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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Notes from Biennial 2013, San Diego

Rabbi David Segal
13 December, 2013
Dear friends,

Greetings from San Diego, where I’m deep into the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial conference. I wanted to check in before Shabbat with a few notes on what I’ve experienced and learned here.

I attended a session led by Makom, a department of the Jewish Agency that supports deeper engagement between the Diaspora and Israel. It began with a 30-minute dramatic presentation about a rabbi having a “bad day”: an encounter with a congregant running an Israeli film festival at the shul, who has chosen all pro-Palestinian films; an encounter with his secretary, who has some surprising beliefs about Israel; and an encounter with a major donor who is so turned off by the film festival choices that she pulls her donation. The audience was then invited to offer suggestions about how the conversations could have been different and better, and the actors replayed the scenes based on the feedback. At the end, Makom’s Yonatan Ariel brought it to a close with some advice on having productive Israel conversations within a congregation. He said we need to learn to be better at both hugging AND wrestling with Israel, because neither approach alone is true to the complex, vibrant reality of the Jewish state.

This session dovetailed with a goal I have of bringing the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Israel curriculum to our community. Its mission is to elevate our relationship with Israel beyond one of crisis to a deeper, sustainable connection based on Jewish values and covenant. Stay tuned for more details about that.

I also went to a session about “public space Judaism” by Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute. He outlined guidelines for doing Jewish outreach in public spaces where people can “stumble over them” – grocery stores, parks, etc. Of course, we already do this in important ways with our mountain minyans, Sukkot at Rock Bottom Ranch, coffee with the Rabbi in town, etc. But there are exciting ways to expand this, e.g. teaching about Pesach in the matzah aisle at Whole Foods, teaching a regular Torah study at a local library or coffee shop, and more. I hope to incorporate some of these ideas right away. In the end, the goal with this kind of program is to engage people who don’t step into the synagogue, for a whole slew of reasons. And we know from the numbers that that’s 70% of Jews – only 30% actually make synagogue a part of their Jewish life. If we are willing to make the commitment, we can reach people where they are and expand our spiritual reach, bringing more people closer to the spiritual core of Judaism.

I attended a fantastic panel about religious pluralism in Israel with Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon. It was a dynamic and inspiring session about the exciting political and educational developments in Israel leading toward more pluralism, better inclusion of non-Orthodox Jews in governance and public funding, and challenges to the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on certain aspects of Jewish life. Hartman spoke beautifully about reminding ourselves that democracy IS a Jewish value, and that being deeply Jewish today means assimilating the healthy, modern concept of democracy. In the end, they both encouraged us, American (Reform) Jews, not to give up our fight for these values in Israel, even as we continue to be concerned for Israel’s security.

On Thursday night we heard from URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who spoke about where we’ve come from, especially since the 2011 biennial, and laid out a vision for the future. He named several major areas of challenge and inspiration, all based on episodes of the narratives of our ancestors in Genesis (the reading of which we complete this Shabbat):

1. Audacious Hospitality, like Abraham and Sarah

Can we get better at welcoming? Not just the specific moment of someone walking into Shabbat and being greeted, but in everything we do? In reaching out past our walls, past our usual demographics, past our typical programs? Outreach needs to become a core of what we do. Can we redouble our efforts to be maximally inclusive? Of interfaith families, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities (visible and invisible), of anyone who may be marginalized and searching? How about the “nones”, those who identify as not religious and not affiliated? So many of them are spiritual searchers – can we make our tent big enough to include them as well, not only to get them in the door, but to learn from them about reinvigorating our own spirituality?

Intermarriage, he said, is not a disease. Rather it is the natural byproduct of the open society in which we live – and which none of us wants to close. What would we prefer to more intermarriage – more anti-Semitism? We are and can be even more the denomination that brings interfaith families into Jewish life, changing them, yes, but also changing for the better who we are by adding their voices and experiences to our own.

2. Social Justice
, like Abraham's calling out God to act justly
One of the hallmarks of Reform Judaism continues to be our commitment to tikkun olam. We are at the forefront of curbing gun violence, promoting equal marriage and ending workplace discrimination, seeking comprehensive immigration reform, and others. Even as we pursue these goals, we must remember that not everyone in our communities shares a progressive political approach, and that while we must share a commitment to a just society, to caring for the poor and marginalized, we need not all share liberal or conservative policy answers to these pressing moral and political issues of our day – and yet we must work harder to remain in sacred community, even as we disagree. Ultimately, we know that Jewish social justice is a key way of engaging the younger generation of Jews. In that spirit, we are hoping to start a post-b’nai mitzvah service learning program in February of 2014, in which 8-12th graders will volunteer in the valley community on a regular basis and learn about the Jewish values that undergird the mitzvot they’re embracing.

3. Bound to the Land of Israel

Through programming initiatives and partnerships with various organizations, the URJ and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ, our Israeli counterpart) continue working to grow the Reform presence in Israel, and to connect more Reform Jews, particularly our youth, with the land and people of Israel. There are more options than ever to spend days, weeks, a year in Israel, learning and connecting with its history and culture. We continue to forge relationships with Israel’s leaders, both political and cultural (indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu will address this biennial gathering on Sunday morning). I would like to explore, with our AJC community, the possibility of a trip to Israel, as well as, perhaps, a partnership with a sister (Reform) synagogue somewhere in Israel.

Rabbi Jacobs began and concluded with a surfing metaphor: there are big waves of social and spiritual change crashing all around us. We will need talent and skill to ride them, but the rewards are great if we step up to the challenge. Surf’s up!

I also attended a panel discussion about the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, with Rabbi Elka Abrahamson (President of the Wexner Foundation), Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Dr. Sarah Benor (HUC-LA), and Mark Pelavin (URJ). Toward the end, they were asked to offer an "audacious idea" for the Reform Movement that could be a game-changer. Elka said synagogues should close their doors on Sundays, i.e. no Hebrew school. Let the Jewish day of Shabbat be the day of Jewish gathering. "I would take one hour of my child experiencing Shabbat over three hours of Hebrew school on a Sunday morning," she said. Of course, we are ahead of the curve on this one! Sarah said that every congregation should hire a Chief Relationship Officer, tasked with getting to know every member and newcomer, and connecting him/her with others of similar interest. Ideally that could be my role as the rabbi, if we could rethink some of the usual tasks and duties assumed to be the rabbi's responsibility. Some exciting possibilities... Rabbi Kolin said we need to create spaces where everyone can be him/herself and truly feel welcome. She challenged us to create sacred places where no one feels the pain of isolation or not belonging. Much food for thought.

Soon we'll head to the Shabbat evening service, led by the clergy team at Temple Beth Elohim Wellesley, which includes Noah Aronson, who has been a regular guest at our summer concerts in Aspen. Shabbat worship in the San Diego Convention Center with 5,000 of our closest friends!

I hope everyone has a sweet and inspiring Shabbat. Special thanks to Shereen Sarick and David Joseph for being our sh'lichei tzibur (service leaders) tonight.

To learn more about the biennial and to live-stream or watch recordings of some of the speeches, visit

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi David Segal

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New Mission Statement

approved 10-16-2013 by the board 
after community input

The Aspen Jewish Congregation

Our Mission 

We are an open and inclusive community committed to building relationships and enriching lives in Aspen, the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond. We bring Jewish tradition and learning to life in harmony with the natural beauty of our valley.

Our Core Values
These are the values that inspire us as we pursue our mission.

  1. Kesher Kadosh – קשר קדוש Sacred Connection
    Channeling the “small-town” feel of the Valley into our spiritual life. Making participation inviting and accessible to all. Cultivating a sense of belonging, where it’s safe to be ourselves and share our stories.
  2. Yir’at Kavod – יראת כבוד – Reverence
    Expanding our capacity for awe and humility. Cherishing our mountain surroundings. Reflecting deeply on God. Enriching life’s passages through Jewish ritual and music.
  3. Chochmah – חכמה – Wisdom
    Teaching Judaism for all ages to help guide our lives. Nurturing our children’s Jewish identity and leadership. Engaging with the valley’s wealth of intellectual and cultural offerings.

  4. Chesed – חסדCaring
    Being present for those who are suffering, ill, or in need. Providing the “family” support that many don’t have nearby.

  5. Tzedek u’Mishpat – צדק ומשפטRighteousness & Justice
    Fostering a commitment to the mitzvot of Tzedakah (obligation of giving) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Organizing and volunteering to make change for the good of our communities.

  6. K’lal Yisrael – כלל ישראלThe Whole Jewish People
    Connecting to the Jewish People around the world. Building relationships between our valley and Israel.

  7. Or La-Goyim – אור לגויים A Light to the Nations
    Living our Jewish Values publicly within our communities for the benefit of all. Promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation.

  8. Tikvah – תקווהHope
    Instilling an ancient faith that our lives matter. Honoring our past by leaving a legacy for future generations in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5774/2013

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur 5774 • 14 September 2013

Sculpting Our Clay, Filling Our Vessel of Community

“Don’t bother. All they want is a playground. There’s no substance there.”

That’s the advice I got when I was considering this job about four years ago, from a colleague who thought he knew what Aspen was all about.

“Don’t bother. It’s escapism with a Jewish flavor. The second-homeowners won’t engage in any meaningful way. You can’t build something real there.”

I got an altogether different impression when we visited Aspen for our onsite interview. Ready to be turned off by the glitz and shallowness, I met a different Aspen than the reputation that preceded it. I met down-to-earth people raising happy families in awe of their natural surroundings. I met devoted leaders who poured their heart and soul, years of their life, into this community.

I saw the potential that one of my first interviewers for this job, former Treasurer Steve Rittvo, identified for me in New York when he described this community as “a quality lump of clay, ready to be molded.”

He was as right as the first advice was wrong. And the past three years here attest to the potential ready to be unlocked, the clay ready to be molded, and, let’s not forget, the foundation of volunteerism and community going back nearly 40 years.

But the other truth I’ve learned, in three years of working with our quality lump of clay, is this: the most potential is unlocked when the clergy are not the only sculptors. As your rabbi, my duties and passions include teaching, leading, and guiding this community toward a richer, Jewish life. But my most important role is to empowerWe all know the Golden Rule, but in community building we need to emphasize the Iron Rule: don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. In this mode, I must add listening and relating to my key responsibilities: listening, to learn the hopes, concerns, and interests that animate our community members; relating, to facilitate and deepen connections within our community that allow us to be more welcoming, more engaging, more empowering, and more powerful. Where we focus that power will depend on who we are and what we care about. And that requires knowing who we are and what we care about, which is impossible until we ask each other. I’ll speak in a moment about what that might look like.

But one thing it doesn’t look like is a simple top-down approach where the rabbi or board chooses the program or issue to focus on and then recruits people by force of will, charisma, or guilt, to his or their vision. Rather, we must all be sculptors, all invest in shaping this community – as stakeholders, rather than consumers. 

In a moment, we will hear this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. It will be chanted not just by our Cantor but also by 5 individuals who have become b’nai mitzvah here. It’s a fitting way to present this text, which is a blueprint for inclusive, sustainable community. Toward the end of the Torah, on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses rallies the people to enter into a covenant with God. He summons the Israelites in the most inclusive way possible:
You stand this day, all of you, before ADONAI your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer — to enter into the covenant of ADONAI your God. (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
Everyone in the Israelite camp – men, women, children, of every occupation, and even the strangers (the non-Israelites who have taken up residence) – the covenant encompasses them all, would be incomplete without any one of them. This covenant is inclusive not just demographically but across time:
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before ADONAI our God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deut. 29:13-14)
Most commentaries take “Those who are not with us this day” to mean future generations. I think it means that plus generations past. This covenant is to be a pact with our past and our future. To this point, there’s a story told about David Ben Gurion, when he was faced with a decision about the UN partition plan for Palestine. On one hand, it was the fulfillment of the Zionist dream; on the other, it was a only a sliver of land. 

Ben Gurion went back and forth, and then called on his colleague Yitzhak Tabenkin to help him decide. Tabenkin said, “Please give me a day to think about it. I must consult with two individuals.” 

The next day, Tabenkin returned and urged Ben Gurion to reject the plan. Ben Gurion asked, “You mentioned two individuals you had to consult. Who are they?” 

“The two people I consulted,” said Tabenkin, “are my grandfather and my grandson. My grandfather who died ten years ago, and my grandson who is not yet born.”

Like that monumental moment in Israel’s history, this covenant in the wilderness is all-inclusive, reaching across time and space to include all Israelites, past, present, and future. A daunting task, it would seem – or so we might think. To relieve our anxiety about this great responsibility, Moses instructs us that it is
...not too baffling, nor is it out of reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut 30:11-14)
It’s not rocket science. It’s in our grasp. It’s not in the heavens or across the sea – and it doesn’t reside only with the Rabbi, Cantor or Board. So how do we go about this work of building a covenantal community? Moses gives us a hint: it’s in the mouth and heart of every one of us. The mouth is the tool of conversation, the way we interact and begin to share stories. The heart is the space of caring connection, where real relationship begins. These are two essential components for a thriving community. 

There’s just one thing missing, in addition to the mouth and heart: the ear. It’s that part of us that is always open, that should be listening, learning, welcoming.

And so after deliberation by the board and other community leaders, and in consultation with a visiting mentor, we are setting a goal for the coming year to undertake a listening campaign. That is, a sustained and far-reaching effort to engage our entire community – all of you – at the center and at the margins, about the future of this project we call the Aspen Jewish Congregation. The survey you’ve heard about already is a first step, a snapshot of opinions and concerns to prime us for deeper, relevant conversations. I hope you will take the time to respond to it. After that come house meetings, small gatherings in homes with the dual goals of getting to know one another and benefitting from everyone’s wisdom and perspective as we envision together our next chapter. 

When I talk about a “listening campaign” and “house meetings” I hope your eyes aren’t glazing over. Mine probably did the first time I heard about it. So forget the jargon; it’s not important. We are using a technique from the toolbox of congregation-based community organizing, but the goals are universal: to deepen relationships, to empower ownership, to listen and learn from what everyone brings to the table, and thereby broaden and inspire the base of our community. People may come to the AJC for programs or services, but they stay, and come backfor the people they connect with. Relationship is the core of a covenantal community, so relationship should be at the core of everything we do.

In light of that vision, I have several invitations for you to consider: 
  • Maybe you want to take the lead with a core team now in formation to shape our engagement and empowerment efforts;
  • or you could volunteer to facilitate a house meeting in your home, a gathering of 6-10 community members, with training beforehand and framing questions to be created together;
  • or last but not least, when you get an invitation to attend a house meeting, I hope you’ll accept it.
If any of these interests you, if you have the appetite and time, please let me or any of our staff or leadership know.

Together with a volunteer leader, Julie Fox-Rubin, I’ve been leading a small-scale series of house meetings in the past few months. We have started to identify new leaders as well as issues and ideas with passionate people to pursue them – but we have only just begun, only just scratched the surface. 

Out of the many stories of connection, here’s one to share with you now: At one of the meetings, a young mother spoke about her desire to be a good Jewish mother and create a Jewish home with her young son, and at the same time her uncertainty and insecurity about her own Jewish literacy. “I don’t know if I’m doing it right,” she said, self-consciously.

In the same meeting, a retired grandmother spoke up about the alienation of her age bracket, of people who have so much to give in the way of loving Jewish experience, but who feel there is no venue. And there was the spark: the grandmother who would jump at the chance to be a surrogate bubbe for a young Jewish family, and a young Jewish mother seeking mentoring by a more experienced Jew. There’s an opportunity for enriching each other’s lives, for feeling like you matter to someone else – an opportunity that only presented itself because we created the conditions for people to share their stories.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to this effort: This opportunity only presented itself because we created the conditions for it to happen.

That is, as they say, the tip of the iceberg. We will only uncover its depths, we will only liberate the sparks, if we dig deeper by asking, by listening, by relating.

I recently revisited the “lump of clay” image with Steve Rittvo. He had this to say, three-plus years later:
Maybe my analogy with the lump of clay is after it is shaped and made into a useful vessel, it needs to be filled and refilled to manifest its value.
Taking to heart Nitzavim’s call to radical inclusivity, I believe everyone brings something of great value to fill and refill our vessel of community. If you don’t add yours, we are impoverished. As we create more openings, more extended and welcoming hands, I pray you will respond by sharing your stories, interests, values, and concerns, and by becoming a leader.

*   *   *

In 1969, near his 70th birthday, the writer E.B. White reluctantly agreed to an interview with the New York Times. In response to a question – “What bothers you about the world?” – he wrote:
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
Now, E.B. White wasn’t Jewish, but this sentiment sure is. Those competing desires – to save the world, and to savor the world – are manifest in the Jewish tradition’s call to fight for justice, and to be present in gratitude for our blessings. The naysayer who tried to dissuade me from this congregation thought this place was only about the “savor” side of the equation – a playground, as he described it, a bubble of self-indulgent Jewish escapism. 

But what I’ve come to learn here is that people who truly savor the world, who truly appreciate their blessings and carry themselves with a spirit of gratitude and reverence – these are the very same people who are deeply committed to saving or improving the world. Giving thanks for life’s blessings and working to address life’s injustices seem to go hand in hand. Neither is authentic without the other.

I wanted to end with this quote because this is what a healthy, thriving, sustainable congregation sets its sights on: on one hand, to cultivate our capacity for reverence, to play in our divine natural surroundings, to spend more time being thankful for blessings than dwelling on what we don’t have; on the other hand, to join forces to right wrongs, to care for our natural surroundings, to support the fallen and heal the sick and comfort the bereaved, to do some good in this world.

And E.B. White was right: Trying to do both does make it hard to plan the day. But what a good problem to have, to be faced with the opportunity to do both of those things in deep and lasting ways. This community has already proved it’s capable of great things. As we build on that foundation, I can’t wait to enjoy the world and improve the world with you, each of us stepping forward and adding our own divine spark to light the way to our community’s bright future.

Kein y’hi ratzon, May it be God’s will, and ours.

Kol Nidrei Sermon • Yom Kippur Evening 5774/2013

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5774 • 13 September 2013

Am Yisrael Chai – The People Israel Lives
In Warsaw in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the Germans captured the city and before they had walled up the Jews in a ghetto, a couple of Nazi soldiers were seen harassing a Jewish child on the street. The child’s mother ran out of the courtyard, picked up her bruised little boy, placed his cap back on his head, and said to him, “Come inside the courtyard and ‘za a mentsch’ [be a mentsch]...” In her Polish-inflected Yiddish the mother was instructing her son to become a decent human being.
So begins the book Jews and Powera brilliant work by Harvard professor Ruth Wisse. Wisse goes on to show how this story illustrates a challenge we Jews face in the modern world. We uphold the value of being a mentsch, of not becoming like our enemies. But we also have to acknowledge, in the aftermath of 1939 Europe, how complicated this value is.

“That little boy in Warsaw,” Wisse starkly reminds us, “could not have done his mother’s bidding, because becoming fully human presupposed staying alive” (Wisse, xii). She does not advocate rejecting the value of being a mentsch, but acknowledging the challenge of balancing a life of Jewish virtue against the need to defend Jewish lives from our enemies.

1948 changed the reality of Jewish defenselessness, with the creation of Israel and its army. Think how different the 1930s and ‘40s could have been if there had been a Jewish state to intervene and accept refugees – it’s almost too painful to imagine. Now, 65 years later, Israel is on the map among the family of nations. It’s 40 years tonight since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, a time of anxiety for Israel. But Israel today is stronger in military, economy, and democracy than any of her neighbors.

Not to say there aren’t threats – the potential of a nuclear Iran, the turmoil in Egypt, Jordan, Syria – these are all on Israel’s doorstep. But Israelis, it seems, remain remarkably stoiceven relieved, that their neighbors are occupied with their own inner conflict rather than hostility toward Israel. Somehow, Israelis go on with their lives amid air raids and lines for gas masks.

By contrast, American Jews are not so stoic. We are on the whole nervous, anxious, and defensive when it comes to Israel and even our own status as Jews. It’s ironic because, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote in Haaretz earlier this month, “Kvetching aside, US Jews have never had it so good.” We are growing in diversity and vibrancy, and, in some places, in numbers. We spend on average in a year $5 billion on Jewish education. $5 billionIn a recent poll, two-thirds of Jews age 18-29 said that Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity. We are viewed by other Americans as one of the most favorable religious groups. Unlike even 50 years ago, now other Americans want us in their clubs, in their board rooms, and even in their marriages.

And yet, to listen to much of the American Jewish establishment talk, you’d think the sky was falling on us. The old habit of sounding the alarm of Jewish continuity and anti-Semitism served us well in the past, and old habits die hard, indeed.

It’s understandable, after all. For so long, Jews have had to be on the defensive, with the insecurity of a persecuted minority. But now, in America – virtually “overnight,” relative to our life as a people – we are more accepted and prosperous than ever. It is very new. We still don’t know how to process this. 

Some of us overcompensate in one particular direction, crying “anti-Semite” like the boy who cried wolf, calling every critic of Israel an enemy or a self-hating Jew. It feels almost as if we miss the cohesive Jewish identity that anti-Semitism has often held together like glue. But as the historian David Mikics said, “Being aware of anti-Semitism seems a fundamentally distinct mission from appreciating Jewish traditions, and it’s often hard to know what the two things have to do with each other.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a leading Jewish feminist, raised a similar issue upon encountering virulent anti-Semitism within the feminist movement. She realized that, in her words,
“To feminists who hate Israel, I was not a woman, I was a Jewish woman.” Launching a deeper Jewish journey, Pogrebin wondered: “Why be a Jew for them if I am not a Jew for myself?” Many Jews...discovered that anti-Semitism can make the Jew, but it is more satisfying for the Jew to make the Jew.
And as Mikics concluded, “Perhaps the most basic lesson from the grim continuing history of anti-Semitism is that anti-Semites don’t get to say what the Jew is. Jews do, and each Jew does, and those answers are bound to be rich, confusing, and deeply personal—responses that the anti-Semite will fail utterly to recognize.”

Unfortunately, part of our people fails to recognize this as well. They have lost their way, substituting the watchdogging of anti-Semites and hawkish Israel advocacy for Jewish tradition. At the same time, another part of our people needs to be reminded that the holy effort of living Jewish values – and of being a mentsch – at times requires self-defense against real threats. A third part of our people has little interest in either way of being a Jew, especially in the way the other two groups fail to communicate with each other, and even disrespect each other.

On this evening of Kol Nidrei, I’d like to offer some advice to each of these three groups (myself included). My hope is that there is something here to make everyone uncomfortable. For in discomfort, there is learning.

To the first group, a charge: if you are so committed to Am Yisrael, then show it in the way you treat other Jews, especially those with whom you disagree politically. Stop persecuting your fellow Jews who have concerns about Israel’s actions, and please stop using the phrase “self-hating Jew.” There are many Jews who criticize Israel out of love for her people and concern for her future. Try to be honest and open about Israel’s shortcomings. Remember what you are so good at teaching: if the real anti-Semites will hate us no matter what we say and do, isn’t it better to support Israel without whitewashing it, so we don’t alienate our friends and allies?

To the second group, whose Jewish connection centers on Jewish values and human rights, who embraces life in the diaspora: don’t forget what the existence of Israel has done for Jews worldwide, especially in 1967 when, as our community member Werner Knurr has said, “After the Six Day War, we all walked six feet taller.” Would American Jews be as comfortable and self-assured without Israel?Furthermore, even as you push the previous group to be more open to addressing Israel’s faults, and push Israel herself toward a peace process, let’s not forget the faults on the Palestinian side. Don’t ignore what even Peter Beinart acknowledges, that Palestinians are unlikely to endorse Zionism’s legitimacy, that many seek a return to 1948 rather than the 1967 paradigm in which Jewish peace activists operate. Similarly, as Yair Rosenberg wrote, “...where once it was difficult to get Jews into a room with Palestinians, now it has become difficult to find a Palestinian who will share the stage with a Zionist Jew.” Let’s not whitewash these inconvenient truths, either.

To the third group, the disaffected, unaffiliated, or marginalized: it’s harder to know what to say to you – and really, we should be listening more. But here are a few questions for you to consider, on this holiest night of the year: What do you seek as a Jew, as a human being? What do you want for your children, for your community, and what are you willing to do to achieve it? Simply put, we need you; the Jewish people need you. I’ll say more about this tomorrow. But perhaps your fresh energy and perspective can help be a bridge between these other two groups, to keep us from parting ways entirely, from undermining the Jewish potential to bring redemption to the world.

*    *    *

Last year, I had the privilege of attending a Wexner Heritage session here in Aspen when Natan Sharansky addressed the group. During the Q&A, a Russian-born American Jew asked him, “Why did the Free Soviet Jewry Movement unify and mobilize the entire Jewish community, and why hasn’t any issue done that since?” Sharansky said, it was because the fight for the Jews of the Soviet Union was a fight both for human rights and in defense of Jews. It was at the same time universal and particular. For him, that’s what Zionism has always been, and that’s what the Jewish mission in the world should be. We should be bold in standing up for Jews and in defending all human rights.

In that spirit, if I may be so bold, we should not be afraid to say that Palestinians have rights – to dignity, and self-determination, and maybe even to land. Supporting that principle does not make us less of a Jew, or less pro-Israel. On the contrary, it makes us credible defenders of the very principle on which Zionism and Israel were founded. Peter Beinart, a controversial and perceptive observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shared a story that brings this point home.
Tommy Lapid, the late father of Israel’s most recent political sensation, Yair Lapid, was a hawk. But one day in 2004, watching an elderly woman in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp searching on hands and knees for her medicines in the ruins of a house destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, he blurted out something astonishing. He said she reminded him of his Hungarian grandmother.
Now, that does not mean that Israelis are like Nazis – perish the thought. They are not, and comparing them is beyond the pale. And remember, genuine anti-Semites will make that awful comparison regardless of what we say and do. What it does mean, is this, in Beinart’s words:
By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people...
That recognition need not weaken our resolve or our case in defense of Israel and Jews. On the contrary, it should strengthen them both. 

It is within our grasp to defend Jewish lives and live by Jewish principles. But not if we come from a position of fear, defensiveness, and insecurity. Particularly as American Jews, we should embrace our security and proceed with confidence. We should learn to combat anti-Semitism without letting it define us. We should be more willing to use our position of power for the good of our tribe and the good of humanity. That has always been the animating tension at the heart of being a Jew. How many times does our tradition call us to beware the other who might lead us astray or destroy us? And how many times does it call us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “not do to others what is hateful to you”?

As Rabbi Danny Gordis wrote today“Grant us the capacity for unbounded pride coupled with the embrace of self-critique, satisfaction in what we’ve wrought coupled with a drive to do even better.” My prayer this Yom Kippur, for all of us and the Jewish People everywhere, is that we will be equally fierce in our commitments to be a mentsch and to be a Jew. Let’s let the world know that we are proud of both, and we will never let go of either.

G’mar chatimah tovah, may Jews everywhere and all people be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of blessing.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon: Happier Families

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5774 • 05 September 2013

Happier Families

There is a story about a man who made out his will with this provision: my son shall not inherit anything of mine until he acts the fool. R. Yose bar Judah and Rabbi went to R. Joshua ben Korhah to get an opinion about this provision. When they peeked in from outside, they saw him crawling on his hands and knees, with a reed sticking out of his mouth, and being pulled along by his child. 

Seeing him thus, they discreetly withdrew, but they came back later and asked him about the provision in the will. He began to laugh and said, “As you live, this business you ask about -- acting the fool -- happened to me a little while ago.” Hence the aphorism, “When a man looks on his children, his joy makes him act like a fool.”
~ Midrash Tehillim 92:13 (Book of Legends, p. 633)

I love this midrash for a number of reasons. It starts out as an obscure anecdote about estate law. Rabbi Yose and Rabbi are the lawyers trying to make sense of this strange provision in a client’s will: “my son shall not inherit anything of mine until he acts the fool.” They decide to consult their colleague Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah for his legal opinion. 

But when they get to his house, they hear some commotion, so they look in the window. What they see is kind of funny: The great sage Rabbi Joshua down on all fours, a stick in his mouth, and his child – I picture a toddler, of course – pulling him along by the stick, like a dog or donkey or ox.

The two rabbi-lawyers (no offense meant to the lawyers here, by the way...) decide to come back later, when Rabbi Joshua is less preoccupied. And this is the key to the parable. They are so narrowly focused on the legal question that they completely miss the truth in plain sight -- they’ve just witnessed in the flesh the very legal condition they came to ask about! When they finally come back around to ask Rabbi Joshua about the strange will, it’s so obvious to him that he laughs as he answers: “Acting the fool? I just did that myself, as a matter of fact!” The subtext is: If you had just paid a little more attention, you might have noticed... 

The midrash ends with a proverb:  “When a person looks on his children, his joy makes him act like a fool.” Acting a fool – perhaps another way of saying, simply having fun with one’s children – is an authentic expression of love.

Of course, this midrash is not only about parenting; it is fundamentally about inheritance. The man makes his son’s inheritance contingent on “acting the fool” – a poetic way of saying, being an engaged and loving father. That makes the son worthy of his father’s legacy. And though the question of estate law may be financial on the surface, the inheritance at stake is more important and timeless than money.

Every Rosh Hashanah we read our tradition’s poster text of parenting and inheritance, the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. We will hear it in a moment during the Torah Service. It’s a cringeworthy story; every year when we read it there is much handwringing and gnashing of teeth. And yet we keep reading it, year after year. I always feel bad for the once-a-year shul-goer who comes on Rosh Hashanah morning, maybe with kids in tow, and hears how, once upon a time, the father of our faith was such a fanatic that he took his own son up a mountain in the middle of nowhere to sacrifice him on an altar... Happy new year! Did we mention Hebrew School starts soon? Wait, where are you going...?!

The Jewish way during these holy days is not to go easy on ourselves or our texts, but to be provoked by them, and to push back.

Perhaps the Akeidah can be for us a warning about how our own choices demand certain sacrifices from our children. As one TED talk speaker put it, “...most people have either a great family and an average career, or an incredible career and an average family. The only way to have both is to apply the same level of passion and energy to your family as you do to your work. There can be no asymmetry” (Feiler, 53). Whatever rewards Abraham’s act of faith reaped, he devastated his family. Sarah died soon after, and Isaac never spoke to him again. This imbalance of faith and family needs recalibrating.

*   *   *

Both these texts and this time of year call us to step back and examine the health of our families. Network technology and the fast pace of life bring new pressures and distractions that challenge how we take care of our families and how happy we are. As Bruce Feiler wrote this year in his book The Secrets of Happy Families:
“No matter what kind of family you are part of, an enormous new body of research shows that your family is central to your overall happiness and wellbeing” (4). “Yet among the things proven to make us the least happy are raising children, tending aging parents, and doing household chores” (7). 
You probably didn’t need research to tell you that, but Feiler wrote this book to shed light on what happy families actually do. I want to share with you several of his themes which dovetail with the blessings that Jewish life has to offer us as families.

Before I do that, let me address for a moment those of you who do not have children, or a spouse, or an otherwise “traditional” family. This message, I hope, will speak to you as well. Although Feiler’s book targets most of its advice to families with children, the lessons are universal. Humans are by nature social beings, and what goes for biological families also goes for whatever group or community we surround ourselves with. 

On a related note: When I introduce the Blessing for Children (Y'-va-re-ch'-cha) on Shabbat evening, I’m in the habit of saying, “For all the children of our community.” I want those without children to feel included, and there’s a deeper lesson, too: as a Jewish community, we don’t just take responsibility for the wellbeing of our own families; we reach out to our neighbors, too. It’s in that spirit that I offer my comments today.

I’m going to offer two ways toward a happier family, based on ideas from The Secrets of Happy Families, and refracted through a Jewish lens.

Number 1: Family Meal Times.

Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah morning I told a story about a concerned mom who goes to see her rabbi regarding her troubled son, Jordan. She asks the rabbi to speak to Jordan because he’s always angry and she wants to know what’s bothering him. The rabbi says, of course, and offers a time, Wednesday at 4:30. No, Jordan has hockey then. The rabbi offers another time. No good, math tutor. And another time. Nope, guitar lesson. (And so on...) This young man’s schedule is even busier than the rabbi’s, who says he might already know why Jordan is angry all the time... (adapted from Wendy Mogell, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, p. 209).

We are all busy. We are pulled in a thousand directions, and we’re pulling our kids with us. They barely have time to breathe during the school year, let alone have dinner together. And finding a night of the week when everyone’s schedule syncs up is challenge enough. But if we don’t make the effort, we are cheating ourselves and our families.

Feiler writes,
“A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic...discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services [though we’re glad you’re here!], or playing sports.” (35)
Life is about trade-offs, and sacrifices are necessary. Just be sure you’re making the right ones.

Jewish tradition has known this truth about family meals since the beginning. Shabbat was created as a day of rest, and our people made it into a day of family. As the early Zionist thinker Ahad Haam once said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” In particular, the traditional Shabbat rules limiting how far you can travel ensure that families and neighbors spend Shabbat together. As non-Orthodox Jews, we may have given up those rules, but let’s not lose the essence of the day – breaking bread and bonding. Whatever day and time works for you, what matters is that you set it apart. You can try introducing a question for discussion or just catching up on the days events. It might change your life.

Number 2: Knowing Your Family Story.

One of the things that often comes out at family dinners and holidays are stories of the family’s past. In 2001, a group of psychologists did a study comparing psychological evaluation of children with their knowledge of their family history, which was measured on a “Do You Know?” scale using 20 questions like:
  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know where your parents met?
  • Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
  • Do you know what went on when you were being born?
The results were striking. “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness” (41).

As it happened, two months after this study, September 11 happened. The psychologists went back and studied how the same children responded to that trauma. The results were the same: “The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress” (41).

To explain this result, the psychologists coined the term “intergenerational self” – a sense that you’re part of something bigger, a larger narrative. Marshall Duke, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Emory, who also happens to be Jewish, compared this idea to bubbemeises. In his family, the grandmother will say, “You’re having trouble with math, kid? Let me tell you, your father had trouble with math. You don’t want to practice piano? Boy, your aunt Laura didn’t want to practice piano, either” (42). (Grandparents, take note: You have a special role to play in the unfolding of your family story and the cultivation of your grandkids’ intergenerational self. And by the way, Feiler’s book has a whole chapter on you, “The Care and Feeding of Grandparents.”) “Whatever problem the child has,” Duke says, “the grandmother has a story for it – even if it’s made up!” (42). More than just entertain and amuse, these stories serve a higher purpose: they send children a message that they’re not alone, that they’re part of a larger story, that those who came before them had struggles and triumphs just as they do.

It cannot be a coincidence that the Passover Seder – which upwards of 80% of Jews observe – serves exactly this function. According to the Mishnah, 
In each generation the individual is obligated to see himself as though he [himself] left Egypt, as it is written: "And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what ADONAI did for me when I went free from Egypt’" (Exodus 13:8). (Mishna Pesachim 9:5)
Passover’s goal is to strengthen your intergenerational self. It probably works better than just about any other ritual we do by combining both lessons of today: it’s a family meal over which you tell a family story. The Exodus is the ultimate Jewish family story, but every American Jewish family also has its own Exodus story, how they immigrated to this country and what life was like. Little did you know, when your grandparents told you their life story, it was making you a better person.

Whether it’s through Jewish ritual like the Passover seder, or your own gatherings, tell and retell your stories. Don’t wait until the storytellers are gone to wonder what stories never got told. The psychologists concluded what Judaism has always known: If you can link your storytelling to a ritualized activity, you’ll dramatically increase the chances that it will be remembered by your children, and passed on to theirs. Marshall Duke, the Emory professor, begins Shabbat dinner by tossing kippahs toward each grandchild in an attempt to land it on their heads. Bruce Feiler recalls asking if that was in the Torah. “‘No, it’s in the Duke Family Hall of Fame,’ he said. ‘And that’s much more important’” (39).

*   *   *

Judaism is designed to enrich lives by strengthening families. That’s not the accidental byproduct of some old set of tribalistic cult practices – it’s the point.

Those of you turned off by organized religion, by belief in God or prayer services, by Hebrew and Torah study, consider this reframing: Judaism is a rich family story that invites you to be a part of it and reap the benefits in meaning, wholeness, and unity, for yourself, your family, and your community.

When you hear me or synagogue “regulars” asking, Why don’t you come to services sometime? or, Have you registered for Hebrew school? – Don’t take it the wrong way. We’re not trying to nag you (mostly). It comes from a place of caring, and of values. We genuinely believe that Judaism can help make your life better.

But for now, instead of asking why you’re not a member, or why you don’t come to programs or services, here are some better questions to consider:
  • How could you rearrange your priorities
    to include more family meals,
    and a better known family story?
  • How high would you score
    on the “Do You Know?” scale about your family history? –
    and how high would your children score? –
    and what are you going to do to improve that?
  • How could you be more intentional
    about the wellbeing of your family?
Put in terms of our opening midrash, how will you “act the fool” for your children, for your community, for those you love? Rabbi Joshua’s life-affirming gesture of loving horseplay – his active engagement with the next generation – is a model for us all. It is not incidental to the story; it is the story.

In the new year, will you create opportunities for sacred time, perform rituals for lasting memories, and share the stories of where you came from?

If so, then you will have proven yourself worthy of inheriting your ancestors’ legacy, and you will have given the next generation something truly precious to enrich their lives and hand down to those who follow.

May the new year be happy and healthy for us and those closest to us. And may we remember our role 
in making happiness happen.

L’shanah tovah.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: More is Less?

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5774 • 04 September 2013

More is Less?
Reclaiming Simplicity and Stillness

Two Things at Once • 

In the universe of this ad, there’s no such thing as “less is more.” It’s simply obvious to everyone in the room that doing two things at once is better. As one of the boys says, it’s “two times as awesome.” If you’ll indulge me while I deconstruct this ad for a moment... Without meaning to, it highlights exactly the problem I want to address tonight.

The example of multitasking -- the boy who can wave his head and his hand AT THE SAME TIME -- unwittingly provides the perfect metaphor for what we might become without some checks and balances on the omnipresence of technology in our lives. The boy’s multitasking is useless (if amusing), and worse: it disconnects him completely from the world around him. It even sucks in the adult in the room -- or anyway, the one who is supposed to be the adult. He has no attention left for the girl right next to him who just wants to be noticed.

The peshat (surface meaning) of this ad is the AT&T network’s superiority to its competitors for its capacity for talking and surfing at the same time. It's yet another example of the negative potential of smartphones: No more just talking to someone, it seems to say -- how boring. Now you can surf the web at the same time! God forbid you should focus your attention solely on the conversation.

This ad wouldn’t exist unless its producers and clients believed it would sell product. So it speaks to our cultural moment in time, when smartphones and mobile technology are virtually ubiquitous, and their purveyors ride the wave of our impulse to have more: more speed, more bandwith, more gadgets. “It’s not complicated.” they declare smugly. No! Wrong! It’s very complicated, and you’re not helping.

It gets worse.
Slow Grandma •

In this ad, we have a chilling example of market values supplanting human values. “Faster is better!” -- once again, it’s obvious to everyone in the room.

But wait, Grandma is slow, offers that boy with the last shred of his humanity that the AT&T goon hasn’t sucked out of him yet like a Hogwarts Dementor (for those of you who read Harry Potter).

Again, this embarrassment of an adult counters: “Would you like her better if she was fast?”
What?! What kind of sick world are you living in? A world where technology determines what we value, a backwards world.

Thank God for this kid’s maturity in answering: “I bet she would like it if she was fast.” Ok, some empathy, thank you. Yes, aging is difficult. Caring for aging parents is difficult. Your Grandma probably would prefer if she could move like she used to. It’s sweet of you to be aware of that. But then the conversation spirals downward into a perverse thought experiment about cartoonish ways to make Grandma faster. (I wonder if Medicare covers turbo boosters or a back cheetah.)

The point is, our obsession with technology blurs the lines of what we value. The implication that a slow grandma, like a slow phone, is undesirable, dismissible, obsolete, should make your soul cringe. Time to redraw some lines, to revisit our values.

Tree House • 

The idea of a treehouse disco, I admit, is compelling. But any glimmer of joy from that is overshadowed by, again, the universal assumption that bigger is always better, and by the boy’s monologue about how a small treehouse is bad—for it can only fit a small TV. Because that’s what makes a treehouse special—a flat screen TV! Mom, dad, I’m tired of being inside, I’m going to go hang out in the treehouse AND WATCH TV. God help us all!

Is this the value set we want our children raised with? Shouldn’t we be teaching them to feel gratitude for having a home, to let their imagination run wild in a treehouse, or outside with friends, rather than being obsessed with having the biggest treehouse on the block and the fanciest gadgets?

This ad speaks to a disturbing truth that studies have demonstrated: more unequal societies experience more crises in health, crime, and wellbeing. In other words, the more equal a society is, the better off EVERYONE is – happier, healthier, better adjusted. Constantly comparing ourselves to those who have more creates a thirst for gain that cannot be quenched. That thirst leads to stresses that hurt us all. How sad to see that need promoted among children.

*   *   *

It doesn’t have to be this way. And technology isn’t to blame -- we are. Jewish tradition speaks with great wisdom to those seeking depth, stillness, and simplicity in a world that thrusts upon us shallowness, constant multitasking, and the unending pursuit of more.

In the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah finds himself alone in the wilderness, having fled for his life from powerful people who want him dead. There in a cave he seeks refuge, and God’s guidance. God asks what he’s doing, and then as if to help him really hear the question deeply, God calls him out of the cave and parades before him an awesome display of nature’s might.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of ADONAI; but ADONAI was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but ADONAI was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but ADONAI was not in the fire. And after the fire — a  kol d’mamah dakah [often, "still small voice"; better, "small whispering voice"]. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold a voice speaking to him: “Why are you here, Elijah?”

(1 Kings 19:11-13)
The wind, earthquake, and fire, like so much of the technology we’re addicted to, are impressive and compelling at first. But they lack depth. Each time we are told, God was not in them. Only when Elijah -- when we -- can step back from all the noise and chatter can we even hear the kol d’mamah dakah, the small whispering voice, calling us to a higher purpose.

The first thing Elijah hears after the stillness is a question: why are you here? Those who meditate regularly can probably relate: when the pressures and anxieties of life fall away, the door opens to reconnect with your purpose. We are called to be more intentional about our life’s mission, and the meaning of our days. But first we must set aside, at least for a time, those distractions that get in the way of our deeper questions. And we must guide our children to do the same, because what they’re learning out there is not to be still, or to simplify, or to slow down, but rather to go faster, to have more, to do more, all the time.

On the relentless pursuit of more, our tradition speaks with wisdom and warning. “Ben Zoma said: Who is rich? He who delights in his lot” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 32a). Pirkei Avot teaches, “More wealth, more worry” (Avot 2:8) – or as one translator put it, “The more you get, the more you fret” 
(Book of Legends, 604:345).

To counteract these cultural forces, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, poet-philosopher of Judaism, explains why Shabbat is exactly what we need:

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments, and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.

(Heschel, The Sabbath)

As one commentator put it, “Daily life is often noisy and chaotic; spiritual growth is nearly impossible in that kind of environment... [Shabbat] allows one to become quiet and listen for that still, small voice.” In her recent book The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz brings the point home to us.
The old-time Sabbath does not fit comfortably in our lives... Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness--the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS...
There is something gorgeously naive about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away--it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization... 
The rabbis say the Sabbath is a taste of the world to come. Me, I think it’s an aftertaste of infancy. It’s a fantasy of perfect wholeness. If adult life is divided, the Sabbath is when we become one--with our family, with our community, with God...
Finally, one last commercial.

Slow Turtle •

I wanted to leave you with that one, especially the moment when the girl who expresses an independent thought is met with a patronizing, dismissive GROAN by the poor excuse for an adult. It’s not easy to go against the cultural grain. When you do, that’s often how people react. But it’s good to be the slow turtle sometimes, even when the world is yelling at you to pick up the pace.

May the new year bring us new awareness of the limitations of the “bigger, faster, more” mindset, and teach us to simplify, to slow down, and to find moments of stillness, to reconnect with our purpose and the people who matter most. 

L’shanah tovah.


Additional AT&T ads, in case you want to be even more depressed:

What’s better: being better, or worse?

Go Big or Go Home
Basketball in big fancy stadium or small driveway?

Pickle Roll

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Old Shower Stall

The afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, in the midst of our getting ready to get out the door to lead services, our shower handle broke – with the water on. Fortunately, a good friend was able to come by on a moment's notice and fix it, and all was well.

The experience reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years, a story in verse by Garrison Keillor about a shower. I heard it on a tape of Prairie Home Companion many years ago, and it came back to me. When I looked online, I only found the audio, so I bought it on iTunes and transcribed it for use in our Rosh Hashanah morning service. 

It made a fitting introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which presents a problematic theology of sin and divine punishment, of a God who tallies our deeds and seals our fates accordingly. Keillor, in his characteristically wry, Midwestern way, makes a profound theological point that speaks to us today.

Enjoy and share. Shanah tovah!
     ~ Rabbi David

A couple notes on the text:
  • This is my own transcription, to the best of my ability according to the recording.
  • There are two bracketed couplets that I did not read during services because of their Christian imagery; I thought they would be distracting, and excluding them did not take away much of the meaning.
  • In the final lines, the all-caps exclamations should be understood as the uncomfortable utterances of a person taking a cold shower.
  • To hear Keillor read it, click here.

The Old Shower Stall
Garrison Keillor

On these cold October mornings, when the trees are going bare,
and the smells of frost and fruit and wood-smoke linger in the air,
when my skin warms to the chill, and my blood and flesh and bone
are touched by old sweet memories of autumns I have known:
the excitement of the senses, waking up in cold, dim dawn
to the smell of woolen blanket, and downstairs the coffee on,
and my mother’s voice much louder on her third and final call,
and the tingling of the skin when I jump out and down the hall,
and ran into the bathroom, across the cold wood floor,
and the shrinking of the loins when I stood and dropped my drawers
and reached and turned the faucet on and took the bar of soap,
and got into that shower full of fear and shame and hope.

It was an old, old shower that my father had hooked up,
a nozzle on a long lead pipe that rose above the tub,
like a post at executions where you’re tied up with a knot
naked, with your eyes shut, waiting for the fatal shot.
My father was no plumber; he built the shower from plans
that he saw in a magazine – perhaps Modern Romance?
For this shower was so sensitive and moody, if someone 
downstairs turned on a faucet before your shower was done,
even for a second, suddenly the gentle flow 
of comforting warm water turned frigidicimal. 
and the victim stood there frozen, helpless and surprised,
by a sudden loss of vision as his eyeballs crystallized,
and the pain throughout his body from the frostbite in the blood,
and his skin turned white and rigid and his heart stopped with a thud.

But to freeze a body is gentle, compared to when you boil it,
which happened in this shower if somebody flushed a toilet.
It came without a warning as you sang “la la” and scrubbed –
no rumble in the pipes that this volcano would erupt.
It just blew up in your face or from behind the lava rose
and hit you bending over to wash between your toes,
and you sprang up in great agony and yelled and tried to run 
and slipped and fell down in a heap, medium well done.

[Another Christian martyr in the flames trying to pray,
Oh Lord forgive that person but please not right away.]
Yes I had some spiritual moments in that shower of my youth,
moments when the water seemed to thunder down with truth
upon my naked body, when I had a carnal thought
and enjoyed and dwelled upon it, though I knew that I should not,
but allowed myself to daydream in the regions of desire.
Did the Lord reach out and flush to strike me down with liquid fire?
I used to think He did, but now I’m older and I see.
The shower was a lesson in man’s sweet mortality:
to feel how fine, how fragile, is this trembling naked form,
how delicious is the water, and how briefly it stays warm,
and how it may turn painful, suddenly, without a word,
and how, though it seems unfair, this pain can be endured,
and how the joyful moments seem more sweet as they go by
because you know this shower has a limited supply.

I’m out of that old bathroom now. Since then I’ve gotten wet 
in a lot of shower systems where the temperature is set
by small inboard computers that keep it warm nonstop
and regulate the volume and the shape of every drop
in exact configuration from a trickle to barrage,
steady flow or in pulsations for a thundering massage,
with bath oil beads and vitamins mixed in, emulsified,
from showerheads above you and below and to the side;
six to make the shower, one to make a gentle mist,
and a tapedeck in the ceiling playing Chopin and Franz Liszt,
[and a light to make a rainbow where the shower is a prism
and all of it designed to soak out Calvinism]
and the sunlamps in the ceiling and the coil in the floor
maintain precision comfort, and you know there’s always more
hot water where this came from, some endless reservoir
that the universe has guaranteed to you, it’s brightest star.

But as I stand in absolute luxurious delight 
and utter satisfaction, I know it is not right.
You know it too, my friend. And so tomorrow when you rise, 
and stand under your shower, when you acclimatize,
reach for the knob marked H, and turn it off, and stand in prayer,
“Lord, help me appreciate what soon will not be there.
And may I be more thankful, more wakeful unto thee 
and more aware of sinful pride, my own complacency, 
I’m less inclined to take for granted the gifts I get from you.
I thank you now for every one and praise and utter – WHOO!
and stand in your creation with proper reverent awe,
and look upon these wonders with joyful spirit – AHHHH!
And finally in conclusion may I just say, Amen.”

And open your eyes, turn on the warm, and now be clean, again.

We Pray for Children

We Pray for Children
Ina Hughes

We pray for children 
Who put chocolate fingers everywhere, 
Who like to be tickled, 
Who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants, 
Who sneak Popsicles before supper, 
Who erase holes in math workbooks, 
Who can never find their shoes. 

And we pray for those 
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire, 
Who can't bound down the street in new sneakers, 
Who never "counted potatoes," 
Who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead  in, 
Who never go to the circus, 
Who live in an X-rated world. 

We pray for children 
Who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions, 
Who sleep with the cat and bury goldfish, 
Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money, 
Who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink, 
Who slurp their soup. 

And we pray for those 
Who never get dessert, 
Who have no safe blanket to drag behind them, 
Who can't find any bread to steal, 
Who don't have any rooms to clean up, 
Whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser, 
Whose monsters are real. 

We pray for children 
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday, 
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food, 
Who like ghost stories, 
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed, 
Who get visits from the tooth fairy, 
Who don't like to be kissed in front of the car pool, 
Who squirm in church and scream on the phone, 
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry. 

And we pray for those 
Whose nightmares come in the daytime, 
Who will eat anything, 
Who have never seen a dentist, 
Who are never spoiled by anyone, 
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, 
Who live and move, but have no being. 

We pray for children 
Who want to be carried 
And for those who must, 
For those we never give up on 
And for those who never get a second chance, 
For those we smother. 
And for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind 
enough to offer it. 

We pray for children. Amen. 

Thanks to Rabbi Robin Nafshi for bringing this poem to my attention. We read this during our Rosh Hashanah morning service after the priestly blessing, before a silent prayer.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

High Holidays with the AJC


We look forward to welcoming everyone this fall to celebrate the New Year. We will be at Harris Hall for everything except 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah, and Neilah (concluding service of Yom Kippur).

If you are not a member, we ask that you *click here to fill out this form* so we know to expect you and can welcome you into our community of worship!

*Services held at Harris Hall (unless otherwise noted)

Rosh Hashanah

Wednesday      9/4
  *Family Service    5:00pm
  *Evening Service   7:30pm

Thursday   9/5-First Day
*Morning Service   10:00am
Taschlich walk immediately after

Friday    9/6-Second Day
Morning Service 10:00am at the Aspen Chapel Garden

Yom Kippur

Friday     9/13   KOL NIDRE
 *Family Service      5:00pm
*Evening Service   7:30pm

Saturday    9/14
*Morning Service 10:00am; 
immediately followed by Yizkor service.
Yom Kippur Learning Session with Rabbi Segal at 4:30pm (at the Aspen Chapel) 
Concluding Service (Neilah) 5:30pm (at the Aspen Chapel) followed by a Break-the-Fast Potluck Dinner (kosher-style)

Email or call 970-925-8245