Friday, August 26, 2016

There Is a Spirit

Editor's Note: This is an edited sermon David Hansen delivered August 21.
I am your interim pastor and as such I am new to this church and to this community. I am learning about you. You should know something about me. Sally and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary this past June. We have three children and 11 grandchildren. We both grew up in pretty traditional, middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant families. So it is kind of a surprise to us that our own family is so different from the one we knew as children. Our oldest daughter Allison is married to Mustafa and they have four children and they are Muslim. Our adopted son, Alexander, is bi-racial, which means black or African-American, and he has 5 children. Our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, is married to a Frenchman and they have two children. So one-third of our family is Muslim, one-third is black, and two-thirds are first generation in this country and hold dual citizenship. Now when we got married 50 years ago we did not set out to create this kind of family, but here we are. In this time when people are understandably concerned about immigration and racial tensions in this country are high, here we are. Our family is not unique. There are lots of families like ours—interracial, interfaith, and international. It is an interesting time to be alive. And, it is a great time to be the church. And we would not change our family for anything.
Now all this preamble does not have anything to do with the text today, but I thought you ought to know more about who I am and who we are. So now let’s turn to the text.
The story of this woman—this bent-over woman—became one of the most challenging and life changing stories for me many years ago when I had the good fortune to participate in an exchange program with a partner church in Germany. There I met a woman who introduced herself to me as a Christian educator. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I asked her what a Christian educator did.
She told me that she went out into the community to conduct Christian education programs. As I recall, she told me that she was working with a group of low-wage workers in the evening and with a group of single mothers who lived in public housing and with community immigrants in the afternoons. Three different groups, but they were all studying the story that we heard today about this bent-over woman.
Then she showed me what she did when she met with these groups. She opened a traveling kit and took out a mat, maybe a square yard, laid it on the floor. On each side of the mat she placed a wooden block. On each block was a word. The blocks were labeled: politics, economics, social, religion. Then in the middle of the mat she placed a doll that stood maybe two feet tall. The doll was a woman and she was flexible, so when the teacher put the doll on the mat the doll was bent over, like the woman in Luke’s account.
Then she read the story and asked, “How do you think this woman feels?” I am asking you this question now. How do you think she feels? What do you imagine it is like to be this woman? Can you think of reasons why she was bent over? Perhaps she suffered from a medical condition and could not afford a doctor. Maybe she has arthritis. Maybe she was in prayer. Maybe she had worked in a job where she had to do a lot of heavy lifting, and her body was just worn out. Maybe her bent over condition symbolized her social status, her poverty, or her inability to access health care. The conversation explored possible political, social and economic conditions that might have contributed to this woman’s situation.
Then the teacher said that one of the conditions that kept this woman weighed down was religion. She was unclean in a culture that valued purity. She was a sinner. In the Bible that is not a moral category but a religious one. Her physical condition made her unclean. People did not want to see her, or touch her, or even be near her. Then the teacher would ask, “Have you ever felt like this woman?”
The woman did not stay bent over. Do you remember what happened? Jesus came to her. He talked to her. He touched this untouchable unclean woman. He recognized her as a child of God, and she stood up.
I have been thinking about this gospel story as I watched the news this week. Sally and I both grew up in Wisconsin. I served a church in a Milwaukee suburb. So I have been watching the civil unrest there with more than a little interest. I know the Black Lives Matter movement and the uprising in Milwaukee have lots of variables. It is a complicated situation and everyone has a point of view. Almost 20 years ago, in 1998, two scholars, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, wrote a book entitled American Apartheid (Harvard University Press). They concluded that Milwaukee is the most racially segregated city in the United States. There is a long history there. But there is also great hope. The Chief of Police in Milwaukee has issued a call for clergy and people of faith to come together and start working with one another to create a better, healthier community. I remember in the 1960s there was a national movement called “Living Room Dialogues.” Reuel Howe wrote about it in a book, The Miracle of Dialogue (1963). Caring enough to listen to each other’s stories is where healing begins.
I have been thinking about Milwaukee this week. I have been thinking about 23 Christian ministers in Missouri who were in court this past week. They went to the state capital to call upon the legislature to expand Medicaid and were arrested for the crime of trespassing on government property. Even though they were in the public gallery, they were arrested for trespassing, tried in court, and convicted. I am glad they were there and are standing up for the rights of people who bear the heavy burden of injustice.
There are stories like this in the news every day of the week. I am convinced that we need to look with unflinching focus at the oppressive events that seem to pile up each day, and weigh us down, and threaten to bend us and break our spirit. We need to lament and weep for this world that God loves. And then we need to stand up and look each other in the face and say, God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of courage. Let us rise up. There is a balm in Gilead. There is healing that is sure to come.
The Book of Genesis tells us that there is Spirit that hovers over the darkness and moves across the chaos. This Spirit is at work in the hearts of women and men and children who are committed to overcoming the world. This Spirit is loose upon the world. You cannot hold it back. As people born of the Spirit you and I can live effectively in the chaos of the present with the high destiny of children of God.
Rev. David Hansen

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Journey of Remembrance & Hope, 3

After the Journey

Dear Community,
It is good to be home, necessary to step out of the intensity of the past week. It is also hard to step out of the intensity, out of the awareness of meaning tangibly felt in every interaction, in every step taken. Yet, that is no less true if we allow it to be in all of our more mundane day-to-day interactions and steps taken along the way of our lives. So much is swirling within me as I begin to process the experience, so many emotions and reflections, tears still coming easily, sharing on many levels to happen over time. Traveling with twelve Boston area rabbis, the German Consul General, Mr. Ralf Horlemann, and guides from the Goethe Institute in Munich and Berlin, “A Journey of Remembrance and Hope” was a powerful experience, one that shall continue to inform my life and days going forward. Remembrance and hope were both honored, each given their place, one emerging from the other in seamless flow. 

Hearing of the attack in Munich, my heart breaks for the endless violence, the entire world our neighborhood. I think during this week of so much pain in both Europe and the United States of a brief conversation that I had with one of our guides at the airport just before leaving Germany. Vince is French, having lived in Germany for the past sixteen years, representing, as Ralf described him, “the new European,” allegiance and concern for people transcending borders. Shaking hands, Vince said to me, “I hope you will come back. We need you in the fight against fascism and racism.”

In the pursuit of justice and peace in all of our scattered neighborhoods, people yearning to live and to love in all the places people live upon this earth, there is such need for kindness and caring as the seedbed for change. Just about to return to the states, I felt the irony of Vince’s words, the challenge of fascism and racism facing us at home. The bigotry and belligerence that blew as a storm out of Cleveland served to remind of the work to be done. The horror of more African Americans murdered by police officers, and the horror of police officers murdered in response. Calls for a wall to divide and keep out, law and order rather than love and compassion.

Sometimes we forget that “all lives matter” means that Black lives matter too, which is why emphasis needs to be given to one. Toward that reminding, an effort emerged on our street, on Lochstead Avenue, to place “Black Lives Matter” signs on every lawn. I am proud that there is a sign in front of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue. I am deeply touched as I see one neighbor after another placing a sign. I wonder what it might have been like in Germany if in the face of fascism’s rise then there had been signs proclaiming, “Jewish Lives Matter.” 

I just met with a group of Israeli Arab and Jewish high school students traveling together as part of an organization called “Friends Forever.” As we sat around the table and talked, they kept asking about that sign and what it means. They wanted to know if I thought Jews and Arabs could live together in peace. I nearly cried as I offered fervent affirmation. I asked if they wanted proof, as I pointed to each of them around the table. It is the children, the young who carry the greatest hope, but we all have to carry it together. On our painful visit to Dachau, Ralf stopped at one point and gestured toward a group of young students, “they are the most important visitors to this place.” 

I have three beautiful drawings on my desk, all made by even younger children. Each one says welcome on it, one a picture of a bright yellow smiling sun, another a butterfly whose wings are formed by paint prints of a child’s hands, the third seeming to be the continents of the world, bright colors flowing together without borders. The paintings are the size of large postcards, all made by Syrian children whom we met at a refugee center outside of Berlin. These are children who have known little sunshine, whose souls soar like butterflies, for whom the crossing of borders allows them now the possibility of life. 

As we left the children, I picked up another post card, a political flyer. I asked Ralf to read the German and translate it, “Wir sind viele. Berlin Gegen Nazis/We are many. Berlin against Nazis.” I asked Ralf if it is referring to Neo-Nazis. He shrugged his shoulders and asked if that matters. For him, there is no difference between old and new hate. The reminder on the card is about all Nazis, about standing up to all hate, to all that would divide people from each other, to all who act as though some lives don’t matter. In that center there was a palpable love for people, people in need welcomed and embraced, met by open arms rather than a wall of hate. As we sang and danced with the children, seeds of friendship were sown.

On our last night in Germany, toward the end of the Sabbath, I went to a nearby synagogue with Rabbi Samuels from Newton and a few others from our group. Rabbi Samuels had been in touch with the rabbi of the synagogue and had become close to him. Between the afternoon and evening prayers, at the third Sabbath meal, the rabbi of the synagogue asked Rabbi Samuels to share some words of Torah. At that hour we had already entered the week of Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9), which we read on this Sabbath of our homecoming. Rabbi Samuels offered a story from the Rabbi of Apta, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, known as the Ohev Yisrael/Lover of Israel, great grandfather of our Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Apta took the name Balak as an acronym standing for v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha/and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. His Chassidim objected, pointing out the obvious misspelling in Hebrew, that v’ahavta needs the letter “vav,” not a “vet,” and that kamocha needs the letter “kaf,” not a “kuf.” The Apta responded, ayn m’dak’d’kin b’otiot/we are not exacting concerning letters when it comes to love.

It all comes together in the prophetic reading for this week, beloved to me as my Bar Mitzvah reading, words from the Prophet Micah, words meant to challenge hubris and hate, to remind that justice and kindness are of one cloth, Higid l’cha adam mah tov u’mah Hashem doresh mimcha…/It has been told to you O mortal what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God…. So may it be.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Victor

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Journey of Remembrance & Hope, 2

The Dust of Dachau

During the Journey

It had rained most of the day. The rain would do what I could not bring myself to do. I had never cleaned off the dust of Dachau that had caked onto my shoes the previous day. I couldn’t bring myself to remove that dust, not wanting my shoes to ever be cleansed of their encounter with that place. I did not want to clean my shoes, to remove the residue of that earth of sand and ash, of blood and tears, sodden and dry, too fertile and ever fallow. I preferred for the dust to remain, carrying it as seeds of remembrance and hope, grains of sand to shake loose over time, left wherever our journey took us. Here and there a grain of remembrance, a sigh of connection, seeds of remembrance left on the sidewalk or in a cafĂ©, on fine carpets or on the stairs of a bus, as another tear at a memorial site, wherever we were a link to what happened. The rain began the process I could not begin myself, cleansing rain that cleaned my shoes, God’s tears that had begun to fall after I placed a stone at the ovens and stepped outside, mayyim chayyim/waters of life.

As I wanted to leave the dust on my shoes, I have wanted to hold the pure emotion felt at Dachau, to hold it in all of its pain and release, never to let go of those for whom I cried, to feel the catharsis of hot tears streaming down my face. It is the feeling of not wanting to leave the memorial week of Shiva, to go out from the house of mourning, wanting to remain close in time and place to the dead. But we have to go on. We get up and go outside, squinting in the light, realizing that somehow there still is light, light beyond the flickering glow of the memorial candle. We take the first steps to go on with the journey of life, letting the rain wash away the dust of the cemetery from our shoes. We continue on the path of life as a journey of remembrance and hope.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Journey of Remembrance & Hope, 1

Editors Note: The following is the first of three posts from Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein. They  were written to his congregation and are now shared with us.

Before the Journey

Dear Community,
On the eve of summer travels, I want to tell you of a journey that I will soon make. It is a journey that has been weighing on my heart and mind, and that has brought me quickly to tears in speaking about it. In fact, I have spoken very little about it until now. As it becomes more real, I have realized that I need to give voice to feelings and share more fully and openly. As always at the beginning of the summer, Mieke and I will travel to Belgium next week to visit her family. From Belgium, Mieke will return home. I will then travel to Germany. That simple sentence has been so hard to say without tears, so simple and so complex. 

On July 10th, I will fly from Brussels to Munich to meet a group of a dozen Boston area rabbis traveling at the invitation of the German government. The trip is called "A Journey of Remembrance and Hope." It is a title that I suggested for the trip in place of one that did not speak to the emotional complexity that I needed to embrace to make the trip. The title initially proposed and the program it reflected was, “Jewish Life in Germany Today.” I was not interested in going initially. In fact, I did not even attend the first meeting with the German Consul General when he asked to meet with the Executive Committee of the Mass Board of Rabbis. I have never been to Germany. I have felt over the years that I would only go if able to attach greater purpose to my going. Through meetings with the Consul General and much reflection, I decided that this was the greater purpose that now beckoned. I have been surprised at how deeply emotional I have been in anticipating the trip. I dream of survivors that I have known, hearing the voices of some and having conversations with them, needing their blessing.

For the details it conveys and for its reflection of my reaching for that greater purpose, I share with you from a letter that I wrote to the Consul General early on in his effort to engage with us. Through his positive response to my letter and other conversations that we had, I agreed to participate in the trip. Most importantly, through this process I have come to know him, and as always, through people to people sharing seeds of possibility are planted. The letter is addressed to consular staff, first having raised some logistical matters and then speaking to deeper matters of content.

Of content for the tour, I want to speak of a matter that I raised with Consul General Horlemann when he met with the Executive Committee of the Mass Board of Rabbis. I respectfully share from my heart that as a matter of intention I have never visited Germany. It is part of the painful legacy of the Holocaust that continues to touch both the Jewish and German peoples, each in their own way as we carry the burden of the past into the future. In our meeting with the Consul General, I referred to that legacy as the "elephant in the room." I am eager to engage with "Jewish Life in Germany Today.” I would also value the opportunity to learn of Germany's leadership in responding to the plight of Syrian refugees, for instance, a way of response to a moral crisis of today that is to be honored. Such programming, however, would not be enough for the tour to speak to me. To be compelling, there needs to be opportunity to acknowledge and engage the emotional reality that I and others carry. There needs to be opportunity as a formal part of the program to address the painful legacy of the past. As part of the tour, such opportunity would add a depth of meaning that would clarify for me why I am making such a journey, a tour becoming then a pilgrimage toward healing. As a tour for rabbis, there is a unique opportunity to create a bridge from past to future that should not be squandered. Engaging with and sharing our legacies may include such efforts as facilitated conversations with appropriate partners and visits with teachers and students to learn of Holocaust education and its meaning in Germany today. Without a prior commitment to include such deep programming, I could not emotionally participate in the tour. With a commitment to this deep programming, I would find meaning in the tour that would inspire me to do something that I have never done before. 

Toward participating in a tour that is more than itself, I am most willing to help think through what such content may include and how best to create context and partnership for such a people to people sharing. As part of that, I would be willing to help organize a local gathering of tour participants to share thoughts among ourselves and to affirm our own connections with each other. I suggest as part of this process it would also be helpful to have a preparatory meeting with Consul General Horlemann. 

I appreciate your invitation for suggestions and your openness to my sharing. In writing this letter, I realize that my delay in responding had less to do with all that fills my schedule and more to do with what fills my heart.

In friendship,
Rabbi Victor Reinstein

As I begin to speak of this journey, sharing now in the week of Torah Portion B’ha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16), the Torah tells of journeys and of raising up light. The opening words of the portion offer challenge to all that follows, b’ha’alotcha et ha’nerot/when you cause lights to go up…. In the plural, raising up lights, our own light and that of others, lights of diverse souls rising toward each other to illumine the way forward. And of Israel’s journeys, we are told, al pi ha’shem yis’u b’nei yisra’el v’al pi ha’shem ya’chanu/according to the word of God did the children of Israel journey forth and according to the word of God did they camp. Our journeys are filled with uncertainty, the uncertainties of life, not knowing when we journey or when we camp. In that way, I could not have anticipated my journey to Germany. Holding all of the voices and all of the memories, honoring new friendships and affirming human connection, I pray it shall truly be a Journey of Remembrance and Hope.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Victor

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein