From the May 2019 Temple Beth Ami Chadashot (Newsletter)
Each year, our confirmands ascend the bimah on the festival of Shavuot to formally confirm their place as part of Beth Ami and the Jewish people. During the service, they will read statements about what it means to them to be Jewish. For many, hearing these statements is a powerful reminder, and sometimes a meaningful challenge. What does being Jewish mean to each of us?
The answer is deeply personal and varies from person to person. However, there is a beautiful frame which can help us find our own answers.
Anyone who has studied a second (or third) language, knows that in order to understand a language, we must also learn the culture of those who speak it. That is why great literature almost always loses something in translation, no matter how skilled the translator. Part of our challenge as American Jews is that we speak English, a language created and developed in a Christian society, which reflects Christian ideas and ideals. It is not well suited for describing what it means to be a Jew. The definition of religion is: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency.” In other words, it is all about belief. Those who believe the central tenants of Christianity are Christian, those who do not, are not. However, for us, things are not so simple. If we really want to get somewhere, we need to turn to our language, to Hebrew. In Hebrew we are called: B’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel.
What does that mean?
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism conceived of a layered answer:
First, we are all descended from the same man, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel. We do not see ourselves merely has his spiritual descendants but has his genetic stock. With this in mind, Kaplan describes us as a large extended family.
Second, we are also a nation. The modern state of Israel is the third Jewish commonwealth in our ancient homeland.
Third, we are a religion, in a covenantal relationship with the Eternal.
Fourth, we are a culture, with our own languages, art, music, etc.
Fifth, we are an ethnicity (i.e. Jewish-Americans)
Taken together, these five things according to Kaplan, we are not a religion but a civilization. We are a civilization with strong familial, national, religious, cultural and ethnic components. This is why some of us are more religious, others more cultural, and others still more focused on our national interests. As a rabbi, I try to encourage us to explore every aspect of our identities, and I recognize that our ideas – even about ourselves – change over time.
One of the best ways to explore all five aspects of being Jewish is to travel to Israel, with your rabbi! Our next congregational trip to Israel is already in the works, and details can be found on our website at https://bethami.org/jewish-life/israel/. In addition, we will be getting together for an informational session on Wednesday, May 22 at 7:30 pm, when I will share more details about the trip and answer your questions.
Finally, whether you will be coming to Israel or not, we can all celebrate our Jewish identity with our Confirmation students on Shavuot, June 9 at 10:30 am. Who knows, you might even be inspired to think a little more about, well, you!
Rabbi Gary Pokras
From the March 2019 Temple Beth Ami Chadashot (Newsletter)
As a kid in the sixties and seventies, I somehow internalized a common unspoken message of the time: “be proud of being a Jew, but don’t tell anyone.” At that time, ethnicity was still a strong driver of Jewish identity. We were not fully assimilated Americans, although we were chipping away at the remaining barriers. The memory of the Holocaust was fresh, with many survivors bearing witness in our midst. Anti-Semitism was a dark specter, lurking around the corner, and we needed to be careful to fit in.
Fast forward to my early years as a rabbi. We somehow hired a Grammy-winning singer for a synagogue fundraiser. What a coup! We knew that we needed a public venue and decided to rent space in the local high school and advertise to the general public. Much to my surprise, the board then engaged in a serious debate about whether to list our congregation as the sponsor and beneficiary of the concert. Why? Out of fear that we would become more visible and therefore exposed in the town. It was as if I was a child again hearing: “be proud of being a Jew, but don’t tell anyone.”
Both examples speak to what scholars identify as one of the two defining drives for contemporary American Jewish identity: survival. The “survival” drive is primarily motivated by fear. Its catchphrase is “hold the line or the Jewish people will cease to exist.” The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, highlighted the power and primacy of survivalist identity when he dared to pen a 614th Commandment (there are 613 in the Torah): “Do not give Hitler posthumous victory.” Fackenheim was worried that we would assimilate ourselves out of existence, finishing Hitler’s attempt to make the world judenrein. Jewish survival was at the heart of the outcry against intermarriage in the eighties and nineties. The 2013 Pew study fed the fears of survivalists who noted that affiliation rates were declining, and intermarriage rates were up to 70% outside of the orthodox community.
According to Rabbi Dr. Shaul Magid, the survivalist current in Jewish identity is a purely modern phenomenon. While Zionism contained a seed of survival identity, it was only after the Holocaust that it became a primary motivator for American Jewish identity. Before then, Jewish identity was about the survival of Torah. God would take care of the Jewish people, but only we could take responsibility for transmitting Torah from generation to generation. After the Shoah, we found little consolation in the thought that God will ensure some remnant of our people will always survive, and our personal security shifted more to the center. As an American Jew born in the 60s, I struggle to imagine what my identity would have been like had there been no Holocaust.
Although I have been deeply influenced by the survivalist view, I chafe against it. I do not want my Jewish identity to be an act of defiance against Hitler. I don’t want him, or anti-Semitism, anywhere near my Jewish soul. It is not enough for me to stay true to Judaism out of guilt, because so many have suffered and endured to continue the Jewish people that my failure to adhere would render their sacrifices meaningless. Their deaths were horrific, and we need to remember, mourn and honor them. However, we cannot define ourselves solely as post-Holocaust Jews – as a traumatized people. Indeed, my survivalist inclination leads me to think that if we make guilt or a sense of loss our primary motivation for Jewish identity, then our numbers will eventually diminish to next to nothing (and no, the irony does not escape me).
Instead, I seek a positive impetus, a Judaism which inspires and challenges and frames meaning in my life. As it turns out, this is the second driving force in contemporary American Jewish identity, which Shaul Magid calls “renewal.” If survival is about the Jewish people, renewal is about Judaism. If survival is motivated by fear, renewal is motivated by faith. Rabbi David Hartman summed up the contrast best, writing: “One need not visit Yad Vashem in order to understand our love of Jerusalem. It is dangerous to our growth as a healthy people if the memory of Auschwitz becomes a substitute for Sinai.” Jewish thought leaders from the renewal perspective note that intermarriage has not destroyed our people, but on the contrary, brought in many new people, and with them new vibrancy into our congregational families; they observe that while affiliation rates in 2013 were in decline, interest in meaningful Jewish living actually grew. They posit that the decline in affiliation is a critique of the survival identity which permeates most of the organized Jewish world. Indeed, to my mind, the 2020 visioning process at Beth Ami is about survival vs. renewal identity. It may have started with concerns about our financial or demographic trends (survival questions) but has helped us to define who we want to truly be and how to live our mission (renewal questions).
“Never forget” is a warning which we must continue to carry with us, for the world remains a dangerous place. However, from a historical perspective, despite Pittsburgh and the alarming statistics emerging about anti-Semitism here and abroad, we have never been more secure as a people in America. American anti-Semites and their anti-Semitism never went away, they just burrowed below the surface. In the meanwhile, we have fully assimilated the American dream as a people and live far more openly now as American Jews than we ever have in the past. While anti-Semites have attempted to reenter the public arena and legitimize their racism in the mainstream, they have been met with strong resistance and pushback from virtually every corner of American society. Our country has not only accepted us, it has embraced us. This does not mean that we should not take our security seriously, we do. Nor does it mean we should not confront the newly emerging anti-Semitism, we must. However, we should be careful to stand for something more. It is not enough for us to be against anti-Semitism. We must be for something bigger.
“Never forget” is a poor substitute for “Love your neighbor” [Lev.19:18] and “You shall be Holy” [Lev. 19:2].
From the January 2019 Temple Beth Ami Chadashot (Newsletter)
I am writing these words in mid-November. The pain of Pittsburgh is still raw as we mourn our loss and look to our own safety. At the same time, intense political turmoil in Israel has called the future of the current government into question. I learned long ago never to make any predictions about Israeli politics, so I do not know what the reality will be when you read these words, but the combination of events in Israel along with the rise of anti-Semitism around the world has placed Israel very much at the center of my thoughts.
First, I have always been and remain a proud Zionist. As a child, I remember my incredible pride following the Yom Kippur War, and again after the Camp David Peace Accords with Egypt. Israel was a living example of the Zionist dream to protect our people, live in peace with our neighbors and bring light to the world. I never doubted that we would succeed, eventually, in all three areas.
That said, for well over a decade there has been a growing divide between Israelis and diaspora Jews, especially those of us living in America. As a rabbi, I felt an obligation to support the State of Israel; yet more and more I found myself in tension with the policies of her government. I understood that my children were not at risk the way Israeli children are, that it was not for me to try to dictate how a sovereign nation should govern itself. And, I mourned for the seemingly intractable problem of finding a way to live in peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors, and the senseless and cyclical loss of life for which there seems no end in sight.
Then, over the past two years, the government of Israel issued a series of decisions and statements which effectively denigrated and delegitimized diaspora Jews, especially those of us who are not orthodox. My sense of betrayal, disappointment and anger could not be exaggerated. At my lowest moments, I came close to giving up on Israel altogether, cutting my losses and just focusing on Jewish life here.
Yet, I still believe in the Zionist dream. I still believe in a State of Israel which can be a beacon for all Jews: not because of rising anti-Semitism, not because of fear, but because the dream has intrinsic value, and if we will it – it will be more than a dream.
For those of us who are worried for our safety here in the States, I would remind you that those who would cause us harm are the outliers, not us. In Nazi Germany there were no solidarity rallies after attacks on the Jews, and in America the government does not seek to harm us, but rather seeks justice against those who do.
Could that change one day? Yes, perhaps. But we are nowhere near that kind of crisis, and I do not recommend making Aliyah to Israel because we are afraid.
I do, however, think that Israel deserves our support, and we hers. In fact, I think we need each other now more than ever.
The Jewish people has become just as tribal as anyone. We are split not only by where we locate ourselves on the political spectrum, but also by our denominational affiliations (or lack thereof) and whether we live in Israel, in America or elsewhere in the diaspora.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read an Israeli newspaper article describing an extraordinary response to Pittsburgh by Israeli law makers from across the political spectrum. On November 7, a group of about 25 Knesset members came together in an emergency meeting to demand that the government of Israel recognize the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. They were convened by six MKs, including two from the leadership of the current coalition. The government is unlikely to listen, but what makes this so important is how it breaks down the divisiveness of our own Jewish inner tribalism. Following the tragedy at Pittsburgh where Conservative Jews were attacked, these MKs recognize that the Zionist dream is for all of us, not just for Israelis and the orthodox. That is an important and valuable concept, fully in consonance with the Zionist ideal. Yet, we must also remember that Israeli politicians are practical. While this meeting took place before the challenge to the current government, the MKs were also shown a startling new statistic: fully 13% of Israelis now identify as either Reform or Conservative. This does not mean that they necessarily affiliate, but it does mean that they share our commitment to pluralism.
Whether we agree or disagree with its policies, Israel is a true democracy; her government represents the will of the people. More and more Israelis are coming to understand and appreciate that they do not need to make the binary choice between being religious (orthodox) or secular when deciding how to express their Jewish identities. I am confident that this is only the beginning and look forward to an Israel which truly represents the pluralism of the larger Jewish world.
As American Reform Jews, we have a vested interest in helping to ensure the continued growth of Reform Judaism in Israel and strengthening our personal connections with our Jewish homeland. In the next several months there will be two ways for you to make a meaningful difference.
First, please look for information about to 2019 World Zionist Congress elections. While the specific date of the elections has yet to be determined, our participation is critically important. The WZC determines not only how millions of dollars will be allocated by the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency in Israel, but even more importantly, who will be responsible for working together to implement the decisions of the WZC. This is how real pluralism is built; as secular, Reform and ultra-Orthodox Jews work together towards common goals, we break down the barriers between us. When we have more information about the elections, we will send the information to you, but please make sure to vote! Every vote for the Reform block is a vote for greater pluralism in Israel and around the world.
Second, I am pleased to announce our next congregational trip to Israel, scheduled for July 2020. A complete itinerary with pricing (apart from airfare) should be available no later than the end of January. I hope that you will join me on the trip of a lifetime! For more information, or if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to give me a holler.
Shalom u’vracha (peace and blessing),
Rabbi Gary Pokras
(a sermon delivered on 6.23.17)
This week in Torah, we read the story of Korach, who was a cousin to Moses and Aaron. Our parasha describes how Korach, along with his lieutenants Datan and Abiram, organized a group of 250 Israelite leaders to challenge Moses and Aaron for leadership. Korach used the language of democracy to support his challenge, saying: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3]
On the one hand, Korach spoke some truth. The community was holy, every person – and God did dwell in their midst. Yet, in accusing Moses and Aaron of “raising themselves” above everyone else, he ignored the fact that it was God who placed them in their positions. The revolt, then, is not merely against Moses and Aaron, but also against God.
While we cannot know their motives for sure, it seems that Korach was angling for the job of High Priest, while Datan and Abiram, as the descendants of Jacob’s first born son Reuben, sought the political leadership. Regardless, their challenge not only failed, but they and their families paid the ultimate price.
In the great drama of this story, however, we often overlook that Korach is not the only one to challenge God:
Then the Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins will You be wrathful with the whole community?” [Num. 16:19-22]
At the moment of greatest danger, Moses and Aaron put themselves at risk to challenge God, who incredibly, listens to them and spares those who were not directly involved in the revolt. Moses and Aaron are neither chastised or punished for challenging God directly.
The next day, things got even worse: “the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!’” [Num. 17:6]. God once again commands Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people. Moses realizes that, this time, there is no time to argue with God, that the punishment has already begun in the form of a plague. So, he sends Aaron not away from the people, but into their midst – with a fire pan for a guilt offering. For the first time, Moses and Aaron challenge God not just with words, but with deeds.
What happens next? Some of the Israelites die of the plague – a large number. But the overwhelming majority are spared. Even more, neither Moses nor Aaron are punished for directly disobeying God.
The story of Korach, Moses and Aaron helps us to understand that we can and should stand up to those who have power, but only for the right reasons. Leadership, according to Torah, is about service. When our leaders truly serve the people, they deserve our support – even if we don’t agree on everything. However, when our leaders, are poised to harm the people, even if it is God, Torah teaches us to stand up for what is right, regardless of personal danger.
Speaking truth to power – this is moral obligation Torah places upon us all.
On this Shabbat, I cannot think of a more timely message.
Let’s talk about Health Care Reform.
This week the Senate passed its version of “repeal and replace,” which while we are still waiting for the CBO numbers to come out, looks as if it could be even worse than the House bill.
Now, before I get into the details, you might be wondering if I am simply taking a partisan position rather than speaking from the standpoint of Jewish values. So, let’s look at the Jewish part first, beyond the idea of speaking truth to power. Then we can get political.
We are commanded in Torah no fewer than thirty-three times to care for the most vulnerable in our midst: the orphan, the widow, the poor and the stranger in our midst. Yes, it is true that Torah makes no mention of Medicaid. Nor is healthcare mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. How, then, can we link healthcare to these older texts? In a word: Maimonides. Maimonides, who lived and taught in the 12th century, is arguably the greatest and most influential rabbi ever to live. In fact, some historians divide Jewish history into two eras: the one before Maimonides and the one after. More to our point, Maimonides taught that health care was among the most important communal services that a city was obligated to provide its citizens. In his time, the city had the best infrastructure to manage and deliver health care services. Today, our infrastructure has scaled to a national level.
On a first reading, this latest Senate bill seems to cut Medicaid even more than the house bill, it’s just that the deeper cuts are delayed until 2025. Not only do both bills put millions of Americans at risk, but the Senate version is particularly dangerous to Baby Boomers. As they continue to age, Boomers will require more complex care right at the time Medicaid would be most drastically cut. As if this weren’t enough, the bill also mandates a healthy tax refund to the wealthiest among us from funds previously used to subsidize Medicaid and other insurers.
Although I know that there are deeply religious people who support these bills, I personally struggle with them. I cannot reconcile the harm these bills would cause to millions of vulnerable people with any teaching I have learned from our tradition. Perhaps that is why so many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North American and the Union of Reform Judaism are lining up against these bills. For that matter, I cannot understand how something as basic as health care can be considered a polarizing partisan issue. It is a human issue! We need to be working together, across the aisle, to find a better solution..
Yes, Obamacare has some real problems. Yes, we need a better system. But, these bills are not the answer. Not only do they effect the most vulnerable in our midst, but they could place anyone who does not have enough personal wealth to cover their expenses without insurance at risk as well. In addition to dramatic cuts to Medicaid, this bill would remove protections against lifetime limits on the amount insurers will pay to cover individual health care costs, and instead leave it up to the states to decide.
Why does this matter?
Those people with the most significant health problems have higher medical expenses. Once they burn through their life-time limits, they would no longer be covered for the care they need to keep them healthy, and in some cases, alive. Only those with the means to handle private pay would be able to continue treatment. Leaving it to the states to determine which limits if any should be allowed is simply a race to the bottom. Let’s say that our wonderful State of Maryland decides to keep lifetime limits off the table. What happens if our neighboring states allow them? For-profit insurance companies would have an incentive to pull their business from Maryland in favor of markets that are easier on their bottom line. That in turn would place increased pressure on our state to change the rules to bring at least some coverage back to Maryland citizens. The cycle could repeat over and again, forcing potentially millions more to choose between health care or poverty.
Dayenu. It would be enough for us if only the most vulnerable were placed at greater risk, but these bills will harm many of us sitting here in this sanctuary right now.
In some ways we are quite fortunate. Thank God. All our representatives and senators are strongly against these bills. We do not need to lobby them. Not only that, but Governor Hogan issued a powerful statement yesterday decrying the bill – using even stronger language than his fellow Republican, Governor John Kasich.
So, what can we do?
First, we must stay engaged. We are so fortunate to live in a constitutional democracy, where we have the right to speak our minds in the public square. We must exercise that right.
Second, we can reach out to our friends and family who live in states where there is not strong opposition to these bills. We can explain why we are so opposed and ask them to reach out to their senators to urge them to vote against this legislation.
Finally, we should contact Governor Hogan’s office to thank him for his strong statement. He is taking a political risk, and he needs to know that we are behind him. Not only that, but we could also ask him to reach out to his fellow Republican governors and encourage them to make similar public statements, and while they are at it, to also place pressure on their senators who may be on the fence about this bill.
Korach may be the headliner of this week’s Torah portion, but we can follow a better example. Instead of pursuing our own wealth and power, let’s be like Moses and Aaron. Let’s speak truth to power to preserve life and health –
now and always.
Recently, Ed Reilly, who reports for our local channel 7 news affiliate, WKBW, broadcast a wonderful story on the challenges facing religious institutions and the national trend of declining affiliation rates. I was both honored and humbled to participate.
This weeks marks the one year anniversary of a remarkable collaboration at the Town Square Food Pantry, which is jointly operated by Temple Beth Zion and Catholic Charities at the Town Square Center for Aging.
There is a lot to love about this pantry. First and foremost, it provides food for those who are hungry in a dignified fashion. Even more, our specially trained volunteers care for the overall well-being of our clients by learning about their specific needs and connecting them to relevant community resources. Second, the pantry brings Jews and Christians together to serve God by serving humanity. This initiative is building bridges not only between the Jewish and Catholic communities, but within the Jewish community by bringing Reform and Orthodox Jews together. In addition, a growing number of greater community organizations have gotten involved, creating a ever widening scope of services including transportation and fresh produce from two community gardens. Finally, our wonderful volunteers have discovered that doing this holy work nourishes not only the hungry, but the souls of those who serve: it has brought them closer to our clients, to each other and to God.
There is so much to celebrate, and I offer my heartfelt gratitude and congratulations to everyone who is involved!
Here is what others are saying about the project (from the Buffalo Jewish Journal):
Rabbi Adam Scheldt - Temple Beth Zion
“It has been incredibly amazing to see the Town Square Food Pantry blossom and flower over the course of the year. Supporting and watching our volunteers not only embody, but enjoy the amazing Jewish values that underpin so much of what the Pantry is and does is an amazing gift. Their efforts and the pantry itself truly bring light to dark places and can inspire us all.
Amy Schaefer – Temple Beth Zion Lead Coordinator
We are excited about our successful collaboration with Catholic Charities and the broader community. The Food Pantry will continue to look for opportunities to expand its outreach to serve more clients.With over 20 volunteers who come on a regular basis and more who have helped with holiday food preparation and collections, we are very pleased to celebrate the first anniversary of the Town Square Food Pantry together.”
Jen Scheibner, Community Assistant at Catholic Charities.
“The Town Square Food Pantry has been a wonderful addition to the community. We are delighted to be a part of this operation in helping those in need,”
Currently the Town Square Food Pantry is serving nearly 175 families and about 40 residents at the Jewish Federation Housing unit and also reaches out throughout the zip codes of 14221 and 14068 in Amherst, New York region. Town Square Food Pantry located just west of the Weinberg Campus in Amherst welcomes donations or if you are in need of their services please call 716-391-2921.
I love Israel. I love the land, the people, the history and our deep connections to our ancient homeland. I have never felt more at home anywhere in the world than Israel, and my connection to Israel is central to my identity as a Jew.
However, as the Israeli equivalent of the 'Religious Right' gained more an more power, I as a non-Orthodox religious Jew, have felt less and less welcome in my homeland. It is incredibly ironic that Israel, the only Jewish nation in the world, guarantees freedom of religion for all people ... except for Jews.
The Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, is the closest Jews have been able to get to the site of the First and Second Temples for centuries. It commands a powerful place in our collective religious psyche and is far and above the holiest place a Jew can come to pray.
I stopped praying at the Wall about ten years ago, because it had come under the control of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who turned it into a place of intolerance.
Thank God, the Israeli cabinet decided on Sunday to reclaim the Kotel and the Kotel plaza for all Jews, not just the chareidim. In addition to the traditional men's and women's sections, a new egalitarian section will be constructed, where men and women can pray together, and women can sing and chant from Torah, and wear tallitot. The men's and women's sections will remain under ultra-Orthodox control, while the new section and the plaza will belong to the State (which is to say, to the rest of us).
This is truly cause for celebration! As the center of the Jewish world, Israel should reflect the diversity of our people. The establishment of the new egalitarian section at the Kotel is a major step forward. Now we need to remain vigilant, to make sure that the promise becomes reality.
I am writing about the core narratives in Judaism and Christianity as reflected in Psalms 105:26-45 and Acts 2:22-24 respectively. I am comparing and contrasting these scriptures. To me, they are simplistic yet complex in nature as they explain the underlying narrative of each religion.
Thank you for exploring these questions, and especially, for your service to our country.
Your question deserves a nice Jewish answer - so I have one for you: yes and no.
To explain my answer, I first need to define what I mean by the Exodus, and how I understand your question. The story of the Exodus from Egypt begins with Exodus 1:1 and ends with the last verse of Deuteronomy - and contains everything in the middle. As you thought, that narrative is the central and defining narrative of Jewish tradition.
In your question, you describe the Exodus as "God's plan for the redemption of his people." That is not the way I generally think about it. Yes, the text specifically says that this is all according to God's plan. However, for me, it is more about our experience (in which God of course is the driving force) of moving from Egyptian slavery through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness towards the Promised Land. In other words, my response is less theological and more humanistic (although I am not a humanist, but a religious Jew). I do not think that the Exodus went the way God planned, because we Israelites had a way of stubbornly getting in our own way over and again. So, for example, in Psalm 105 there is a reference to God providing quail - but that happened two times, and the second was actually a punishment for how we complained that we were tired of manna and had better food in Egypt - so that the quail came until it was coming out of our nostrils (Num. 11:1-20).
What I am trying to express is that the Exodus, as the primary narrative of the Jewish people is less about God's plans and more about the nexus where we and God meet. It is about God's extraordinary generosity, and reliability. It is about remembering that we have humble origins, that our successes are tied to God, and that in turn helps to remind us to be humble, to look after each other (and not just other Jews BTW), and most especially those who are most vulnerable in our community. It connects us to God intimately and profoundly, and it connects us to each other. As the genetic descendants of the Israelites, it is also our family story and we read it as such.
Before I ramble on any further, let me try to reel this in with a more concise frame. The story of the Exodus (as I define it), is in my opinion the central and defining narrative of Jewish tradition - everything else that follows is in some way connected to this story. However, the Exodus itself is predicated on another, more theological frame, which is the covenant between Israel and God, as first expressed by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Exodus is definitive because it demonstrates God's fulfillment of the covenantal promise and reminds us to make sure to do our part. However, it is one moment in time, and the story is repeated in one way or another in each generation. My teacher Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes that Jewish spirituality can be summed up as the repeating cycle of exile and return. The Exodus was the first great return from exile, and most dramatic. Yet for us as individuals and as a people, this is a recurring experience. In other words, it is not just that the Exodus is what we build everything on, but rather something we are still experiencing.
I hope this helps. Good luck with the paper!
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Anyone familiar with the Game of Thrones series (whether in its printed or video forms) knows the phrase: “winter is coming.” Filled with ominous foreboding, these words are intended to inspire caution so that we will prepare for the very worst we can imagine, because in the story-line it is coming – and then some.
Here in Western New York, we are no strangers to cold and long winters. February (and sometimes January) have always felt like the coldest months to me. If you live anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line chances are that you are also feeling the cold; and if you are recovering from the big blizzard in the mid-atlantic region you might also be wishing for an early spring!
“Winter is coming” is a terrifying concept. As Jews we have lived in “cold” times of crisis, when anti-Semitism grew and we faced ever-increasing persecution, harm and even death. However, “winter is coming” is not really a Jewish approach to life.
What is a Jewish approach?
This evening we will celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees. Tu B’Shvat is one of my favorite Jewish holidays, because it recognizes that there is more to winter than meets the eye. Tu B’Shvat boldly proclaims that winter is not a time of death. Rather, it is the time when, hidden beneath the surface, the process of new life is already beginning. Tu B’Shvat reminds us to look beyond the surface, and to recognize that when it feels like all is winter, God is with us - and “spring is coming.”
[This letter, to which I am proud to attach my name, was published in the Buffalo News on January 14. I consider it a true blessing to be able to partner with the Reverend George Nicholas of Concerned Clergy, Bishop R. William Franklin of the Episcopal Church and Bishop Richard Malone of the Catholic Church in the fight against poverty here in Buffalo.]
By George Nicholas and R. William Franklin
Pope Francis has said that in a world with so much wealth and so many resources, it is unfathomable that so many live in poverty. He calls poverty in today’s world a “scandal.” Poverty strips people of their dignity. To see it so rampant in our city is indeed a scandal.
While Francis speaks as the leader of the Catholic Church, the truths about which he speaks transcend Catholicism and even Christianity. Across faiths, there is a call to ensure dignity for everyone.
Whether that sentiment is expressed as “love your neighbor as yourself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or to “regard your neighbor’s loss as your own,” the command is the same – to work toward the dignity of all of God’s children.
As clergy, we feel the call to heed this commandment. It guides our actions and shapes our ministries. It has foundational significance for each of our religions and allows us to reach across faiths to unite with the singular goal of alleviating poverty in Buffalo.
Our historic union of religious leaders established a working group to discuss how we could better the economic circumstances of our brothers and sisters in Buffalo.
As we explored options, we heard from many that another “handout” was not the answer. Social programs serve as safety nets and don’t provide permanent solutions to the problems of unemployment, underemployment or the absence of opportunities. It is said that the highest rung on the ladder of charity is to “help people help themselves.” This is what people are asking for – a strategic effort to bring opportunities to the most impoverished sections of Buffalo.
To this end, we put our collective voices behind the efforts of Assemblyman Sean Ryan and call for the establishment of the Hiring and Investing in Real Employment program (HIRE Buffalo) to connect high-quality jobs to the sections of the city facing extreme concentrations of poverty.
We are grateful for the economic boom that has come to Buffalo. But, if a decade from now, businesses have brought jobs to the area, yet portions of our city still have a poverty rate over 50 percent, then the economic renaissance is a mirage. The measure of true resurgence is found not in how much wealth the rich can accumulate, but by how many we can lift out of poverty.
The poverty rate was a key reason Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the Buffalo Billion. We call on Empire State Development to complete the circle and connect the jobs coming to Buffalo with our brothers and sisters in need.
It is our duty to live a life that protects the dignity of everyone; it is also our duty to call on others to do the same.
[In addition to the Rev. George Nicholas and Bishop R. William Franklin, this letter was signed by Bishop Richard J. Malone and Rabbi Gary Pokras.]
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras