Thursday, August 28, 2014

Not a Far Away Place

As they prepared to leave the table around which we had gathered in the synagogue, they presented me with a beaded bag from Jerusalem, a bag filled with gifts. I was embarrassed to receive yet another gift from them. I told them that their presence was itself the greatest gift. I told them that my wife and I had been in Israel this summer in the midst of so much pain and sorrow, and that everywhere I went I asked people where they find hope. In the presence of these young people I found an answer to my own seeking, to the same question that in moments of enough courage I ask myself.

Planning to return for our service that evening, they were a group of ten Israeli high school students, five Jews and five Muslim Arabs. The Jewish students are from the south, all attending a regional school in Kibbutz Yotvata in the Arava region of the Negev desert. I lived on that kibbutz for a time many years ago. The Muslim students are all from a small village in the north near Natzeret/Nazareth. They are travelling together as part of a program called Friends Forever. It is an American based effort to bring young people together from places of conflict, people who could just as easily become enemies rather than friends. Having met each other a few times in Israel as part of the coordinating effort, they now travel and live together abroad, sharing in discovery of each other and themselves as they encounter new places, people, and experiences. Their guides are two teachers, one from each of their schools, and an American coordinator for the program. The goal and the hope of the program is that the friendships fostered will continue at home, and that these new friends will help to prepare new cohorts to engage in becoming friends forever. 

We went around the table, sharing names and a little background. The interplay of names and backgrounds was like music, enveloping all of us with a sense of wholeness, only names, the essence of who we are and where we have come from, names telling of each one’s presence. I had to hold back tears several times. I did not share with them the sudden thought I had that the last time I heard an interspersing of Hebrew and Arabic names was at a peace vigil at which were read the names of all the dead from the Gaza war, Palestinian and Israeli, Hebrew and Arabic. To call each other by name is the beginning of friendship, a way of connection, and so may it be for these young people, and through them for all of us, the beginning of a new way. I asked them why they had chosen to be part of Friends Forever. Their answers showed that a new way was already unfolding through them. Knowing strife so close at hand, their answers were more than untried idealism, but reflected a yearning that is born of urgency and of a struggle not to despair. Several of them spoke of loving peace, of wanting to help bring peace to the world. In their being together, transcending their own fear and discomfort, of which they spoke honestly, they are taking the first steps toward making peace a reality in their own world of strife and separation.

When it came time to leave, we walked outside together. Suddenly, one of the Muslim students asked if they could see the Torah. “Ah, of course,” I said, and all turned around and walked back in. We gathered around the reading table and opened the scroll to where it was set from last week. There, jumping out at us, were the words of the Sh’ma, an affirmation of God’s oneness, Hear, O Israel, God our God, God is one (Deut. 6:4). I shared an essential teaching with them, one they already knew in their hearts: if God is one and all people are created in the image of God, then…, and I asked them, and they answered…, then all people are one. And so it was around the table. And then I rolled the scroll to that week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev (Deut. 7:12-11:25). I chanted the first few verses for them. Smiling, and making me smile, one of the Muslim students said it sounded like the chanting of Quran. And I asked them, “what does Ekev mean?” One of the Jewish students said right away, though all of them speak Hebrew, “it means because of.” And so it does, and I asked, “and what does akev mean,” and a teacher answered, “it means heal.” I added one more word formed of the same root, ikvot/footsteps. And I explained that this portion is about them. Most often when we speak of following in someone’s footsteps it is younger people or people coming later who follow in the footsteps of those who came before. But it is for us to follow in their footsteps, to pursue the way of friendship and peace in the way that they are modeling and living the ideal now.

There is a beautiful teaching of Rabbi Yitzchok Meir of Rothenberg (1799-1866), the Ri”m, that the first words of the portion, v’haya ekev tish’m’un/it shall come to pass as a result of your hearing…, perhaps on the heals of your hearing, are telling us to listen for the footsteps of the Messiah, ikvot m’shicha. Those are the footsteps that I could hear as we stood around the open Torah, Jews and Muslims together. In the bag of gifts they had given me was a small book of teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) entitled, Ein Makom Rachok/Not a Far Away Place. Following in the steps of such young people, may that time of peace and wholeness, of swords turned to plowshares, be a little closer, not a far away place.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Here We Go Again

It always starts that way, with a few advisers, some bombing, and some promises that there won't be any serious "boots on the ground." So, here we go again in Iraq. The U.S. advisers are there. The bombing is underway. Next?

That's not to say that the latest manifestation of terrorism with ISIS isn't horrific. Anyone engaged in Holy War isn't bound by the same strictures as when it's just a normal war. Holy Warriors have God on their side and God, as we've seen over the ages, can be an extraordinary villain of nationalistic leaders and moralistic followers, those who are able to turn a faith inside out and upside down.

Especially in the U.S., we need to be careful about only laying responsibility for holy war on followers of Islam. When we look at the historical record, all of the monotheistic traditions have had (and are still having) their holy wars. One could hardly bear to watch the recent destruction in Gaza of the military overreaction on the part of Israel, seeming to carry an intensity and passion only understandable in a religious context. After all say many, it's all land God gave the Jewish people in ancient times. 

It's also understandable that after such a horrific event as the holocaust, the Jewish people might say "never again." Still, who is to say the survivors in Gaza won't say "never again," and in the next engagement will have God on their side?

Nor can we ignore one of the reported reasons President Bush decided to invade Iraq. According to Thomas Romer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne, he was approached by the office of French President Jacques Chirac to help Chirac understand a reference Bush made to "Gog and Magog."

The words came up in 2003 while Bush was lobbying Chirac to become part of the "coalition of the willing" in support of an Iraq invasion. Bush told Chirac a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the middle east and how they had to be defeated. 

If you don't know your books of Genesis, Ezekiel and Revelation in the Christian Bible, that's where the names Gog and Magog appear. They are the forces of apocalypse that are coming out of the north and will destroy Israel unless they are stopped. Bush believed the situation in the middle east was a cosmic struggle, prophesied in Scripture.

Bush told Chirac, "This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins." The same year he spoke with Chirac, he reportedly told the Palestinian foreign minister he was on a "mission from God," in launching the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chirac has since confirmed Romer's report in a book published in France by Jean Claude Maurice, although he reportedly told the author if he repeated the story in his book, he would deny it.

If the story is accurate and I have no reason to doubt it, especially as George W. is a Christian millennialist, many thousands have lost their lives in a holy war, and Iraq continues to be the scene of enormous suffering, destruction and just plain terror.

For those Christians who affirm the concept of God in the first letter of John, "God is love," the so called "mission" of President Bush in Iraq was not only mistaken but absolutely contrary to the faith. And for those Christians who understand Old Testament prophecy and apocalyptic literature as referring to the times in which it was written, not some predicted future, the beliefs of President Bush in such a position of power and authority, is not only terrifying but utter madness.

Two sensible things have been communicated about the situation we are in now. President Obama said, we are doing better in Afghanistan because leadership there is in dialogue across the political divides. That never happened in Iraq with the Maliki government. Rather they alienated other groups even more than earlier.

The problem is, the President said this in almost the same breath as committing us to new strikes in Iraq.

The only other sensible response so far came from Pope Francis. He asked Islamic leadership to come forward and disown the kind of Islam represented by ISIS. We need this to happen! But if it doesn't, we might also understand that at least in the U.S., Muslims have hunkered down, with good reason. There are some holy warriors at work in U.S. society who can't distinguish between civilians and terrorists. One disturbing bumper sticker I saw on I-29 read, "Kill Them All: Let Allah Sort Them Out."

That kind of thinking needs to be condemned by all people of faith. Fear and religious prejudice create silence and bitterness, not dialogue. The same goes for coercion, manipulation, force and war. Peace is the fruit of justice and truth seeking. 

"Will they ever learn?"

Carl Kline

Monday, August 18, 2014

Circles of Connection

Like concentric circles flowing out in Jamaica Pond, formed of stones cast from different places on the shore, becoming as one, so the confluence of yearning flowing out from the far-flung shores of humanity, becoming as one. In a time of so many sorrows, Mieke went for an early morning walk around the pond last Shabbos. On her return, she told me in disbelief of the sign she had seen on a bench by the boathouse. It said in quotes, “Noah’s Office,” and then told of a memorial gathering that morning at nine o’clock for Noah Katz. We were both shocked, how could it be? As I later wrote in sharing thoughts with my congregation, for those of you who were touched by Noah’s ebullient spirit around the pond, taken in by his garrulous warmth and love of people, I apologize if this is your first hearing of his death. He had died suddenly in his sleep a few days before. Upon the bench where he so often sat, his “office,” there were folded running shirts that told of marathons he had run, and there were flowers, and upon the ground beneath the bench his running shoes with their bright orange laces boldly announcing Noah’s arrival at the finish line. 

I made my way over to the pond just before shul, raindrops forming so many circles on the water. Word had spread quickly, a crowd gathering in the bandstand in disbelief, a huddled circle of people comforting and seeking comfort from each other. Noah’s sister and brother-in-law were there, all the rest were his family from around the pond. One woman, an English teacher, spoke of how she and Noah would talk about words, “what word should we talk about today,” Noah would ask her each morning he saw her. One of his favorite words was “serene,” she said, as he looked out onto the pond and noted its serenity. Another spoke of her son whose name was also Noah, and how big Noah would always ask how “little Noah” is doing. A man familiar around the pond for the parrot perched upon his shoulder, a bright colored bird named Shakespeare, shared that Noah had recently wanted to talk about death, leaving us to wonder if it had been a premonition, a sense of coming change. “No, no, said the man, let’s not talk about that.” Instead, Noah confided that he had always been afraid of Shakespeare the parrot and asked if he could hold him. “Put up your hand and Shakespeare will decide,” said the man. Transcending fear, reaching beyond limitation, as though beyond the wall that runners fear to hit, Noah held the parrot on his hand, smiling upon that which he feared no longer.

I spoke in the circle of having gotten to know Noah over the last year and a half or so. I shared the embarrassment and shame I feel for having avoided him for some time before that. Here and there we would speak briefly or trade pleasantries. I was often wary of the amount of time it could take to engage with Noah. With deep sadness, I realize what I missed and take to heart the lesson to be learned. One of the first times I met Noah, running for a short distance together, he asked me if I had any events coming. Perplexed, I thought about coming Bar and Bas Mitzvahs, weddings, the kind of events in my life. Seeing my confusion, he said, “races, do you have any races planned?” In having earlier avoided too much engagement with Noah, I think it was in part that I wanted to avoid being the rabbi, wanting just to be a pond runner or walker. Noah was intrigued, though, that I was a rabbi and I began to share more openly with him. We talked of having elderly fathers. We spoke of a mutual friend, someone who was to him as family for so many years, a woman whom my dad hired for her first job. Noah bubbled with laughter, almost uncontainable in his joy for living and his delight in human connection.

In the prayerful circle of that gathering by the pond, I shared thoughts on the Jewish meaning of Noah’s names, thoughts I would love to have shared with him. Telling of his soul’s roots, Noah’s names speak of who he was and continues to be. His Hebrew name, “Noach,” means rest, as in serenity, the way of which he spoke and sought. He could be at rest upon his bench, even as he is at rest now, his soul yet soaring to greet others, as upon the wings of another Noah’s dove. His last name, “Katz,” is an abbreviation for Kohen Tzedek/righteous priest. It is through the kohanim that blessing was conveyed upon the people. They were as conduits of blessing, through whom people were joined with each other as well as with God. In the sacred space of Jamaica Pond, Noach was a source of blessing, joining people with each other and helping each one he encountered to feel a sense of their own importance and belonging. One of the last times I saw Noah, he was sitting on his bench talking with a newcomer to Boston, offering advice and information, and most of all conveying the goodness of Bostonians, at least of one, whose ways we should aspire to follow. “Where do you think Noah is?” one of his close friends asked me when we encountered each other the next day. She and I had seen each other many times around the pond, but we had never spoken. “He is right here,” I said. “In our stopping to talk his soul is continuing to do its work. Soul work is never done.”

The next Shabbat was Shabbos Nachamu/the Sabbath of Comfort. Following the sorrows remembered on Tisha B’Av, day of mourning and fasting for so much tragedy in Jewish history and in the world, we begin a cycle of time called the Seven Weeks of Comfort. The name of this Shabbos as the Sabbath of Comfort comes from words chanted from the prophet Isaiah, Nachamu, nachmu ami/Comfort, comfort my people (Isaiah 40:1). It is an imperative given to each of us, each of us called to be a comforter, each of us in need of comfort. So it was in the bandstand by the pond on that Shabbos, a huddled mass of people comforting and being comforted by each other. So it is in the world right now, people all along the shores of humanity so in need of comfort, of hope. Hearts breaking for the violence in the Middle East, Israel and Gaza so unbearable; from where shall comfort come, from where signs of hope? Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, the old ways of strife that lead to misery, none to comfort and show a new way. Only stones gently cast, as in the way of symbolically casting our sins into the water on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Near, shall bring circles of life to intermingle with each other.

On that Sabbath of Comfort, we read from the Torah portion called Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11), a prayerful word meaning in its root to beseech, to plead, to supplicate, an expression of so much desire and yearning. Wherever the word appears, it is understood to be an expression of a gift freely given/matnat chinam. That was the way of kindness as a gift freely given to all by Noah Katz. Of caring for each other simply because we are each human, each one carrying a story worth hearing, a precious connection waiting to happen, so shall the circles of life, circles of connection, intertwine and be unbroken, comfort upon the waters. May his memory be a blessing.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

5 Ways to Adopt Nonviolence as a Way of Life

My hometown, New Orleans, is known worldwide for its gun violence. We have one of the highest homicide rates in America, and we have evolved countless approaches to changing that culture of killing. The culture stays alive due to years of failures, on the part of all the relevant stakeholders-- every level of government has failed to focus on the problem, seeing it as insoluble.

Established business interests have fled the city, meaning crime is the only employment available for many of our young men. We as individuals have failed to cross economic and racial divides and band together as New Orleanians to resist the violence that affects all of us in some way, every day we spend here.

Here are five of the many guiding principles we must follow toward a nonviolent existence.

1. Never forget that violence breeds more violence. The proper response to fear does not include forming a group of armed vigilantes, as some wanted to do after a mass shooting on Bourbon Street. That will only lead to more retaliatory killings, which already recur in familial and gang-based feuds that drag on year after year.

Even the pattern of other violent accidental deaths and suicides follows the geographic distribution of homicides, a grim shadow moving in the wake of the deliberate killings.

2. We must rely on our own community to develop a path away from the killing. Strategies imported from other regions do not work in New Orleans, as we discovered when we tried a conflict intervention plan called CeaseFire, which originated in Chicago. The effort upset the existing balance in the trial area, multiplying homicides by a factor of 2.6 in its first year, then started pushing homicides just outside its boundaries into the surrounding district, which is now #3 in terms of murders.

3. We must unite to conquer the problem and forgo blame. Casting nonviolence in terms of "we, the nonviolent, against them, the violent criminals," does not result in a solution. We will continue to fail until we all learn to speak, and think, in terms of "we" and "our problem."

The New Orleans Police Department uses statistics to downplay the rate of violence, while refusing to engage with the community on a meaningful level. NOPD relies on carefully controlled public meetings and crime walks rather than true community policing, which requires a 24-hour personal presence to help those who live in high-crime areas.

Officers don't want their own families to live in the communities where they themselves patrol, saying it's too dangerous for their spouses and children. What about the families who must live there? The assumption of innate superiority and desire for separation maintain a climate of mutual suspicion and hostility between police and residents, while New Orleanians continue to die.

4. We have to solve our violence problem at the family level. We see some of the same surnames in lists of murderers and murder victims every year, and yet we fail to reach out to those troubled families. The most violent years for our teenaged boys, many still affected by the horrors they experienced during Hurricane Katrina, are 17-26.

We have to reach all our children with the message of nonviolence well before that time, which for some families means changing the habits of a lifetime. The more children we bring up surrounded by violence and death as a way of life, the longer the culture of killing will thrive.

5. We have to create a new positive system to replace the culture of violence. It is not enough to tear down what we now have without simultaneously devising a new mode of survival, one in which we all share equally in opportunities for education and economic advancement. Until we restructure our local system to give everyone productive alternatives to lives of crime, we'll all keep suffering.

Even legislative and judicial remedies designed to improve the problem, like federal civil rights cases and hate crime prosecutions, are exacerbating existing divides in the community, some racial and some between supporters of gun ownership and those of us who realize the availability of firearms is a major part of the problem.

Author Byline:
This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for HYPERLINK She welcomes your comments at her email id: HYPERLINK ""

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Taking a Breath

After several months of searching, my husband and I have found a new yoga teacher.  Her classes are strenuous and we both come home feeling like we have had a good workout.  She gives clear instructions and does a beautiful job of guiding both newcomers and old-timers in the execution of the postures.

Over the last several weeks I have been appreciating her increasing focus on pranayama – breathing practice. Noticing the breath – - following the breath - - holding the breath - - releasing the breath - - disciplining the breath while moving through the postures….

The breath – the Source of Life – so taken for granted until it is compromised in some way.  As I try to be more faithful about incorporating yoga into my daily routines, focusing on the breath has become a central way of grounding myself, of entering into prayer, of finding my way through the day with just a little more equanimity.  I find myself coaching myself to breathe when I begin to feel stressed.  I am learning to follow the breath to a place of silence and balance and peace.  I am not adept at staying there, but I am learning to find my way.

As I write, there is a three-day truce in effect between Israel and Gaza.  Whether it will still be in place by the time this is posted is uncertain.  But for the moment, there is space to breathe, to allow the Life Force some time to balance and restore itself.

The last several weeks of conflict have been so painful for so many people.  It seems not to matter which side of the conflict is embraced as the “right one” - - the pain and the sadness and the anger and confusion afflict millions around the world.  In response to it, I find my own breathing constricted, shallow, rapid - - not the kind of breath that nurtures fullness of life in my body – not the kind of breath that feeds my cells for the work they have to do.  I have to stop and pay attention and take charge of my breath with intention.  I have to observe it - - govern it - -slow it down - - deepen it - - hold it - - release it - - all in the service of bringing myself into a state of balance again.

What is becoming more clear to me is that when I am occasionally stressed beyond my ability to care for myself in this way, I depend upon the prayer and the breath of my fellow travelers to carry me through until I can re-engage with my own breath and regain balance again.  At other times I do the same for them.  It is a curious thing.  By sharing in a disciplined practice of breathing, we are able to be present to one another in ways that strengthen and sustain and heal.  Staying with the breath has the potential for allowing wisdom to surface - - perhaps even vision for life.

However brief or prolonged the current ceasefire may be, it represents a moment to breathe in the midst of the pain and suffering and chaos of war.  It may allow time to re-balance – and –as with a yoga practice – it may falter and fail and need to be approached again and again until it is a stable way of entering life.  With discipline, the pranayama of this time of mediated breath might be deepened to a point where all parties might recognize the power of stopping to take a breath – and then another  - and then another in the service of life. We who are geographically at a remove from the various centers of conflict in the world can do this for one another until we are all breathing together.  

For today, I offer the intention and the merit of my breath practice in the service of peace in the world. 

Vicky Hanjian

Monday, August 4, 2014

From the Turmoil of My Heart

I write from the turmoil of my heart. Mieke and I returned from Israel yesterday. It is good to be home and it is hard to be home. I struggle to find the place called home. I feel alone at times in the struggle to balance the swirl of emotions and feelings. I asked so many people, “how do you hold it all together, where do you find hope?” I ask myself the same questions, and I am not sure. Of how do you hold it all together, the woman of a couple with whom we had Shabbos dinner last week said, “barely.” Finding hope was in fact easier for her, in the details of day to day, mostly in caring for their little grandchild, changing diapers, walking, shopping. Over Shabbos lunch, my friend, Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, answered my questions with the prophetic resolve with which he lives and faces down despair, “we just have to keep going.” He is convinced that in the struggle for justice and peace, every act of goodness makes a difference. 

In a strange and eerie way, it was easy to feel at home in a shelter when the sirens wailed, gathered with people of all views, where one’s politics and opinions didn’t matter, only one’s presence. I find it much harder here. I feel alone, no sense of home or belonging in gatherings that would only praise and defend Israel, and so too at gatherings that would only condemn and decry Israel. We have been here so many times before, lessons unlearned and then the question that churns of what to do in the midst of crisis. The crisis is real for Israel, as it is real for the people of Gaza. I feel sick with the worry of Israeli friends who are sick with worry for their children, young ones who wet their beds with the sound of the sirens, bundled off to safe rooms and shelters. I feel the worry of friends who dread to know where their soldier sons are and what they are doing, and who are beside themselves in not knowing. Feeling the worry of our own, how can we not feel as our own as well the terror wrought on Palestinians? More than the wail of sirens, how dare we not feel their horror as the bombs fall and houses cave in?

I am afraid for the narratives of hate and denial that each side creates. Every rocket fired into Israel denies its right to be, its place among the nations. Every time the mantra is uttered by Jews that we value our children more than they, they become less human. It is a dangerous illusion that cuts us off from the very ones we need to embrace. From a new found Palestinian friend in Ramallah came words from her friend in Gaza: “We don’t know where and when and who? I’m spending my time trying to assure my 2 kids, ages 5 and 7…; I have to maintain strength all the time. Can’t let the family collapse. Don’t know how much longer I can take it…; we spend our time anxiously waiting for the next shower of bombs, it’s sickening….” From Ramallah, my friend herself wrote: “The helplessness is great. I’ve been silently detached from news. Don’t want the masters of wars to decide my feelings and reactions. Don’t want them to poison my soul with hate….” 

In Laila’s words, I find hope, sentiments felt by many Jews. We are one in fear and in hope, fear beneath the bombs and rockets, fear for our children, fear that we not lose our humanity. Knowing the fear we feel for Israel should open our hearts all the more to feel the unimaginable fear for those of Gaza who live beneath the bombs. All of the children are our own, all of them and all of us joined as branches on the tree of life. That is the message in the name of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42. It is a portion of great violence and vengeance, a reflection of the worst that we can be, the worst that we can do. And in that is its warning and its hope of transcendence, that in seeing the violence of which we are capable, we shall recoil with horror. It is the mirror of Torah in which we see ourselves and rise up to be who we are meant to be. The word mateh/tribe can also mean branch, rod, staff. We are all as branches on the same tree and we are all each other’s staff with which to guide and support on the journey of life. 

These terrible days unfolding come as we enter the three weeks that lead to Tisha B’Av, day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the Temples and so much brokenness in the world. Of these three weeks, called the Three Weeks of Reproach/Sh’losha d’Puranuta, or the Bayn Ham’tzarim/Between the Straits, the Slonimer Rebbe says, they are the furrowed ground from which shall begin to blossom the great light revealed. May that be the hope of this time, that seeing the horror of so much violence we shall see a new light and a new way arise.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein