Monday, May 19, 1997

Making Change

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, PA

I remember as if it were yesterday the strangest string of statements I had ever heard. It was eight years ago, on a sunny July morning in South Florida. And it is a series of statements that I have heard many, many times since, without ever giving them a second thought. But that time it was something different.

I was in a meeting. A woman came in. She said the following words to me: "Rabbi Feshbach, your wife is on the phone on line two in your office. Your secretary is getting the number."

That's it. The strangest string of statements. Not much, really. But on that day eight years ago, I was simply stunned by these two sentences.

You see, I had only been ordained for slightly over a month. Married for two weeks. Moved to Florida for less than one week. And I remember my reaction to these words. It was this: Who is Rabbi Feshbach? Who is my wife? Where is my office? I have a secretary?

There had been so much change in our lives, so fast, that I guess I just hadn't really absorbed it all. I was stunned.

I have heard that there are books and magazine articles out there that give people advice on how to run there lives. The experts who write these articles seem to agree on something called "common wisdom." Common wisdom says, I have been told, that there are many sources of stress in life, and that we should all carefully plan to avoid having more than one of these stresses in the same decade or so. These life experiences that are to be savored all on their own, without the imposition of one too close to the other, are: getting married, moving, starting a new job. Oh, and one should also have one's children exactly the right distance apart.

Well, most of us have learned by now that if Life and the Franklin Planner were interchangeable terms, we would not need different words for them. Some changes we seek, others we are open to, and others come out of the blue. To paraphrase the motto of a well known support group -- Change Happens. (Or: Life is What Happens When You Are Trying to Make Plans.)

This past year Julie and I became parents, and are still learning what that means. This summer we are moving from Erie, (although not that far). I am going to become the Rabbi at Temple Beth Am of Williamsville, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. This late fall/early winter we are expecting another child -- and hoping and praying that everything goes well with that.

Each of these changes is something that could be contemplated on its own. Each one involves transition, which is always educational, and always an inducement to growth -- but rarely easy. Each one involves excitement, anticipation... and some sadness for the passing of what once was. Each one would leave us busier than I could have imagined being.

I know people who claim that they are "spiritual," but not religious. They like alternative states of awareness and consciousness. They do not like rituals.

I have two problems with this claim. The first is that it is often sometimes disingenuous. Because, frankly, almost all human beings have rituals. Rituals are the way we pattern our lives, the routines I wrote about last week, the habits we form from which, scientists tell us now, we really are Wired -- for the things we do with regularity leave trace marks on our minds, physical imprints in our brains. Everyone has rituals of some sort, which are seldom fully rational, and which leave us flummoxed at best if something happens to interfere with them.

But the second problem I have with the claim that one can be spiritual and not religious is that I know how very, very important "ritual" is in life. In changes. In transitions.

There is a reason why there are so many rituals associated with "life-cycle" events. Celebrations of birth and commemorations of death. B'nai Mitzvah, and Graduation. Weddings -- and, hopefully rarely -- divorces. Farewell dinners, and installations. There is a reason why people develop private rituals for other transitions -- and why I believe Jewish creativity is now responding for new rituals for new changes -- on getting a driver's license, on leaving for college, on being an Empty Nester, and for events in womens' lives that once went unmarked. All of these rituals surrounding change, the old ones and the new ones, they too, come from a level beneath the surface, beyond the rational. They come from a subconscious awareness that when we change, we are, in a sense, coming apart.

We do come apart. A part of us ends. A part of us is new. Only a part of us remains the same.

This part-ing is hard. It separates us from others, and segregates different parts of ourselves. Which is why transition is hard for everyone. And why it is dangerous for the self. When we change anything in our lives, we are unravelling our lives. The danger is: we might not re-ravel right.

This is what the rituals that mark the changes in our lives do: they provide a place, and a presence, to witness the change, and support us through it. The old family structure ends, and reravels into this: two individuals become a couple, a couple become parents; a family of three welcomes a fourth. A young person becomes an adult. A child is given a name, and joins a people.

These are private moments, but they are not private alone. They affect the community. And the community can be there, to help, to be the audience as the change is played out on the ritual stage... to reassure the changed individuals that there place in the community is secure. And to hold and comfort and support when someone is so overwhelmed... that they don't know, for a moment, who they are, or how to find their office.

There are changes coming in our life. There are changes that have already happened. How glad I have been to be part of a community that cared so much about my family as to help us through some of these changes. There is sadness in leaving that community, and pain. And hope that we can remain a part of each others lives. And there is excitement at learning about, and being part of a new place, of new faces and future friends and the things we will go through together.

We are making changes in our lives again. But all that means, really, is that we are alive. And for that, I am nervous, I am anxious, I am excited. I am grateful. And I am glad.

Thursday, May 01, 1997

Double Jeopardy

Double Jeopardy

Rabbi Michael L . Feshbach

"Wherever you go," says a song I know, "there’s always someone Jewish .You’re never alone, when you say you’re a Jew. “Well, we may never be completely alone as Jews. But it sometimes feels lonely nonetheless. Sometimes we are lonely as Jews. And sometimes we are lonely because of the kinds of Jews we are.

It is a blessing and a curse to be, always and everywhere, a minority.     But I am a minority, as an American Reform Jew. I am minority because of my religion in this country, and, most especially, in the community in which I live (there are only approximately 800 Jews in the surrounding 300,000 area population of Erie County, Pennsylvania).And I am a minority because of my denomination in Israel. And this particular December, because of’ ‘church-state" issues, that minority status is confronting me in both places at once.

i .My Home: Church-State Issues
At the request of several families in our congregation, I attended and spoke at the most recent meeting of a local Board of Education. The meeting itself was an educational experience for me; I urge all of us, even those with children in private schools (since you still can vote in these elections) to periodically carve out the time to attend the open meetings of local government, so we can get to know the people in public life - and see how they behave in those positions.

It was ... well, shocking .People was shouting at each other. Members were grandstanding in ways that were just; well, ignorant of the issues and the law. Members had no clue what they were voting on part of the time. They followed no recognizable parliamentary procedure. It put any doubts I ever might have had about the functioning of synagogue boards into a proper (and positive!) perspective.

The specific issue which prompted my attendance was a recent controversy surrounding the school system’s Holiday Card Contest. An internal memo, leaked to the press, stated that the cards should have "no nativity scenes." What was meant as "no religious symbols, for example, no nativity scenes," was seen by some of our Christian neighbors as "the only religious symbols you cannot use are Christian ones????”What was meant to be sensitive and inclusive of all came across(or, perhaps - and let 's face it, this is a possibility - was deliberately misconstrued) as being discriminatory against the majority faith.

The issue is complex . Students should not be censored . Yet a card picked to represent the entire district should reflect the officially neutral stance of the government towards religion) . But I think that if we get past the emotions surrounding church-state issues, especially in our schools, we may find that we have more common ground than we thought .

I believe that both sides sometimes react to what they think the other side is saying, or what their fears are, not what is actually being said (although some groups , it is true, really do want Christian prayer said out loud by all students in public schools) .

In an attempt to find that common ground , I have developed five criteria to help my own thinking about issues of religion and public schools .Not everyone would agree with these criteria .But I believe that many people would , even if their policy conclusions might differ .The criteria are :

1.       We all want quality education for our children .

2.       We all believe that our children should be allowed to express themselves . Non-intrusive, non-coercive , student initiated religious expression is legal in public schools, with slightly greater leeway given the older students get , since coercive power is lessened as we become more mature .(Thus public universities fund activities not allowed elementary schools .And this is also why the argument, "well , Congress does it," does 't apply .)

3.      We all believe that a public school classroom is not a place to exclude anyone . Any activities which make some children feel less than "normal " should be avoided .

4.      We believe that schools can teach about but not actively celebrate religious holidays .

5.      We believe in the rule of law .We might not agree with the law .The Supreme Court, for example , has ruled the menorahs and Christmas trees are seasonal, rather than religious symbols .The very idea of the Supreme Court ruling on whether something in my religion is "religious" or not is repugnant to me . But that is the law of the land . And we want our schools to abide by the law. If we don 't like the law, the schools are not the right address for our grievances .

After many frustrating discussions on this topic, I have come to believe that if only we can convey how excluded we feel when Christianity is endorsed as a public norm, and if only our opponents can communicate their real fear than an important component of their children 's lives will be demeaned , dismissed or undermined , then we can make progress and move from common ground to the common good .But those are a lot of ifs.

ii .My Homeland : Church-State Issues
"Reform is goyim of the highest order ."So wrote one of Israel 's most prominent Orthodox rabbis in recent months .Another went so far as to suggest that the zealot Pinchas , who in the Torah stuck a spear through the bellies oaf couple of whose actions he disapproved , was (we he saying justifiably?? ) eliminating the very first Reform Jews .

If I am a minority as a Jews in my home country, I am a minority as a Reform Jew in our homeland .And now, in the coming days, one of the very few gains we have ever made in the Israeli courts is about to come under fierce attack .

In November 1995 the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the validity of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel .Those performed in the Diaspora are supposedly already valid for purposes of immigration to Israel under the Law of Return .)The problem remains that with Orthodox political control over the Ministry of Religious Affairs , which oversees birth , marriage and death records , one could be registered as a Jew for immigration purposes , but not be allowed to marry as a Jew, have "Jewish " children , or be buried in a Jewish cemetery .

Even the small gains of recent days, however , are now on the chopping block of political expediency .A law requiring all conversions to be re-certified by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate is coming before the Knesset ; it was one of the promises Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu             (himself a secular Jew) made to his "partners " in order to form a coalition .Since the prime minister depends on the Orthodox parties for the bulk of his political support, this bill is almost sure to pass .

And so Israel remains, and looks likely to remain, the only otherwise democratic country in the world in which Jews are not given full religious freedom , to not only practice our religion, but to do so through whichever denomination we choose .The answer is not to cut ourselves off from our homeland .The answer is not to claim that we are fully at home here , that Israel is not part of our lives (an anti-Zionist position thoroughly and tragically discredited by the horror of history); the answer is not to slash our donations to the UJA in protest (which ultimately hurts our own communities the most) .The answer is to react .... and act .

In a bit of partisan fervor which you will not often find in this column, I want to tell you a little bit about one organization that is fighting for equal rights for all Jews in Israel .It is called ARZA , the American Reform Zionist Association .In my mind , this is our best hope, and the most effective voice , fighting for civil rights, for social justice , and, yes, for our own self-interest as Liberal Jews in the land of Israel .

It is ARZA (and its Israeli counterpart , the Israel Religious Action Center) that brings the cases and pleads the cause of Reform and Conservative rights before the courts of Israeli justice and in the court of Israeli opinion .

Every single committed , non-Orthodox Jew who cares about liberal Judaism and who cares about the land and people and state of Israel should be a member of ARZA .It is easy .It is inexpensive($36).It is effective .                      It is in our own interest.(More information about ARZA and its activities are available at ARZA, 838 Fifth Avenue , New York, New York, 10021-7064 ; 1-212-650-2480, fax 212-517-7968... OR via the World Wide Web , at, I believe :http :// .You can find ARZA listed on the home page of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations .)

Along with joining ARZA, now is the time to make our voices heard more directly .I can fax or e-mail to anyone who is interested the addresses of all the relevant political leaders, and a sample letter to them. For convenience , I am including Prime Minister Netanyahu 's address now :Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , Office of the Prime Minister , P .O . Box 187, Jerusalem , ISRAEL, 91919.
Fax 011-972-2-566-4838 .

Please take the time , and find the air-mail postage(or the small cost of an international fax) to let Israel 's leaders know your feelings on this issue .

It is true that unless we are citizens, we do not get a vote in Israel .But remember that much of the impetus for these changes is coming from American Orthodox leaders . And while we don 't get a vote ... it is our homeland , and our faith being called into question .Not a vote ... but we do get a voice . Let us use our voices now .I urge you to do so.