does not choose among them; he represents, and cherishes, and refines, them all. His Jewish cultivation is breathtaking. His many agitations on behalf of human rights and social justice have always been conducted in a Jewish vocabulary—he has been an ambassador of our ethics to the world.
Theo is one of the greatest of our culture’s guardians, and of its connoisseurs. His company is an intense—and almost giddily delightful—experience of Jewish cultivation. His laughter is itself a high form of yiddishkeit. A culture’s best shorthand, after all, is its humor; and if one of the measures of the decline of a grander and more synoptic Jewishness is that there are fewer and fewer people to whom one can tell our jokes, then I wish to proclaim, as a summary of Theo’s reach as a Jew, that he is the man who gets all the jokes and tells all the jokes. He relieves a certain Jewish loneliness. So here at YIVO you have chosen brilliantly: I can think of nobody who more richly deserves an award that extols Jewish heritage than this man, this universal Jew. It has been one of the privileges of my own life as a Jew to have been a Jew together with him on this cruel and beautiful earth.

I hope that Bikel’s memory will be a blessing. On this eve of Tisha B’Av, I challenge us to get better at being universal Jews, heirs to it all. 

Of course, none of us is going to be an expert in everything Jewish. But we can all be experts in Jewish curiosity. We can cultivate more openness toward all things Jewish — ideas that differ from our own, Jews who are not like ourselves.

Sometimes as a rabbi I’m asked, “How much does one have to know to be a good Jew?”

My answer: “Always more than you do now.”

Let me add to that a question that presses us with great urgency as we sit on the threshold of Tisha B’Av and look out at a world of great Jewish blessing and uncertainty: How much do we have to care for Jews who differ from ourselves?

The answer: “Always more than you do now.”

Then will Theodore Bikel’s memory be a life-affirming blessing.

Friday, July 10, 2015

What to Look for in a Leader

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Friday, July 10, 2015
Shabbat Pinchas

“May God appoint someone over the community” (Num 27:16). As Moses nears the end of his term in this week’s parshah, he starts worrying about succession, as any good leader should. He asks God to appoint someone, and they bring Joshua before the priest and the whole community to install him as next in line.

Perfect timing. Tonight we recognize our outgoing board members and welcome new ones. I will call them all up in a moment, but first, a word about leadership, and a charge.

God singles out Joshua as the next leader of the Israelites. Why? Because Joshua is an איש אשר רוח בו / a person in whom there is ruach, spirit. An inspired man, skillful and insightful. 

There’s more to it. Our rabbis have much to say about what it means to have ruach within you, and why that qualifies you for leadership.

A midrash:
When Moses asked God to appoint someone over the community, he said: Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You — the disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them, when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every [one] according to his disposition… Moses asked: Will the man You set over the congregation have within himself the spirits of sixty myriads, so that he will be able to converse with each man according to his particular disposition? 
In other words, will our leaders have the kind of constitution that allows them to put up with everyone? (It’s a lot of Jews, after all.) Or, better: Will our leaders have the breadth of spirit to meet people where they are, respect them for who they are, appreciate the unique personality, talents, and interests they each bring?

It’s a tall order. And it gets taller. Another midrash says something different about Joshua having spirit within him, defining him as a person “who will have the capacity to stand up to the spirit of each and every one” (Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Book of Legends 727:45). While a leader has to meet people where they are, a leader shouldn’t simply see which way the wind is blowing and run there. A leader must also have strength of conviction. A leader must sometimes do what’s unpopular. 

Another translation of the same midrash seeks a person with the capacity to face up to the spirit of everyone. Here, it’s a call for accountability. A true leader is responsible to the community, not above it.

It is a tall order indeed, to balance those kinds of spirit. The spirit of including, listening, welcoming; the spirit of leading, pushing, risk-taking; the spirit of answering to those you lead. It is a high and worthy aspiration.

So it seems Moses has asked for a leader who can be all things to all people. We do that, too — we set up unrealistic expectations. The midrash continues with God’s response to that kind of thinking:
The Holy One replied: Moses, you have made a proper request… He showed him that Joshua would rise up in his stead, and Joshua would turn over his authority to Othniel, as will all subsequent leaders to their successors. Then the Holy One said to Moses: Each of these I showed you has one disposition and one spirit. But as to what you asked for earlier, at the end of time there will be a person within whom…there will be but one spirit, but it will have the capacity to bear the weight of the spirits of all men — that person is the Messiah. (Book of Legends 101:134; Yalkut Pinchas, 776; Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Yelammedenu)
We ask our leaders to aspire to the highest standard, as we should. But we acknowledge that we are only human. We will all fall short in some way — until we can convince the Messiah to join our board. And we all know when that will happen.

Even as we in leadership set the bar high for ourselves, we should keep our feet planted firmly on the ground, among our community. In one final midrash, God explains His pick of Joshua like this:
You know how long Joshua has served you, how much honor he accorded you, how he came early and stayed late in your meeting place, arranging the benches and spreading the mats. (Ibid.)
Leaders should not be spotlight-seekers. Indeed, much of the work of leadership is not glamorous. Setting up chairs, putting tables away, passing out books — these tasks are not glitzy. But they are holy. Serving is part of leading. And as someone said to me recently: You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.

Together these voices of midrash invite us to be confident and humble, strong and inclusive, entrepreneurial and accountable, visionary and aware of our limitations. They call us to be self-reflective leaders invested in self-improvement, dedicated to the building up of a community that will outlive us. They ask us to remember that we are all interims, preparing to pass on our sacred purpose l’dor vador, to the next person of spirit who steps up to lead.

Now I’d like to invite up our outgoing board members; in thanks for your years of service, we’ve made a donation to a cause in honor of each of you:
Lee Rittvo - Aspen Film
Esther Navias -
Michelle Stiller - AEF
Julie Wagner - Hope Center
Stuart Fine - Children's Hospital Denver

And now our new board members, please come to the bima:
Craig Navias
Chuck Shenk
Judy Craig
Alan Levey
Goldie Knurr

Mi Shebeirach for Aliyah

Friday, July 3, 2015

People Like You

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 3, 2015

The world lost a quiet hero this week. Sir Nicholas Winton, of England, was 106 years old when he died on Wednesday. Before WWII, Winton organized the escape of nearly 700 children, almost all of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.

His story is riveting, and it only came to light years later when his wife found old records in the attic. (I recommend reading more about him.)
In December 1938…, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. “Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend…advised in a phone call.
England’s Kindertransport program was already underway. It rescued 10,000 German and Austrian children before the war, but there was no such plan for Czechoslovakia. 

At great cost and risk to himself, Winton organized one. He bribed the Gestapo, hired trains and boats, did mountains of paperwork, and fundraised and recruited foster families in England to get 900 children registered and ready to get out. In the end, 669 children escaped because only 7 of 8 trains made it out. The eighth train was scheduled to depart on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. When the borders closed that train, with its precious cargo of 250 children, disappeared.

Winton was a hero because he risked his own life to save others. I was moved near to tears reading his story, as I remember feeling similarly moved in the Righteous Gentiles room at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His story, and others like his, move us because he stuck his neck out for Jews, for the marginalized Other. He could have sat comfortably behind his privilege, telling himself it wasn’t his problem, convincing himself it wasn’t his fight.

*   *   *

Our times are not as dark as Europe under Nazi occupation. But consider: seven churches in two weeks. Nine black Americans murdered at Bible study, and then seven black churches burned to the ground. The media seems hard pressed to find time in their 24-hr news cycle for this horrifying story. It’s nothing less than racial terrorism in our midst. This is not the first time black churches have burned in this country. During the Civil Rights Movement, infamously, a church bombing killed four young girls. When a place of sanctuary becomes a place of devastation, it’s an especially cruel kind of terror.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine a week in which seven synagogues were burned down, on the heels of the massacre of a minyan of Jews during Torah study. Imagine the outrage, the fear, the criticism of the media for not reporting on it enough, the calls for decent people of all faiths and races to stand in solidarity with us Jews and speak out against hate.

Now consider: if we want others to stand up for us in our moments of crisis, don’t we need to stand up for them? If we want to honor and emulate Sir Winton’s example, shouldn’t we reach beyond our own group to be in solidarity with the marginalized other, even at risk to ourselves? Or should we hide behind our privilege, easing our conscience with the tragic misconception that it isn’t our fight?

So then, why don’t we speak up? Are we afraid of ruffling feathers? Of making our friends feel awkward?

Why don’t I speak up? Am I afraid of job security? Am I too concerned with being liked to say anything provocative?

Maybe we’re confused or ashamed about white privilege. We Jews today comprise a strange duality of identities and histories. All of us have immigrant ancestors, most of whom fled some kind of persecution, some of whom even survived the Holocaust. So of course we feel like persecuted victims. At the same time, and without diminishing that narrative, we benefit from white privilege. We don’t face the barriers or stigma of so many other minority groups in America. But it can be difficult to confront these questions. As Talia Cooper writes, “Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?”

The caveat here is that there are Jews who aren’t white — they are black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic — just to name a few. The sad irony is that our collective unwillingness to confront white privilege among Jews also blinds us to them, who are marginalized in multiple communities.

We’re not all going to be Sir Wintons, or Oskar Schindlers, or Raoul Wallenbergs. But let’s at least demand of ourselves and our leaders honesty about race relations and our role in improving them. Let’s not be afraid of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Let’s not be so quick to call protesters thugs. Let’s not be defensive about naming and negotiating our own privilege. Let’s not be threatened by calls for solidarity with those seeking equality, justice, peace. And for God’s sake, let’s not be scared of empathy. 

Liberation doesn’t come a la carte. It’s all of us, or none.

*   *   *

I’ll close with a story I heard from Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which does anti-poverty work throughout the developing world. She often speaks about AJWS at synagogues. One such evening, during the Q&A, a man approached the mic and asked, “Why do you devote so many resources to helping non-Jews, when there are so many Jews in need? Why don’t you just focus on helping our own?” That kind of question being a common occurrence for her, Messinger had an answer ready — something along the lines of, “Fair enough, so what are you doing to help Jews in need?” 

But that night, before she could answer, a diminutive older woman marched up the aisle to the questioner. She addressed him directly, shaking her fist in his face: “I survived the Holocaust. But my entire family was murdered because of people who only cared to look after their own kind, people who told themselves it wasn’t their fight — people like you.”

Get Involved - for Charleston
  • Donate to the fund to help the victims' families and church of Mother Emanuel AME Church: click here
  • Donate to efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned down: click here, or send a check to Aspen Jewish Congregation (memo: "Rebuild the Churches"), 77 Meadowood Drive, Aspen, CO, 81611
Get Involved - Nationally

Get Involved - in the Roaring Fork Valley
  • Join the Industrial Areas Foundation and Manaus Valley Project's effort to create a broad-based interfaith coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley that can act powerfully for justice: contact Rabbi Segal at 970-925-8245 x.1 or

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Grief and Gratitude

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
05 June 2015 • Parashat B'ha'alot'cha

Grief and Gratitude

Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…
(Zechariah 4:6)

This week brought the end of sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period, for David Goldberg, the late husband of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. He died suddenly a month ago, while on vacation. He was 47 years old, and he and Sheryl have two young children.

If you’re on Facebook or read the NYTimes, you may have seen the heart-wrenching and inspiring reflection that Ms. Sandberg posted online to mark the end of sheloshim.

I want to share with you a few highlights from it, and my reflections. While I imagine it was cathartic for her to write, it is also a case study in leadership, as she took her private pain and turned it into an opportunity to reach out to others. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or knows someone who has, will resonate with her words.

She wrote, in part:
I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning… I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.
Sandberg went on to share lessons she learned about empathy:
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.
A phrase in this week’s Haftarah, from the prophet Zechariah, flashed through my mind when I read these words: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…” Our instinct when we encounter someone in pain is to fix it. To make it go away. That’s why we say things like, 
  • It’s going to be ok.
  • Time will heal all.
  • Don’t worry.
  • Don’t cry.
  • Smile. Cheer up.

One of my most powerful memories from hospital chaplaincy training was a lesson taught by my supervisor. He had met with a patient who was not only very ill, but also depressed, bent under the burden of seeing her body give out, and losing her independence. She said to him, “I want to die.”

Our natural reaction to those words — and the response from family, friends, and nursing staff in this case —is to say, “No, you don’t mean that!” Somehow we hear those words "I want to die" as a form of surrender, and we, the living, can’t countenance that. 

Really, it’s about our own fear of mortality. Our own avoidance mechanism. When you say to someone, “No, you don’t mean that!” – what you’re telling them is: I’m not really hearing you 
or acknowledging your pain. You’re saying, I’m uncomfortable with your honest outcry so I’m going to impose on you a superficial idea of cheer to make MYSELF feel better. Not you. Let’s just sweep that painful messy stuff under the rug and make it nice and tidy.

In Jewish tradition, Bikur Cholim — visiting the sick — and Nichum Aveilim — comforting mourners — are deeply important mitzvot, sacred commandments that define our responsibility to one another. I believe they are commanded because they are not always easy or intuitive. When we sit by a hospital bed or at a shiva, we confront our own insecurities about illness and death. Only by facing our fears honestly can we be truly present for those who need us. Only then can we witness *their* struggle, and acknowledge *their* pain.

These mitzvot — visiting the ill and comforting the bereaved — are also commanded because they should be blessings to those who perform them. Here, again, Sheryl Sandberg’s words:
I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by spirit.” Zechariah’s prophecy was about messianic times, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the land. But it means something for us, too.

When we truly show up for someone, when we let down our guard enough to really see and hear them, when we learn to cultivate gratitude in ourselves — then we bring redemption near. Each time we bear witness to another’s private pain, each small, honest kindness, is a taste of the world to come.

Shabbat Shalom. May we bring peace to one another.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bridging a Gap in Religious Life

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
20 February 2015 • Parashat Terumah

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
(Exodus 25:2)

The verse that begins this week's parashah is popular among fundraisers: "bring gifts!" But at the same time, the second half of the verse reminds us that our heart has to be in it.

These two orientations are like two sides of a coin, two ways to approach Jewish life. The differences between these two approaches were articulated very well in a recent article by Kathy Elias, Chief Kehilla and Strategy Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, entitled "Why Does Synagogue Change Miss the Mark? Think Structuralist vs Experientialist." She wrote:

Structuralists understand and value synagogue communities. They want to strengthen them. Their approach is to make changes to the existing structure of their community – changing Shabbat service customs, hiring different clergy and staff, tweaking their membership dues models, consolidating their school or merging with another congregation. This is not for the faint of heart. Structuralist leaders are often willing to risk their personal and familial time, peace of mind, and faith in the structures themselves, year after year, trying to find the recipe for a vibrant kehilla.
Experientialists want to strengthen their Jewish lives. They understand and value the myriad of options they have in and out of synagogues to accomplish this. Their approach to get what they need is to create it themselves, find solutions that work, and/or move through experiences until they get the right fit. This is not for the faint of heart, but experientialists see the world built this way in real time all around them – a connected, crowd-sourced, DIY world where technology, the economy and social structures change almost as quickly as an Amazon app on Google Play.
Structuralist leaders say things like, “Why don’t they want to join us?” and “If we only had better … (pick one) … marketing materials, programs, music, participatory services, clergy, ways to explain Conservative Judaism, relational strategies… it would bring in new people.”
Experientialists say, “I value being Jewish, but I don’t need to pay to feel Jewish,” and “Why should I work on a committee and wait for a group to decide what I can or can’t have? It can be created now, and I can find it myself if I need to.”
Structuralists get frustrated when people don't join, affiliate, attend.
Experientialists get frustrated when they feel ignored, not heard, undervalued, excluded, overcharged.

Structuralists ask, why not get involved?
Experientialists ask, why get involved?

Structuralists ask, what program or event can we run to attract people?
Experientialists ask, what interesting people are around that I can be in community with?

It is tempting to see this divide along generational lines, and there is some truth to that framing. Elias again:

The generations of baby boomers and their parents built our synagogue structures, and, in many kehillot, still tend to be the majority in the leadership. Experientialists are probably younger, and may or may not be members of kehillot.
But if you only think only in generational terms, you’ll miss the big picture. Structuralists and experientialists can cut across generational lines. It’s possible for a person to be both, depending on what part of their lives we’re talking about.
The good news is, there is good news. It is possible to bridge this gap. In fact, that task is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our communities, to build relationships and from them programming that speaks deeply to people's real lives, to invest in structures that serve us, rather than serving the structures we've inherited.

To do this, structuralists need to take a step back from what Judaism looks like now, and what it looked like a generation ago, to realize that the structures they hold onto were themselves new, once upon a time.

Experientialists could learn about tools for building sustainable communities of profound and lasting impact, about the value of showing up for others outside one's usual social circles.

All of us should consider the cherubim in this week's Torah portion, intricately described in the instructions for building the mishkan. On the cover of the ark, in gold, are to be two cherubim figures: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover" (Exod 25:20). In that space of confrontation, of face-to-face encounter – precisely in that space is where God's presence will be felt. "There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people" (Exod 25:22). Confrontation of opposing paradigms can be productive. In the meeting place of opposing ideas we can find our way toward progress.

In the end, we all want a congregation that recognizes and uses our gifts; we want a community that moves our hearts. The blueprint for this work isn't as clear as the Mishkan instructions, but we can realize this vision together.