Posted on December 10th, 2012 No comments
It was Hannukah of 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina changed everything. A group of us were in New Orleans helping to restore the homes of four Jewish families that had been flooded with nearly eight feet of water. After five days of putting up sheetrock, spackling and taping, we were standing with Anne and Stan Levy outside their home.
Anne Levy is a short woman. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, miraculously being smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in January, 1943 and passing for Christian once on the outside. Eventually, some fifty years ago she had come to this house in New Orleans and has lived there ever since. “Now we have to start all over,” she had said with tears in her eyes.
She would never have asked for help with her home. “Others need it more.” It was her daughter who had told about their need, bringing us to their home. It wasn’t requested; it was offered.
When we first entered her once beautiful home, we saw that the damage was total. It had been gutted to the studs. There was a hole in the living room floor and a coffee table with a waterlogged copy of Anne’s biography: “Troubled Memory,” sitting on it. It told of how in 1989 she had confronted David Duke at the State Capitol Holocaust exhibition and had told him, with her finger raised high, that this was not a place for a Holocaust denier. She hounded him throughout his run for Governor until he lost.
So there we were with Anne and Stan on the fifth day of Hannukah. Each of the nineteen members of our group had written a special, personal blessing for them. We recited our words with tears in our eyes. Then we presented them with a mezuzah and a Hannukiah.
Holding up the Hannukiah, Stan said words that I will never forget: “Here you are, Jews helping Jews. You have renewed my faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.” Regaining his composure he added, “I can see the light shining from your faces as you work on my home. I want to have that experience myself. So I will join you on your next building project.”
The following year we returned to New Orleans. Stan and Anne hosted all of us for dinner after a day of work. We studied Torah together. This November during Hurricane Sandy, Stan set me this email: “We hope you were out of the storm damage. Please let me know.”
I found a copy of that Dedication Ceremony which began with this paragraph:
The story is told of a family that left New Orleans for a time due to the hurricane and moved to Philadelphia. One member of the family, the mother, went back weeks later to see the extent of the damage to their home. She found that everything had been ruined and removed from the house except one thing, the menorah. As she sat holding that precious object, it seemed to light up in her hands and to ease her burden.
Whenever I look at the lights of the Hanukiah, I think of Anne and Stan. I can hear Stan’s words. And I, too, feel a deeper faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.
Posted on March 28th, 2012 No comments
As we look towards Pessach and the S’darim, Rabbi Larry Bach asks us to think about the meaning of freedom.
At Kiddush time at our Seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?
At the most obvious level, the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies that there are two entities involved, and they turn out to be us and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom, ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. Pesach is our celebration of freedom from enslavement to habit, anger, and small-mindedness, all of which are the very opposite of liberation. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”
Another “member of the club” may be at work as we celebrate “our” freedom: everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story. Our children’s prayerbook says it well in the reading that introduces Mi Chamocha, the Song of the Sea: “When we sing it we say, ‘Let everyone be free.’”
Ultimately, I believe, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is only from a place of physical security that I can develop the habits that connect me to God within me, and everyone else around me.
It is my hope that each of us will be challenged by the words of the haggadah and the symbols of the seder to expand our sense of belonging this year. May the Seder work its ancient magic, bringing us — all of us — from slavery to freedom, from darkness to great light.
Posted on April 8th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.
I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.
In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.
1. Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.
2. We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.
3. Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.
4. There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.
There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.