Perseverance and the portable ark

 

 

"וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them." (Ex. 25:8 - in this week's Torah portion, T'rumah.)  

The word mishkan (the portable dwelling-place for God) shares a root with the word Shechinah, the divine Presence. We build sacred space so God will dwell in us. I talk about this verse every year, because I love it. But this year, what jumps out at me is its juxtaposition with what follows.

Immediately after this verse, Torah tells us to make an ark to hold the tablets of the covenant. Cover it with gold. Put rings on the sides, and poles through the rings. And keep it that way. The ark over which the divine Presence would rest needed to be ready to go at a moment's notice.

Wherever the people go, holy words and presence go with them -- which is to say, with us. As beautiful as the mishkan was (as beautiful as our beloved shul building is) God's presence doesn't live there. God's presence goes with us. Our texts and traditions go with us. Holiness goes with us.

Our ancient ancestors needed perseverance to make their way through the wilderness. I imagine that their perseverance was fueled, in part, by this verse and its assurance that God goes with us wherever we go.

After the Temple fell, our sages called the Shabbat table a mikdash me-at, a small sanctuary. I keep returning to that image during this COVID time. God's presence is with us at our Shabbes tables tonight. God's presence is with us when we bless and light candles together-apart, when we bless and break bread together-apart, when we daven together-apart.

The poles were kept in the rings of the ark to teach us that the life of the spirit goes with us wherever we go. God goes with us wherever we go. Holiness goes with us wherever we go. And like our ancient ancestors, we need perseverance to get us through.

Yesterday NASA landed a new robotic rover on Mars, named -- as you probably know -- Perseverance. Some of you may have watched on the news or online as NASA engineers got word that the rover had safely landed, and celebrated from afar.

I read in the Washington Post earlier this week that "Hitting the 4.8-mile-wide landing site targeted by NASA after a journey of 300 million miles is akin to throwing a dart from the White House and scoring a bull’s eye in Dallas." It's honestly incredible.

As is being able to see images from our neighbor planet in realtime. As is the dream that the science this little robot will do -- sampling regolith and soil, testing for microbes -- will bring us one step closer to someday landing human beings on Mars.

I hope I'm around to celebrate that day -- and to see how Judaism will evolve once it becomes interplanetary! Will Jews on Mars turn toward Earth to pray, the way we now orient toward Jerusalem? How will we navigate the fact that a Martian "day" is different from an earth day in calculating Shabbat?

(Although I haven't researched this, my instinct is to say that Shabbat should be every seventh day, local time, even if that means it's not coterminous with Shabbat on earth. But that's another conversation.)

I'm confident that when there are Jews on Mars, we'll figure out how to build Jewish there.... and that we'll find this week's Torah portion resonant when we do.

Because God's presence is with us when we shelter in place at home now. And God's presence will go with human beings to Mars someday. And the same spirit that enlivens our Shabbes tables here will enliven us there.

Holiness and hope aren't geographically limited. They go where we go. And the perseverance that got us through the wilderness is the same perseverance that will take us to the stars.

The poles stayed in the rings on the handles of the ark because God goes with us wherever we go.

As we approach one year since our awareness of the pandemic began, there's something poignant about the name of this little rover. Perseverance is the quality we need to reach that dream of human beings on Mars.

It's the quality we need to mitigate climate change and ensure safety and care for our fellow human beings -- especially in times of crisis like Texas is experiencing now. And it's the quality we need to make it to the other side of this global pandemic.

The Hebrew word for Perseverance is הַתמָדָה, which contains within it the root t/m/d, always. As in the ner tamid, the eternal light kept burning in the mishkan, the eternal light that burns now in synagogues around the world.

The ner tamid is a perennial reminder of divine Presence, and holiness, and hope burning bright. The ner tamid perseveres, as our hope perseveres, as our life of the spirit perseveres.

May we take hope and strength from the Mars rover Perseverance. May we find our own perseverance strengthened as we approach the second year of this pandemic. And may we feel the flame of hope burning bright within our hearts -- the holy sanctuaries where God's presence dwells.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat services this evening (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


What I wrote to my community today

It is rare to know that we are living through a moment of genuine historical significance. To recognize that something unfolding around us will be chronicled in books as a turning point of some kind, though we can’t yet know where this turn will lead. But here we are. We will not soon forget the sight of an angry mob, incited by falsehoods, storming the nation’s Capitol.

When Congress re-convened last night, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke about the desecration of our temple of democracy. His use of that metaphor evoked our Chanukah story about our holy temple, first desecrated and then rededicated for sacred use. And I remembered again Chanukah’s message of light in the darkness, and the steadfast hope that can carry us through. 

I know that many of us are feeling stunned, horrified, and even frightened by what just happened in Washington DC. If that’s you, know that you are not alone. Know, also, that I am holding each member of our extended community in my prayers and in my heart, and that I am here to listen if you need an ear and to pray with you if that would bring you comfort.

When the dust clears, our task will be the same as it ever was. As Representative John Lewis z”l (of blessed memory) taught, democracy is not a state, it’s an act — an action, a choice, something we do. That teaching feels very Jewish to me. After all, Torah exhorts us to care for the vulnerable, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice: all actions, all things that we do

Democracy is an action. Love is an action. Justice is an action. Standing up for truth is an action. Building community is an action. These are our work, now as ever. This moment invites all of us to recommit ourselves to those holy tasks. And it invites us to create and strengthen our community by reaching out to each other in these uncertain and overwhelming times. 

One thing we don’t have to do is stay glued to 24/7 news coverage. Please take care of yourself. I recommend sticking with trusted media sources and giving yourself permission to turn away if the news is causing harmful anxiety. What happened yesterday is horrifying… and we are safe here, and I hope and pray that our democracy will emerge from this stronger than ever.

May the coming Shabbat bring nourishment to our souls and balm to our weary hearts. May we take comfort in our connections with each other. And may we be inspired to work toward healing for our precious democracy, so that our nation may continue to grow toward the promises inherent in its founding, promises of human dignity and justice for all.


Prayer, pandemic, community, change

1. Completely unprepared

Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.

We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.

 

2. Holy at Home

When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season. 

Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)

Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.

This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.

 

3. The room where it happens

The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.

Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.

But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.

 

4. Keeping us aloft

When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?

When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare  -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend  focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)

Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.

At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.

In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?

 

5. Fear

And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.

For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.

And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.

 

6. Next time

As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence. 

Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now

I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.

 

7. Building anew

If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.

I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.

And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?


Here we are

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Ice crystals on a branch outside my condo.

 

It's strange, now, to look back at my journal from last spring. Back when the pandemic was new to this country (or at least, new to my awareness.) Back when I thought my son might be out of school for a few weeks and then we'd get back to normal. (And he thought so too.) Back when I thought that surely my nation, with all its wealth, could vanquish this virus. Back when I thought surely by the Days of Awe we'd be back together again, safely, with the virus contained.

I never imagined how unspeakably badly national leadership would botch this, or that the president would complain about having to help people who didn't vote for him, or that masks would become a symbol of party affiliation rather than a basic safety measure that can slow the virus' spread. I didn't imagine a quarter of a million deaths and then a staggering number of people planning to see each other at Thanksgiving as though nothing were happening. 

But here we are. It seems ever more evident that there are two nations in uneasy coexistence. Here where I live, masks are ubiquitous. Everyone I know is staying in a small quarantine-style pod, and while some of us relaxed over the summer enough to be with others outdoors, now that the weather is cold we're hunkering down again. We limit trips to the grocery store. We don't travel. We don't touch each other. We don't see people outside our bubble.

I read in the paper, though, about the "other America." The one where people think the virus is a hoax, sometimes even while they're dying of it. The one where people think their liberties give them the right to infect others. I can't understand it. I want to say it's fundamentally anti-Jewish -- our whole religious tradition is communitarian, we have obligations to each other and to the vulnerable! -- though obviously at the rightmost fringe of Judaism some disagree with me.

It's not lost on me that we also live in two Americas when it comes to how we see our national political life. And I don't know what to do about that. Honestly, I can hardly face it. I read the ridiculous lies about the election being stolen and I just don't understand how so many believe that. Add it to the long list of things I can't wrap my head around, I guess. I'm worried about systemic damage to democracy. But right now the pandemic feels more urgent.

And yet life continues. My child will have a birthday in a few days. The new moon of Kislev rose a few days ago; Chanukah is coming. I'm trying not to write scripts about what this pandemic winter will be. We will stay home and try to stay safe. I always look toward spring with hopes of renewal. This year those hopes are heightened: hope not only for more light and new growth but also for government I can trust and for a vaccine. For now, here we are.


Prayer for Our Country

 

O God and God of our ancestors

receive our prayer for this land that we love.

Pour out Your blessing on this nation and its government.

 

Give those who serve our country

appreciation for the Torah's principles of justice and peace.

Help them to see Your face in every constituent.

 

Cultivate in them, and in us,

awareness that we are all one family

obligated to care for each other with compassion.

 

Banish hatred from our hearts

and from the hearts of our elected officials.

Help us to make this country a light unto the nations.

 

May it be Your will

our God and God of our generations

that this nation be a blessing to all who dwell on earth.

 

Help us to enact the words of Your prophet:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore."  And let us say: Amen.

 

 

I wrote this for the Days of Awe machzor several years ago. I'm re-sharing it again today, in hope.


One Heart: Lessons in Love from Jewish Cuba

 

I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.

 

When I gave the sermon tonight I began by noting that every year I seem to write at least one extra high holiday sermon -- a sermon that I write and then don't give for some reason. This year that extra sermon was Oops, We Did It Again: on choices, momentum, and change. I wrote it, and then I realized: y'all don't need me to tell you about the pandemic or the climate crisis or antisemitism. You know those things already. That won't take us anywhere new or open our hearts tonight. So I wrote and offered this sermon at Kol Nidre, instead. (And if you want to read the other sermon, now you can -- it's linked above.)

 

The first things I saw on the tarmac at José Martí international airport were palm trees and military vehicles. That's when my friend Rabbi Sunny, the head of Cuba America Jewish Mission, reminded us not to photograph soldiers -- in fact, not to photograph anything at all until we had cleared the airport, just to be on the safe side. Right, I thought. I'm in a Communist country. Note to self, don't photograph the army.

Last November, with Temple Beth-El of City Island in the Bronx and with Cuba American Jewish Mission, some CBI members and I spent ten days traveling around Jewish Cuba, from Havana to small cities and towns across the countryside.

Everywhere we went, we brought bags of medical supplies: everything from aspirin, vitamins, and prescription medications to anti-fungal cream and tubes of toothpaste. The synagogues there run pharmacies, and they make these pharmacy supplies available to anyone in need, whether or not they are Jewish. When we arrived, there had not been a mission like ours in six months, and their pharmacy shelves were close to bare.

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Havana is incredibly beautiful. The sea crashes up against the wall on the Malecon, the main thoroughfare. One day we saw people clustered at that wall, throwing roses into the sea in remembrance of Camilo Cienfuegos, who died in a plane crash over the sea after the revolution. The sunlight was golden on stately buildings with sometimes cracking plaster and peeling paint. There was extraordinary music, everywhere. Young musicians there learn music on the state's dime; they play in bands and on rooftops and in the streets. It's facile to say that when one lives with hardship, the gifts of music and of spiritual life are more palpable. But I kept having that thought anyway.

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As we moved deeper into the countryside, we started to encounter people who would come up to us with a hand out. They weren't asking for money. They were asking for soap or shampoo. Everyone in Cuba is guaranteed health care, which is pretty extraordinary. But once we left the city for the provinces, a lot of people didn't have soap. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like a fantasy to us," said one person who had traveled abroad and had seen American big-box stores and pharmacies.

I've thought of that often since the pandemic began. And when Stop and Shop in North Adams started running out of things, early-ish in the pandemic -- you remember: for a while there, we couldn't buy flour, or dried beans, or toilet paper -- I thought of the mostly-empty shelves in the Cuban stores we visited.

In the spring when here in the US we faced simultaneous food shortages and produce rotting in the fields, I remembered stories of Cubans going hungry after the Soviet Union fell. They told us about eating grass to try to fill their bellies while citrus fruits rotted in the fields because there was no gasoline to transport them. And I thought of how our Cuban cousins must be doing now, as the combination of pandemic and trade embargo keeps their shelves even emptier, and keeps their Jewish cousins from abroad away, with our tzedakah and our care and our desperately-needed duffel bags of aspirin and soap.

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And yet when I think of the Cuban Jews we met last fall, what I remember is not what they didn't have, but what they did: their warmth and their kindness, their connectedness and their pride. I remember the music, everywhere. I remember their beautiful synagogue sanctuaries: the Patronato in Havana, which seemed plucked right out of the 1960s just like the classic cars that serve as taxis, and the beautiful little painted synagogue in Santa Clara where we celebrated the coming-of-age of a Cuban bat mitzvah -- rebuilt with tzedakah from the Cuba America Jewish Mission and travelers like us.

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Most of all, I remember their love. One day we visited Rebecca Langus in the provincial city of Cienfuegos. The entire Jewish community there is eighteen people. They meet for services in her living room, on white monobloc plastic chairs that otherwise sit stacked on her tiny mirpesset next to her laundry line. She teaches the Hebrew school, which is currently three children, using books donated by Jewish visitors from abroad, like us. She works tirelessly to keep her community alive. After her prepared remarks, the four rabbis on the trip chatted with her. We asked her how she does it, and what gives her hope.

"Everything I do, I do for love," she said simply. That could not have been more clear: her love for her community, for our shared traditions, for Jewishness itself, shone from her like light.

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She told us that when they meet for Shabbat, they always have a minyan. I thought: there are only fifteen Jewish adults in this city of 150,000. Two-thirds of the Jews in town need to show up if anyone is going to say kaddish. And... they do. And if there is a fuel shortage, which often there is, they catch a ride on a donkey-pulled cart, or they walk. Because of love: for our traditions, for community, for each other.

Love brought the Jews of Cuba together to celebrate a bat mitzvah while we were there. Many walked miles, some for days, because new US sanctions had contributed to another fuel shortage. Our tour bus was able to secure fuel, but most locals weren't. So they walked. Because it was worth it to them to be there for each other.

I felt that same extraordinary sense of community love on our final stop in Cuba, the Spanish colonial city of Camagüey. That community meets in a rented house, where they have a beautiful tiny sanctuary with a hand-painted ark, and a little social hall where we gathered to learn from them and to share songs together. There are 32 people in the Jewish community there. We sang "Am Yisrael chai" -- the people of Israel yet lives! -- which took on a new poignancy there, where for so long the state forbade the practice of any religion at all.

That visit to Camagüey was our last day of the trip, and after a meal with the community there, I listened as my friend and colleague Rabbi David -- who is fluent in Spanish -- asked a young man why he has chosen to stay in Cuba. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere. But the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than whatever money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

Ten days does not make me an expert on the Jews of Cuba. (I suspect that ten years would be insufficient.) But our trip still resonates in me. The Jews I met in Cuba inspired me with how proud they are to be Cuban and to be Jewish. They inspired me in how they show up for each other. Even in a place where for so long it was illegal to practice any religion at all. They inspired me with their love for our traditions, their love for community, their love of country, their love for each other.

The Jews of Cuba live with profound hardship. That was true a year ago; it is even more true now. And yet... when the pandemic began to rage in the US, they reached out to me via Facebook to make sure that we were okay. Because their love and care flows so naturally, even toward we who have so much.

Tonight they too are hearing the words of Kol Nidre, words that release us from the vows we won't be able to live up to. But I don't want to be let off the hook for my promise to keep our connections alive across borders and differences.  Communist or capitalist, Cuban or American, rich or poor, we are part of one Jewish family.

Because of the pandemic, it will probably be a long time before we can gather together again in person in physical space. And... the pandemic also highlights how deeply interconnected we are, even when we're apart. Covid-19 spread around the world because the whole world is interconnected: what happens there has an impact here. What happens to me has an impact on you. This is a deep spiritual truth. It's also a practical one.

And covid-19 is also teaching us other forms of connectedness. Over these pandemic Days of Awe, we've davened with members of our community who live in other places... and with far-flung friends and family who maybe never felt connected with our little shul before. What if we keep all of these connections vibrant and alive in 5781? Imagine the strength and hope and courage we could share with each other through the pandemic winter that is coming. We can be there for each other as our Cuban cousins are there for each other -- and we don't have to walk miles to do it: our connectedness is as close as the click of a computer key.

For that matter, we can be there for our Cuban cousins, too. Rabbi Sunny tells me that right now it's almost impossible to send tzedakah to Cuba. As of this week, a wire transfer sent in July via Panama and Israel has yet to materialize, and a package of much-needed medicines has been missing for sixty days. But we can support the Cuba America Jewish Mission so that when it becomes possible to directly bring help to Cuba again, there are tzedakah dollars to bring.

Talmud teaches that all of Israel is responsible for one another. Our Cuban Jewish cousins live that truth -- not because it's in Talmud, but just because of who and how they are. This Yom Kippur, may we find uplift in the knowledge that under unbelievably difficult circumstances they are praying these words with us too. May we go the extra mile to be there for each other in community, as do our Cuban cousins. And may we find uplift in the knowledge that we share one tradition; that we share one heart; that love connects us all.

 

This is my Kol Nidre sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Reading Eikev through the lens of covid-19

6a00d8341c019953ef0240a4ce9b56200dI made it three verses into this week's Torah portion, Eikev, before being brought up short:

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully... God will ward off from you all sickness..." (Deut. 7:12, 15)

My first thought was: wow, that verse has not aged well in this coronavirus moment. As we watch illness ravage the nation like a wildfire, the promise of health and safety feels off-key. Or at least, the connection between doing mitzvot and being healthy feels off-key, because it suggests that someone who falls ill is somehow wicked, or is not following Torah's instructions for spiritual and ethical living.

And then I thought: there's another way to read these verses.

This isn't about whether or not a single individual does what's right. We all know that it's possible to lead a spiritual and ethical life, rich with mitzvot, and still fall ill. And we all know that it's possible to do all the right things in this pandemic -- washing our hands, wearing our masks, socially-distancing and staying home -- and yet still be at risk of falling ill if someone carrying the virus coughs on us.

But what if Torah is trying this week to teach us that what matters is for the collective to do what's right? For the community to pull together and together commit to following the best practices that science and authentic spiritual life can offer us... not (only) for our own sakes but also for the sake of others who may be older, or medically vulnerable, or living with preexisting conditions that put us at greater risk?

"When we obey these mitzvot and observe them carefully," that's how God protects us from sickness, acting through us in the ways we care for each other. It's not a guarantee that no one will get sick -- nothing can offer that guarantee -- but it's what's in our hands to do. As we sometimes sing on Friday nights, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." Ours are God's hands, and this moment calls us to turn our hands toward keeping each other safe. 

"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully..." The classical tradition links this back to Exodus 15, where God similarly tells us that if we follow the mitzvot and do all the right things, then God won't plague us with the unnatural illnesses that the tradition sees as divine punishment. "Ki ani YHVH rofecha," says Torah (Ex. 15:26) -- "For I am YHVH your Healer."

One way to understand that is as a lesson about the interconnectedness of all things, and how our choices have collective impact. If we don't take care of the planet's fragile environment, then the conditions will be right for newer and more terrible illnesses to arise and spread. But if we do what's right by our planet, then we protect ourselves and each other from that terrible outcome.

This too feels to me like a teaching about our responsibility to each other and to the whole of which we are a part. When we act in ways that take care of our planet, when we act in ways that take care of each other and protect each others' health, we are embodying the aspect of God that we call Healer.

It's poignant to read these verses on the runway to the Days of Awe. Usually at this season we're preparing for our community's biggest in-person gatherings of the year. This year's Days of Awe will be different. Our challenge this year is to make our homes into sacred space, and to find community connections in each others' presence over Zoom, as we protect each other by staying physically apart. 

I know that for some of us, the prospect of Zoom-based High Holidays feels like a loss. Maybe we can't imagine how it will work. Or we're tired of Zoom and wish life could go back to normal. Or we're afraid it won't feel meaningful and real the way we want it to. Those feelings of loss are real, and I honor them. (I even share them.) And... I believe that these are the mitzvot the current moment asks of us.

This moment asks us to practice the mitzvah of masking, the mitzvah of social distancing, the mitzvah of gathering over Zoom.  So that we can keep covid-19 out of our beloved community, and in so doing, can hasten the day when we will all be able to gather safely in person again, here and everywhere.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning Zoom services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Being Real: Digital Edition

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Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn't Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text -- which, as you probably know, is a children's book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name -- the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved... and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video... If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we're learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me -- and R' David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn't "as-if" -- it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn't matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one's face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and "RL," real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection -- with another; with community; with our Source -- can be real no matter what tools we're using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it's hard to be real when someone is suffering. It's hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means "feeling-with" or "suffering-with." Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn't want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it's hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I'm not sure anyone's picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren't just words on a page, they're pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart -- to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source -- and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I've learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they're real. It's my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what's real in a way that's safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there's risk -- and there's also reward. As we read in Mishlei, "As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person." (Proverbs 27:19) When I'm willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. "To log on to God," he said in 2004, "we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat." That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren't "virtual reality." They're as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. My Friday night d'var was designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d'var given by R' David Markus, The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution, and our paired talks in turn fueled the Mishkan Sandbox Lunch-and-Learn with our host R' David Zaslow.  (Cross-posted to Bayit's Builders Blog.)

 


God, and community, in the space between

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The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)

Tn this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, we read how the twelve tribes would encamp around the mishkan (the dwelling place for God) and the ohel moed (the tent of meeting). Each tent was at an appropriate distance from every other. In normal years, I've resonated with the idea that the tents were arranged at a distance to give each household appropriate privacy.

(That comes from Talmud, which explicates "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov," "how good are your tents, O [house of] Jacob," to say that our tents were positioned so that no household was peeking in on any other. What was "good" about our community was healthy boundaries.)

This year, of course, the idea of camping at a distance from each other evokes the physical distancing and sheltering-in-place that we've all been doing for the past few months of the covid-19 pandemic.

Sometimes distance is necessary for protection and safety. Like our tents in the wilderness positioned just so. Like the physical distance between us now, each of us in our own home, coming together in these little boxes on this video screen.

But notice this too: our spiritual ancestors set up their physically-distanced tents around the mishkan and the ohel moed, the dwelling-place for God and the tent of meeting. The place of encounter with holiness, and the place of encounter with community.

Here we are, each in her own tent. This week's Torah portion reminds us that our tents need to be oriented so that we all have access to the Divine Presence -- and so that we all remember we're part of a community.

When the Temple was distroyed by Rome almost two thousand years ago, our sages taught that we needed to replace the Beit HaMikdash -- the House of Holiness, the place where God's presence was understood to dwell -- with a mikdash me'aht, the tiny sanctuary of the Shabbes table.

When we bless bread and wine at our Shabbat table, we make that table into an altar, a place of connection with God. That feels even more true to me now, as I join this Zoom call from my Shabbes table! In this pandemic moment, our home tables become altars: places where we encounter God and constitute community even more than before.

"Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them," God says. Or -- in my favorite translation -- "that I might dwell within them." We make a mishkan so that God can dwell within us.

That feels even more true to me now too... as our beautiful synagogue building waits patiently for the time when it will be safe for us to gather together in person again. Until then, we need to learn to find -- or make -- holiness in where we are. We need to learn to find -- or make -- community even though we're apart.

Our distance from each other protects us. And maybe more importantly, it protects those who are most vulnerable in our community: the elderly, the immunocompromised, those with preexisting conditions who are especially at-risk in this pandemic time. Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is the paramount Jewish value. For the sake of saving a life we are instructed to do anything necessary, even to break Shabbat.

Being apart is painful and hard and it is one hundred percent the right thing to do -- and the Jewish thing to do.

So we're at a distance. So were our ancestors, as this week's Torah portion reminds us. Our task is to make sure that our tents are positioned so that there's space for God, and space for our community connections. So that God and community are the holy place in the middle. The place toward which all of our tents are oriented, toward which all of our hearts are oriented. Even, or especially, when we need to be apart.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services over Zoom this week. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


The new normal

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My synagogue, set up for precisely a minyan, with social distancing.

 

Yesterday was my forty-fifth birthday. I began it doing a few of the things I love most: leading others in prayer and song, and welcoming a new adult into the Jewish community. That's been the plan for March 21 for more than a year now. Of course, it didn't quite happen the way we had been envisioning it.

That was the last service that will be held in our sanctuary for some time. Attendance in person was limited to a minyan, who had to sit six feet apart. When we called up grandparents for an aliyah, we carried an iPad up to the amud (Torah reading table) because grandparents were attending digitally

From now on, our Shabbat morning services will be offered via zoom. We'll daven together from places that are apart. I don't know what we'll do about upcoming celebrations of b-mitzvah. There are so many things that I don't know, and can't know -- none of us can. Welcome to rabbi-ing in a time of pandemic.

I'm slowly settling in to the rhythm of this new normal. Much of last week was dedicated to figuring out what it will look like to homeschool my kid. He's out of school for three weeks (as of now), but I'm bracing for schools to be closed until next fall, as is already the case in several other states.

We set up our school space at the dining room table, and I worked on synagogue things -- reaching out to congregants, researching whether our chevra kadisha can safely do taharah during a pandemic -- during the quiet moments while my kid was doing social studies or reading a book or solving math problems.

At night I shifted gears between comforting my kid (not surprisingly, he's been wrestling with "difficult thoughts" and anxiety -- who among us isn't?) and offering pastoral care via all the distance modalities I know. I anticipate a lot more of both of those in the weeks (and probably months) to come.

I wrote to my synagogue community Friday that even though we are apart in physical space, we are together in heart and spirit. And we are only at the beginning of the journey through the valley of covid-19. We will all need to learn ways to feel, and to strengthen, those connections of heart and spirit.

I don't know how to end this post. My literary training suggests that this post needs to go somewhere, but I don't know where anything is going right now. I trust that we will eventually make it to the far side of this pandemic -- we who survive. I hope that I am among the survivors; I hope that you are too. 

But I don't know what after will look like, or whether this will be only the first pandemic of many in this strange new world, or how my parenting (everyone's parenting) will have to shift in response to pandemic and a possible new Great Depression, or how my Judaism (everyone's Judaism) will have to shift too.

I did my best to have a Shabbes. I'm doing all the things I know how (in isolation) to connect my heart and spirit with others, with my traditions, with my Source. (I even baked myself a birthday cake.) I know that the new week will ask a lot. In Robert Frost's words, "there's no way out but through."


Like a fiddler on the roof

This is the message I sent to my synagogue community today. I thought it might speak to some of y'all too. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

Not long ago I was preparing to take my son to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, in which my niece Noa Luz Barenblat plays Chava. My son asked me, “what does the title of the play mean?” I told him here’s how I understand it: Life is precarious, but we still need music. We still need art and beauty and melody. We still need our traditions and what connects us with each other and our generations and our Source. Even when we feel that life is as precarious as a fiddler balanced on a rooftop. Maybe especially then.

The fiddler on the roof in Anatevka represents the miracle of the human spirit: singing out sometimes in pain and sometimes in joy, making music and marking holy time, even when life feels precarious. I find a deep teaching about spiritual resilience there — especially now.

For many of us, the covid-19 pandemic is awakening a sense of precariousness. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. Of course, that’s always true, pandemic or not… but most of us don’t live with constant awareness of the fragility of our lives and the lives of those whom we love. How can we best navigate this time?

I have two answers: take care of ourselves, and take care of each other. And I think we can learn something about how to do that from the Jews of Anatevka.

The Jews of Anatevka were materially poor, but they were rich in community and traditions. We too have community — even when circumstances obligate us to connect via phone or zoom instead of in person. We too have traditions — even when circumstances obligate us to celebrate those traditions in slightly different ways for a while. Music and prayer can still uplift us, even if we’re feeling anxious and uncertain — or maybe especially then.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that now is a great time to double down on our spiritual practices… and if we don’t think we have any, now is a good time to develop some! Whether that means prayer, meditation, yoga, making art, listening to music: we should lean into whatever sustains our hearts and souls in this time. Because we’re going to need every ounce of strength and compassion and rootedness we’ve got in order to take care of each other.

One of the ways we’re taking care of each other is by pulling back from physical contact. The temporary closing of colleges and theatres and houses of worship is a step that’s being taken in order to protect the whole of our interconnected community. The hope is that these closures will slow the spread of the virus so that our hospital can keep up with the pace of infection. What higher aspiration could a community seek than to care for each other in these ways?

And, there are other ways that we can take care of each other, even at a distance. Even when we have to close down services for a while, we can gather via zoom. And we can call and email and text and Facetime and Skype and zoom with each other. It’s not the same as being together in person as a community — and, it’s still real human connection that can uplift our hearts.

Please do check up on each other. Reach out in all the modalities that the modern world offers. Take care of each other… and take care of you, too.

May our connections with each other, and with our traditions, and with our Source, sustain us through the pandemic and beyond.


Engraved on our hearts

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One artist's rendering of the stones for Aaron's shoulders, engraved with the names of the 12 tribes.

 

In this week's Torah portion we read about the instructions for making special garments for Aaron, brother of Moses: the first High Priest. We read about blue, purple, and crimson thread; about exquisitely decorated vestments; and about Aaron being declared "Holy to God." What leapt out at me this year are the two precious stones engraved with the names of all the tribes of Israel. (Ex. 28:9-12) Aaron carried the names of the whole community on his shoulders, or at least, the names of the twelve tribes that together represented the whole community. Because to serve the community means to serve the whole community.

Today we welcome a beautiful little girl into our community. And I can't wait to find out who she'll grow up to be. Maybe she'll want to put on costumes and star in our Purim play. Maybe she'll sing the Four Questions at the community seder. Maybe she'll make friends in our Hebrew school. And yet she isn't just joining this little rural shul, this smalltown community. Because we're part of something much bigger. We're connected with Jews around the world, on every continent. And we're connected with our spiritual ancestors stretching back thousands of years, and hopefully stretching forward at least as long.

To serve the community means to serve the whole community -- and to join the community means to join the whole community. I point this out over and over to those who join the Jewish people as adults: they're not just joining this shul, they're joining the entire Jewish people! They're joining Jews of every denomination, Jews of every race and skin color, Jews of every sexual orientation and gender expression. Rationalists and mystics, theists and atheists. Jews who express their Jewishness in so many different ways: through prayer, or poetry, or study, or feeding the hungry, or working for justice, or so much more. 

There hasn't been a High Priest in thousands of years. But as I sat with this Torah portion this week, here's what came to me: what if all of us together could make the choice to engrave the names of the whole community -- not on our shoulders, but on our hearts? Those names now include the name of the newest member of our community, to whom we are now responsible. It takes a village to raise a kid, and our shul is now part of her village. May we engrave her name, and each others' names, on our hearts. And in that way, may all of us together be "holy to God," as Aaron was, so very long ago. Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services (cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog.)


Whose heart so moves

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Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.... And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:2, 8)

I recently gathered a bunch of paperwork to bring to the person who helps me with my taxes. Maybe you're doing something similar as spring approaches. Here's the thing about taxes: they are not optional. They are not "gifts" that we give to the government out of the goodness of our hearts. And we don't only have to give them if we happen to feel moved to do so.

We may or may not feel moved by the need for roads and hospitals and schools. I mean, I think we should feel moved by those things! But regardless of whether or not our hearts resonate with the need for working traffic lights and decent pavement and safe places to educate kids, we pay taxes to support those things, because that's how our society works.

But when it came to the building of the mishkan, the dwelling place for God, it wasn't a matter of taxation. It wasn't a matter of "dues." It was a free-will offering from everyone whose heart was so moved. And a few verses later, God says "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Or, in my preferred translation, "that I may dwell within them."

I see a connection between the freewill nature of the offerings, and the indwelling presence of God within and among us. If a place is built out of dry obligation, or God forbid with coercion, then it's not a place where holiness can dwell. The way we make a place where God can dwell is by opening our hearts. Not by asking "what have you done for me lately," but by giving.

Later at the end of the book of Exodus we'll learn that so many people brought contributions that Moshe had to tell them to stop. But we're not there yet. This week, we're at the point in the story where God tells Moshe to tell the children of Israel to bring gifts. And they bring all different kinds of gifts. Materials for building, for weaving, for metalworking...

One of my favorite ways to read Torah is as an inner road map to becoming the people we're called to be. I believe that these verses aren't just about "them back then" but also about us now. Which raises the question: what are the gifts we can bring? What skills, what talents, what passions can we bring to the building of this community so that holiness will dwell within us?

Sometimes our presence is a gift -- when we show up to pray, to learn, to experience holidays, to celebrate and mourn. Sometimes our skills are a gift -- whether needlework or baking, carpentry or grant-writing. Sometimes our time is a gift.  And of course sometimes our money is a gift. "Ein kemach, ein Torah," the Talmud teaches: without food, there is no Torah.

What matters isn't how much we give, or in what form. What matters is that we feel moved to give in the first place. Because the more of ourselves we give, the more we receive in return. The more of ourselves we give, the more connected we feel with whatever we're giving to. And lack of connectedness is one of the most profound sorrows afflicting the world today.

Robert Putnam wrote about it twenty years ago in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone. He described how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, even from the structures that sustain our democracy. The best antidote to disconnection is to show up and connect. And giving connects us. Especially when we give of ourselves. 

Torah has different names for different kinds of offerings. The word that gives this week's Torah portion its name is terumah, sometimes translated as a "lifted-apart" offering, or an "uplifting" offering. As Torah describes, those whose hearts lifted up in generosity brought what they could. Or maybe: those who brought what they could, found that their hearts were lifted up.

So that's my prayer for us today. May our hearts move us to give. May our giving connect us. And may our souls be uplifted on giving's spiritual updraft. 

 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Community in our hands

ShowImageMoses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (Exodus 18:17-18)

This week's Torah portion is named after Yitro, father-in-law to Moses. Yitro was not part of the Israelite community. Torah describes him as a "priest of Midian," an outsider. Maybe that's why he was able to take one look at what Moshe was doing and say, "Hold up, son, this isn't going to work."

Moshe was working himself to the bone, all day, every day, standing in judgment. He was the sole point of contact between the people and God: their spiritual leader, their judge, their administrator, their magistrate, everything. Yitro knew that wasn't a sustainable model. His solution was simple: share leadership.

He told Moshe to draw others into leadership and to empower them. This way the burden of caring for the community, and carrying the community, is shared. And it gives others the opportunity to step up and take some responsibility for the community, and in that way, the fabric of community is strengthened.

This is a basic leadership lesson, and it still resonates. The work of building community isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's a job that belongs to all of us. The work of building the Jewish future isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's work that belongs to all of us.

Not only because "many hands make light work," though that is true. But because when we step up and take responsibility for building healthy community, the whole community gets stronger... and those who have stepped into holy service don't burn out, because others are willing to tend to the needs of the whole.

After this advice from Yitro, God tells Moses that the children of Israel are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex. 19:6) It's the same theme: holiness isn't just for priests (or rabbis) or public servants. All of us are supposed to strive to be holy. The whole community is instructed to be holy.

And then after that, the whole community hears the revelation at Sinai. Not just Moshe; not just the judges; not just the men; everyone. All of us are a "nation of priests and a holy people," and all of us received Torah at Sinai. Torah is our collective birthright, as the community is our collective responsibility.

What will we do this Shabbat to open our hearts to revelation?

And what will we do in the new week to take responsibility for co-creating, and caring for, the holy community we're called to be?

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image: Darius Gilmont.


Constancy and change - a d'varling for Chayyei Sarah

De57530a4e6fe4f8bb17499c29cdf65dThis week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is bookended with funerals. Sarah dies and is buried; then Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and Eliezer brings Rebecca back for Isaac; and then Abraham dies and is buried. This moment in our ancestral story is about generational change. It's about the first patriarch and matriarch being laid to rest, and the next generation picking up the mantle and carrying on our people's story.

Torah doesn't say anything about how Sarah felt at the end of her life, but Abraham was "old and contented." I like to think that he was contented because he saw that the next generation was ready to take ownership of the Jewish story. Every generation inherits stories and practices and values from those that came before. And every generation chooses what to lift up and what to let go, out of all of the things they inherit from their forebears.

The Judaism we practice now is not the same as what Abraham and Sarah knew. Honestly it's not the same as what our ancestors knew even a few centuries ago! Our ancestors might be startled to see a female rabbi on the bimah. Or a synagogue where people of all genders sit and pray together. Or a guitar in my hands.

And yet our Judaism is still rooted in the Judaism that our ancestors practiced, the Judaism that our Torah forebears began. We live our Jewish values as our Torah ancestors did: making our "tent" open and welcoming to all, like Abraham. Speaking directly to God, like Rebecca. Dreaming big dreams, like Joseph, even when life takes us into tough places.

It's natural for one generation to give way to the next. And it's natural for Judaism to evolve and grow as we human beings evolve and grow. Every generation has the sacred responsibility, and the joyous opportunity, of keeping our Jewish story alive. Every generation has the sacred responsibility, and the joyous opportunity, of building anew on the foundations laid by those who came before us.

I can't wait to see the Judaism that my son will practice as he grows up -- how it's just like mine, and also how it becomes his own and is different from mine. The Judaism we're building now at CBI is rooted in what came before, and it also needs to be our own, reflecting today's values in balance with the ancient values of gratitude and welcome and seeing each other through generous eyes. This interplay of constancy and change is core to what Judaism is, what Judaism has always been.

I love the fact that this week as we elected new directors and officers to take the helm of CBI, we're reading in Torah about generational change. The page turns and it's time for new figures to take center stage and carry our story forward -- in Torah, and in the lived Torah of our human experience.

May our new directors and officers be blessed with Abraham's spirit of inclusion, with Sarah's capacity for laughter, with Isaac's willingness to tread new ground, with Rebecca's willingness to ask big questions. And may we all be blessed with a Shabbat of wholeness and peace, so that when we make havdalah tomorrow night, we're restored and rejuvenated and ready to continue co-creating this community and writing the next chapter of our people's story, together.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A first visit to Cuba (the whole essay)

1. What do I know?

How on earth can I write, as an outsider, about the beautiful, wrenching, poignant, powerful experience of nine days on a religious mission to Cuba? The kaleidoscope of Cuba keeps turning, and every time it turns, the pieces shift and a new picture emerges. In some ways it reminds me of Ghana, or India, or Argentina. In other ways it's not quite like anyplace I've ever been.

I am here with a small delegation from Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, and a larger delegation from Temple Beth El of City Island. I am here with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, a rabbinic school friend. (Also with Rabbi David Markus of TBE, and with Rabbi Bella Bogart, a rabbi and musician; we three are also founding builders at Bayit.)

As soon as we visit our first synagogue, the Sinagoga Centro Sefaradi, I am struck by the locals' fierce sense of identity, Jewish and Cuban. They tell us proudly that they have Shabbat services every weekend, and they always manage a minyan. They tell us proudly that there's no antisemitism here. I half-think it's propaganda, but people keep saying it. Is it possible that it's true?

I never once feel unsafe in my kippah. Several times people come up to us and say that they have never seen a woman wearing one before. "Soy una rabbina," I learn to say. "Yo trabajo en una sinagoga." (And sometimes -- when more explanation seems necessary -- I add, "es como una iglesia para los Judíos.") For that matter, I never once feel unsafe as an obvious American.

On our first full day we lunch with Maritza Corrales, author of Chosen Island: a History of the Jews of Cuba. One of my compatriots asks why she stays in Cuba. She begins by telling us that in 1529, a mere ten years after colonization, they were writing back to Spain to say that they needed to be ruled by an islander because the colonizers didn't understand this place.

Maritza travels the world to teach. She could live anywhere, but she chooses here. Why would she want to come to the Estados Unidos where people would call her "Latina" with scorn? She is Cubana. It's easy for us as American Jews to imagine that surely everyone would join us if they could. Maritza has just revealed to me some of my unconscious biases about Cuba and Cubans.

We visit a Jewish cemetery on the far side of the city where Maritza tells us stories about those who are buried there. I am moved by the headstones in Hebrew and Spanish, by how tangible the Jewish presence is and feels. As we are departing, a non-Jewish Cuban man who works there pours water over our hands, following Jewish tradition, so that we can wash the cemetery away.

 

2. The things we carry

Everywhere we go on the island we bring medical supplies. Our first two stops are the Centro Sefaradi and the Patronato in Havana. Their pharmacy shelves were bare, emptied since last time R' Sunny was here six months ago. They disburse medical supplies to anyone who needs, Jewish or not. There are other pharmacies (we visit one later) but their shelves are spare too.

So much that we take for granted is not available to Cubans. We've brought aspirin, vitamins, diapers, soap, prescription drugs. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like science fiction to us," says one Cuban who has traveled abroad. I lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart breaks. And I also lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart soars.

Even just in Havana. The chapel at the Centro Sefaradi has light fixtures from Shevet Achim in Old Havana, the first Sefaradi congregation in Cuba, founded by immigrants from Turkey and Syria. Those fixtures still shine. I mean this literally and metaphorically! At the Patronato, I'm moved by the cheery preschool classroom funded by the Cuba America Jewish Mission.

The sanctuary at the Patronato looks like every mid-20th-century synagogue I've ever seen. Like the classic cars that serve as taxis all over Havana, it's been repaired and patched and kept running ever since it was new. At home a space like that would feel staid, but it feels different here, even defiant here. It's still here; it hasn't gone away; Judaism hasn't gone away.

And yet many Jews have departed. For the United States, for Israel, for Spain, for Mexico. There are fewer than a thousand Jews left on this island. The further inland we go, the smaller the communities we meet -- but the heart and spirit we experience praying with them, eating with them, singing with them, just being with them, is enormous. Outsized. "My cup overflows."

3. Haves and have-nots

 

Our group has many conversations about the Cubans who became exiles at the time of the revolution, about those who chose to stay, about idealism and failure, about the revolution's ideals and its realities, about the kibbutz movement in Israel and whether or how there are parallels, about young people leaving in search of a better life, about what Cuban Jews need in order to flourish.

We take our meals in privately-operated restaurants called paladares. As tourists, we never encounter food shortages, though it's clear that everyone is operating with the same relatively limited set of ingredients. We know that because we are tourists, rather than locals, we are getting the best of what there is. When we make hamotzi before our meals, I am awash in gratitude.

Most Cubans earn only tens of dollars each month. A doctor, we are told, might earn $60 a month. Everyone seems to need a side hustle. The woman who works as a tour guide at the cigar factory gets cigars as part of her pay, and she can sell them on the side to people like us... when there are people like us here buying things. Of course, these days, there mostly aren't.

I've read about the "Special Period" after the Soviet Union fell, but now I'm hearing from people who lived through it. I hear about eating grass to try to fill their bellies. How everyone grew thin. How Habaneros developed scurvy while citrus rotted in the fields because there was no fuel to transport it. "I hope they don't issue us Chinese-made bicycles again," one person jokes.

The tightened embargo now, some say, will be worse. "They think if they punish us, we will bend," someone says. "They don't understand Cubans."

Later in the week we visit some stores for locals, stores that sell things in CUPs (the Cuban peso) rather than CUCs (the "convertible peso.") I am shocked at how little is on the shelves. The embargo has tightened. There is less to be had. Farmers may return to plowing with oxen; without fuel, tractors won't run. How is it that people here don't hate us for all that we have?

Being here is making me aware of what I take for granted at home. I'm also noticing kinds of abundance here that I don't encounter at home. Abundance of beauty and color: back home the trees are bare at this season, and houses often drab, but here trees and fields and paint colors are vivid and bright. And especially abundance of music. Cuba is justifiably famous for music.

The music on this island is extraordinary. I keep trying to write about it and then giving up. I could as easily write about a rainbow, or about falling in love. Anything I can say would be trite. The rhythms, the harmonies, the omnipresence of beat and song: all move me. I'm thinking a lot this week about how prosperity (or lack thereof), and music, and spiritual life interact.

And I'm thinking about the things that my little community takes for granted. I think about how much easier it seems (to me) to be a Jew where I live than it is here. And I wonder whether there's an inverse correlation between ease and attachment. Do we naturally become less attached to our traditions, our spiritual lives, and our Jewish identities when they are easy to maintain?

 

4. A heart afire

 

Some who come to Cuba only visit Havana. Havana is indeed a beautiful city. It is golden and it is crumbling and the classic cars and the Malecon (the waterfront road) are as beautiful as everyone says, as every photo reveals. But R' Sunny insisted that we need to get out into the provinces to get a more nuanced picture of Jewish Cuba and Cuba writ large. He was right.

We drive past lush green fields of banana trees and sugar cane to Cienfuegos, our first provincial stop. First we gather on the roof of an opulent former mansion, where we sip mojitos and gaze at a rainbow (appropriate during this week of parashat Noach!) Then we visit the home of the Langus family. Rebecca Langus welcomes us and (with our guide as translator) tells us her story.

She always knew she was Jewish, she tells us, but she didn't learn what that meant until 1992 when the state officially exchanged its atheism for agnosticism. When Rebecca was growing up, her Turkish grandmother insisted that they eat matzah (sent each year by the Joint Distribution Committee) at Pesach -- but she never knew why they ate it or what it signified until the 1990s.

She tells us how she taught herself everything she knows about Judaism -- gesturing to their small library of Judaic books, all donated by communities like ours -- in order to teach her children. The community in Cienfuegos now is eight families: eighteen people, three of whom are children. They meet for Shabbat services in her living room, set up with white monobloc chairs.

After her prepared remarks, she chats with the rabbis on our trip. We ask her what fuels her and where she finds her sense of hope in this work. In response, Rebecca tells us simply that everything she does, she does for love. That would have been clear even if she hadn't said a word. Her care for her community and for Jewish tradition shines out of her face, out of her being.

What does it take to persist as Jewish community in a place like this? To show up for Shabbat every other week because there are literally only eighteen of you and if a handful don't show, there's no minyan? Is there something about being in a place where religion used to be forbidden that makes people now want to claim the right and privilege of spiritual practice in community?

What does it take to profess and choose and celebrate Jewishness in a place where the economic picture is so difficult that many young people choose to emigrate to Israel, or Mexico, or Europe, or wherever else they can? We ask what would help the communities most. The answer I keep hearing: convince our government to end the embargo so Cuba can thrive again.

 

5. Tourism and syncretism

 

We are also tourists. Our primary purpose is meeting Cuban Jews and delivering medicines, but we also take a day trip to Trinidad. It was abandoned for 85 years, which is why it's one of the world's best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. On the way there, we pass a Russian nuclear plant that never worked. Some things in Cuba feel like a Kafka story.

In Trinidad the streets are "paved" with local stones and with cobbles brought as ballast from Europe. There are men in guayaberas with instruments, playing Guantanamera beneath shady trees. There are artisans selling lace and embroidery and wooden boxes of dominos, their prices lowering as we walk past. There aren't many other tourists -- at least not that I can see.

From the luxurious rooftop paladar where we lunch I see children playing amidst red clay tiles and chicken coops. They wave at us. Dare we hope that our tourist dollars are helping them? When we get back to our stunning old Cienfuegos hotel I go for a swim in the pool in the courtyard. How can I square this gracious opulence with the deprivations that locals take for granted?

This place is extraordinary. Beautiful. Musical. Literate. And the Cuban people I meet everywhere we go clearly feel pride in who and where they are. And it's also clear that they need the help, medical and fiscal, that we're here to bring. I'm thinking about scarcity and poverty... with awareness that  those things exist in my country too. My usual orbit just allows me not to see them.

On our first full day in Cuba we visited an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Havana where two women taught us about Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha). Santeria is a religious tradition that intertwines Yoruba orishas (which the translator renders as "guardian angels") with Catholicism. Seventy percent of Cubans have some interaction with Santeria.

We learned about the altars, the figures depicted there, appropriate offerings for each and the relationships between them. We learned how the initiation process works. I was fascinated by how it dovetails with going to mass. Apparently the local Catholic priests recognize Santeria initiates, and don't seem to mind the religious syncretism. (Or at least, they allow it to continue.)

Some of what the women in that apartment shared with us is utterly unlike Judaism. And some of it evokes ideas from my tradition. Maybe inevitably, I'm always looking for resonance. I wonder what it was like for these women to host this group of American Jews. I worried that they might feel exposed, but they seemed delighted to be able to share their tradition with us.

After that visit, whenever I see someone wearing all white I wonder whether that person is a Santeria initiate. Many of us in this Jewish tour group wear all white on Shabbat, a custom that comes from the mystics of Tzfat who created the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it. Maybe the locals, seeing us in our Shabbat whites, imagine that we are Santeria initiates too.

 

6. Holy spirit

Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.

On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.

This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.

As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.

The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)

The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.

After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.

 

7. Cognitive dissonance

Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs. 

We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.

A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.

And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.

Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.

By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.

"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.

 

8. Miracles in Camagüey

Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.

And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.

We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.

And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.

It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.

We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.

Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

 

9. Coming home

 

What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?

I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.

I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.

I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them

Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations. 

What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.

And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically. 

And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.

I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.

 

If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.

Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.


A first visit to Cuba 9: Coming home

This is the final part of a nine-part essay about my first trip to Cuba. 

 

 

9. Coming home

What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?

I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.

I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.

I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them

Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations. 

What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.

And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically. 

And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.

I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.

 

I'll make one more post tomorrow, containing the whole essay all in one fell swoop for those who want to read it all in one place. If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.

Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.


A first visit to Cuba 8: Miracles in Camagüey

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part eight.

 

8. Miracles in Camagüey

Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.

And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.

We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.

And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.

It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.

We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.

Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

 

Stay tuned for part nine of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 7: Cognitive dissonance

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part seven.

 

7. Cognitive dissonance

 

Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs. 

We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.

A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.

And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.

Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.

By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.

"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.

 

Stay tuned for part eight of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 6: Holy spirit

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part six.

 

6. Holy spirit

Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.

On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.

This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.

As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.

The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)

The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.

After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.

 

Stay tuned for part seven of this essay, coming tomorrow.