My favorite teacher

Dear AE (initials only for privacy),

I saw your social media post announcing your retirement from teaching after an incredible 33 years. I know that we have not been in touch formally, though we are friends on Facebook. It seemed like given your exciting announcement it is the perfect moment to share with you what an incredible gift you gave me by being my teacher.

Without a doubt, when I am asked, “who was your favorite teacher,” your name quickly exits my lips, Mrs. E.  And no, I still won’t call you by your first name. If memory serves (and being that high school was few moons ago it is foggy), you taught me math for three years in high school. I think there may have been one horrendous semester when I had another instructor, such mistakes were only made once.

To say that math and I had a complicated relationship is to put it mildly. Though I was in the “advanced” math classes culminating in AP Calculus my senior year, math was always a struggle for me. I worked really hard, spent countless hours in your classroom after school getting extra help, and still struggled. I don’t think we ever figured out why I could solve a calculus problem on your whiteboard, but struggled on the lined paper and pencil at my desk. As your student you taught me that to a great educator sees every student for who they are and does everything within reason to see that lightbulb in their eyes that they understood the concepts. Maybe even more than the content is the process to get to that knowledge. You devoted countless hours to me and to so many of your other students and we are all better people for your unwavering devotion.

As an educator myself, I have been asked to identify a memorable moment in my own educational journey. It takes a few seconds for me to remember you sitting in your classroom in what was then the “new” wing at MHS. You were sitting on a stool at the overhead projector (yes I’m that old) teaching AP Calculus. You put down your pen, for some reason I remember green ink, and said, “Today is the most important day of your life. Today you learn that the integral is the reverse of a derivative,” and continued to prove to us why. [Full disclosure: I needed to search the internet to remember what was the reverse of a derivative]. If you could have played music and make fireworks explode for visual excitement on the overhead projector you would have done it. Math mattered so much to you and your excitement and energy for these concepts was infectious for all of your learners.

Mrs. E you went above and beyond to be present for your students. Due to my extensive after school hours working on math in your room we got to know one another pretty well. The holiday of Passover approached and you asked me some questions about my family’s observance that quickly led to an invitation to our family Seder for my remaining high school years.

My teenage years were not easy for me and there were some particularly difficult experiences at MHS. You support and the safe space you created for me in your classroom were a refuge for a young woman struggling to make her way through socially. Thank you for that, too.

I will never forget that you came to offer condolences to me after my mom died, I even tear up writing these words, 13 years after I graduated from high school. That lesson continues to guide me even these many years later. Good teachers show up when it matters most.

Mrs. E, if you will permit a rabbi (maybe your only student to be a rabbi??) to offer you a blessing on your retirement, it would be my honor.

May the abundant talents that you have continue to be blessings for all of those who you encounter as you enter this next fabulous phase of your life. May God continue to bless you with good health, abundance, precious time with family, and exciting adventures. May the blessings that you bestowed unto your hundreds of students come back to you as unexpected gifts and blessings on your journey. Amen.

If we are ever in the same city you and your family will always have a place of honor at my Passover Seder table, and should we see one another again, I will even make you those macaroons you liked so much. Congratulations on your much deserved retirement, Mrs. E!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What a Basketball Star Teaches about Antisemitism

Here is my sermon from Friday night.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles there were many advantages. Surely one of them were the Los Angeles Lakers of 1987 and 1988. Playing center was the graceful Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whose iconic skyhook was one of the most graceful basketball shots of all time. Even today I can close my eyes and see Magic Johnson bringing the ball down the court and finding Kareem who seamlessly moved his 7 foot 2 inch frame into position away from a defender and released the basketball in a perfect arc with just the right amount of back spin. Kareem was a basketball fan’s dream center; fast, tall, quick hands, and an excellent free point shooter. Today, decades later, Kareem continues to be an exemplar for new reasons.

This week Kareem wrote a piece calling out the recent round of antisemetic tweets and posts from Black sports and entertainment celebrities. The rapper Ice Cube, NFL player DeSean Jackson, NBA player Stephen Jackson, said and wrote antisemetic messages that are cause for alarm for everyone.

Kareem wrote:

Recent incidents of anti-Semitic tweets and posts from sports and entertainment celebrities are a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation. Given the New Woke-fulness in Hollywood and the sports world, we expected more passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.

When reading the dark squishy entrails of popular culture, meh-rage in the face of sustained prejudice is an indisputable sign of the coming Apatholypse: apathy to all forms of social justice. After all, if it’s OK to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be OK to do the same to others. Illogic begets illogic.[1]

Kareem’s warning of the coming Apatholypse, a widening sense of apathy of social justice and a myriad of other issues ought to be a warning to each of us. When we as a faith community stop ringing the alarm bells at injustice, we become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

We need to harken to our own calendar warnings for apathy, too. We are amid the period in our tradition known as the three weeks that mark the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, dates of trouble and turmoil for our people. The Mishna teaches that Moses broke the first set of tablets of the 10 Commandments on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans forbade sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 69 CE, and in the year 70 the Romans breeched the Temple walls leading to the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.[2] These three weeks are a period of semi-mourning and decreasing joy for some Jews as they lead into the nine days of the month of Av, traditionally a day with a 25-hour like Yom Kippur when we read the book of Lamentations. The destruction of the Temple though historically caused by the Romans and their conquest of the lands of the Middle East as the Roman Empire expanded has a different root theologically and on the psyche of the Jewish people. The Temple, the epicenter for Jewish life at the beginning of the millennium, is destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, unwarranted apathy of people towards one another.[3]

We know the perils of apathy and we cannot afford to be silent when we begin to hear antisemitic tropes ever. A pandemic cannot quiet us. Our alliance with our siblings of color screaming for systemic change to the racist systems of oppression cannot distract us either.

Our Reform movement’s Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a statement today that clarifies our position. The statement says:

Some in our country are resistant to the overdue changes and glimmer of hope which are blossoming for Black Americans at this moment of national reckoning. However, their efforts to impede important coalitions of change and sow seeds of division belie the fact that when any of us are oppressed, we are all oppressed. We as Reform Jews will not allow antisemitic words from individual members of an oppressed minority to diminish our support of Black lives or detract from our commitment to the dismantling of systemic and structural racism in our country. Instead of questioning the commitment of others, we reaffirm our own.[4]

We need to call out antisemitism every single time it rears its ugly head. We need to continue to educate ourselves and our allies so that our enemies’ attempts at fueling the fire of hatred get no oxygen. We need to be what Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin called “angelic troublemakers,” we cannot rest or be part of the Apatholypse because the threats to justice overwhelm us or seem like someone else’s problem. The book of Lamentations concludes with a verse we know well, “hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem, bring us back to You, Adonai, that we come back, renew our days as of old.”[5] May our weary souls find strength in our Eternal God and may our faith strengthen us as we root out baseless hatred in our hearts and in our world. Amen.



[2] Taanit 4:6.

[3] Yoma 9b.


[5] Lamentations 5:21.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Passover 5780/2020

Every time I open my refrigerator I can smell it. That pungent, spicy horseradish root is permeating the space and wafts out the fridge door every time I open it. Passover is coming and my maror (bitter herb) is ready.

Passover this year will not be like any celebration before for any of us. Like many families in this time of physical distancing and social connection, my wife and I will celebrate the first Seder (Passover ritual meal) at our table without anyone else in person. We will be using an online platform to connect across the miles with close family and dearest friends, familiar faces at our Seder table now seen only via screen.

This is going to be hard. And that maror on our Seder plate is a reminder that Jews know hard and bitter times. Without a long recounting of thousands of years of history, I can say that Jewish creativity and innovation is also a part of the history of Passover . The Seder is our annual retelling of the Exodus. This narrative is not a story of people who lived long ago, it is my story, it is our story. In every generation each individual is obligated  to see themselves as though they went out from the Narrow Place/Egypt. We have known bitter times and narrow places. This Passover is happening while our world is in a narrow place and we will make it through.

I also have a confession. I don’t like horseradish. I don’t like it in any form, even wasabi. I always eat enough to fulfill the obligation for the bitter herb/maror moment of the Seder is sanctified with blessing, I think this year I might eat a little extra. I want to allow myself  the sensory experience of the fire in my sinuses. And those tears in my eyes? They may or may not be from the horseradish root. We shall see.

This Passover is definitely going to be different. May you embrace all of the feelings as you gather for Seder this year, however you are gathering. May you and all of those you love know safety and good health. May this time of physical distancing come to a conclusion when it is safe, so that we may all be together again.

Our Seder always concludes with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem!” To this I add, “next year around the table with those we love!” Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Shabbat is almost here

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Shabbat. This week leaves me anxious and exhausted, my soul yearns to be refreshed. This week in the Torah we read, “The People of Israel shall guard Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a sign of the special relationship, the covenant, for all time,” (Ex. 31:16). On the Shabbat may our souls be refreshed and renewed. May we take lots of healthy breaths. May we observe physical distancing from the people that we encounter and great them, instead, with words of warmth and welcome. May we remember our blessings and express gratitude to God for them today and every day. May we know rest and renewal. Shabbat Shalom.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What about parsnips?

Dear MOM,

I am so excited for Passover this year. The opportunity to celebrate with family and friends is so precious. And for some reason, Passover is becoming one of my favorite holidays (look out Sukkot). We are hosting Seder this year and in the familial distribution of Seder responsibilities, chicken soup is my job. I have made chicken soup many times. But this time I wanted you.

“Mom, parsnips. Why don’t you use parsnips in your soup?” I may or may not have said hello first when I called. Sometimes we did that. Oh how I wanted to pick up the phone and call you. That happens a lot.

Mom, your soup was the best. It is the gold standard to which I hold all chicken soup. Broth that never needed anything extra, the savory taste of slowly cooked stock with carrots for me, and matzo balls that float (never sinkers in our family!). I can see you in the kitchen making it when I close my eyes. I know what pots you used depending on the quantity of soup, and I even remember the secret ingredient.

But, parsnips. Why didn’t you use parsnips?

I have guesses. You never liked cooked carrots and didn’t have any in your soup bowl. I know because you and MY SISTER used to give them to me. Cooked parsnips might have fallen into the “cooked carrot” category for you. I bet your mom didn’t use parsnips and with some recipes, never written down, you made them just as you watched her. Could your soup be her soup? And finally, you liked your soup savory and parsnips may have added too much sweetness for you.

Passover is the opportunity for the annual telling of the sacred narrative of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, our people have performed a version of the rites of the Seder meal, and, like any evolving tradition, there are adaptations and interpretations for the time in which we live.

Mom, your soup might have competition. Because this year the soup has parsnips. I think you’d like it.

Happy Passover. I love you and miss you fiercely,

Your Ellie

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Learning Torah in memory of a friend

Reading this article brought a flood of wonderful memories.

I was eleven years old when my family moved from Los Angeles to a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. My parents visited St. Paul a few times in preparation for our big move, they bought a house, selected a synagogue, and made friends who would become our family of choice.

Bill Kampf loved many things. First and foremost he loved his family and his friends. He loved Judaism and Jewish tradition. He loved to argue, politics, to drive fast in extremely specific vehicles, Minnesota, spicy food, and the law.

Bill taught me to drive a manual transmission (though I think the last time I did it was when I was in high school). Our families would often meet for non-traditional Shabbat dinner before going to services at our shared synagogue. Often we ate Vietnamese food and Bill always arrived late. Bill loved the music at services and he loved having a connection to the clergy.

One summer during college I worked in Bill’s law practice doing odd jobs. It was thanks to that experience that I gained the incredibly valuable skill of removing paper jams from copy machines. The Torah study group that is described in the article met, at that time, in Bill’s office and one of my tasks was to take lunch orders and, as I knew rabbinical school was on the horizon, to participate as part of my work day. (I also think Bill always bought my lunch).

Today, when I read this article I too remembered Bill and will continue to study and learn in his memory. Zichrono livracha, may Bill’s memory always be for a blessing.

Posted in clergy, Torah | Leave a comment

Kol Nidre sermon and sermon song

It took a  little longer than I’d planned, however here is a video of my Kol Nidre sermon, Embrace the “And” and the sermon song “Simple Song” by Leonard Bernstein sung by MY SISTER, the cantorial soloist. This video was shot by an amateur intended for MY DAD who planned to come to worship with us, however got sick (he’s fine now) and was unable to do so. (If you only want to hear “Simple Song” it begins at about 15:15).

Posted in family, holidays, Temple Beth Hillel, Torah | 1 Comment

Embrace the “And”

“Embrace the “And”,” my sermon for Kol Nidre 5779 is below.

The part of the river used as a mikveh for ritual immersion was situated high atop a steep hill on the outskirts of Premishlan. When the road leading up to it was slippery, people had to take the long way around the hill, for to walk straight uphill was dangerous. Reb Meir, the Rebbe of Premishlan, always took the direct route up, irrespective of the state of the road, and was never known to stumble or slip. One snowy day, when the icy mountain paths were es­pecially hazardous, Reb Meir walked uphill to the river as usual. Two guests were staying in the area… These young men did not believe in supernatural achievements, and when they saw Reb Meir striding uphill with sure steps as usual, they con­vinced themselves and each other that the road up there was no doubt easily scaled, and not in the least dangerous. In order to prove their theory, they waited until Reb Meir had begun immersing in the river, and then set out confidently up the icy hillside road. After only a few steps on the treach­erous trail, they slipped and tumbled down the path, requiring medical attention for their injuries. When one of the young men was fully healed, he mustered the courage to approach the rebbe with a question: “Why was it that no one could negotiate the slippery road, while the Rebbe walked with sure steps, never stumbling?”

Reb Meir replied: “If a man is connected on high, he doesn’t fall down below. Meir is tied up on high, and that is why he can take even a slippery hill in his stride.”[i]

The Hebrew letter, vav looks like a hook or a chute which connects us to God’s heavenly realm. Like the vav, tonight we stand tall for we are the embodiment of the letter vav, grounded in this world and connected to God’s heavenly realm.  It is this day that we stand before the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe, Infinite Potential, and ask for forgiveness, atonement, and of course, using the metaphor of these days of awe, to be written and sealed in the book of life for another year.

In Modern Hebrew, the preposition vav means ‘and’. “And” is a joining word, it helps us to connect things in both Hebrew and English. On this, the night of Kol Nidre, we all need to embrace more hooks and chutes that connect us to God and our tradition, to more “and” in our lives. I am not suggesting that we add more things to make us busier or more stuff. There is enough of that. I propose that we all can do better in creating a balance between all of the parts of our identities, especially our Jewishness and our spirituality. We can be people of faith and we can have questions. We can be good parents and dedicated workers. We can be Americans and Jews. It seems to me that most of us are losing our minds trying to balance between all of the roles and responsibilities that we have. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote, “beware of split thinking, schizophrenic thinking! When you are confronted with ‘Either/Or,’ think again! Look for ‘Both/And.’ Yes, there is night and light, but there is one day.”[ii] This juggling of identities and even the juggling of priorities is making us exhausted. Instead of either/or, we need to embrace the “and”.

When my sister Jessica, I mean Cantorial Soloist Steinman, was six years old she was obsessed with the 1961 movie Westside Story. And when I say obsessed, I mean that we had to watch it every single day for nearly a year and probably still to this day can recite every dialogue line and sing every lyric. And so it was probably thanks to my sister that I also learned and fell in love with Leonard Bernstein’s music.

This year there have been numerous celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. And I am hard-pressed to think of another Jewish American who embodies this idea of ‘and’ more than he did, especially as it pertains to Jewishness and being an American.

[iii]Leonard Bernstein was the child of Ukranian immigrants, who lived the American dream, eventually owning and operating their own successful business. The Bernsteins moved from the outskirts of Boston to Boston proper and joined the most prestigious synagogue in town, Mishkan Tefila. The synagogue building was in the center of the city’s Jewish neighborhood and the community constructed a sumptuous building and included the second largest organ in New England, the first being in Symphony Hall.

The Bernstein family became synagogue regulars on Shabbat and holidays. Leonard and his siblings attended the high quality Hebrew school program that took place five days per week. Yes, five days a week. I don’t want to hear any kvetching about a one-day a week program ever again. Leonard Bernstein loved it. He graduated from the program with honors after five years of study. As he trained to become bar Mitzvah, he broke with the congregation’s tradition which was for the students to present ready made speeches and delivered an articulate and personally crafted d’var Torah.[iv]

Leonard Bernstein loved his synagogue and all that he learned there. Most of all he loved the music. He explained:

We were of the Conservative persuasion …. which allowed for an organ and a choir in a hidden choir loft, and when they let rip I used to go mad! We had a fabulous cantor who was a great musician and a beautiful man, very tall, very majestic. He would begin to sing the ancient tunes—they are not exactly melodies, because they are not really written down; they’re traditional, handed down orally—and he had a tenor voice of such sweetness and such richness—with a dark baritonal quality, I now realize; I didn’t know a tenor from a baritone in those days—and then the organ would start and then the choir would begin with its colors, and I just began to get crazed with the sound of choral music.[v]

While he clearly loved the cantor and his voice, Bernstein’s greatest musical mentor and inspiration in these early years of his life was the music director of the congregation, Solomon Braslavsky. Trained in Vienna, Braslavsky brought musical renown to the synagogue. An eight-year-old Leonard Bernstein attending Friday night services with his father was moved to tears by the sound of the music, and especially the organ that made it seem as though God was speaking. In truth, because the organ pipes were hidden high from view, as the sound cascaded down, to a young child, God was in fact making this music. Braslavsky created musical programs that fused Jewish and Yiddish music with Western classical musical traditions. It was in the synagogue where Bernstein first heard Giuseppe Verdi, Felix Mendelsohn, Ernest Bloch, and Franz Schubert. It took some years for Leonard Bernstein and his siblings to understand that Dr. Braslavsky was not writing this music himself.

Braslavsky’s mentorship of Leonard Bernstein was immersive. Bernstein learned to chant Torah, haftarah, and the chants for the festival scrolls. His synagogue involvement was a vital part of his upbringing, so significant were the relationships Leonard Bernstein made at Mishkan Tefila, it was the clergy who wrote recommendation letters that led to his acceptance into Harvard. He was married at Mishkan Tefila, and much later his children would become b’nai Mitzvah there as well.

Once Leonard Bernstein found music, there was no keeping him from it. Wherever there was a piano, he would play it.  He would become the youngest conductor of the New York Philharmonic at age 25. He was the first American born and American trained conductor to lead a major orchestra. And as he began to compose, the Jewish music of the synagogue served as a backbone to his compositions. In his first symphony, Jeremiah, Bernstein utilizes Hebrew and the haftarah trope. In the third movement he turns to Eicha, Lamentations, possibly written by the prophet Jeremiah and uses the special trope for that biblical book, too.

And in his works from the 1960s like Dybbuk and the Kaddish Symphony, the sounds of the synagogue of his youth returned to his compositions. Even in his 1971 Mass, a piece commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, his Jewishness could not be held back. Bernstein and his collaborator, Stephen Schwartz,

Took the Tridentine Mass, a highly-ritualized Catholic rite meant to be recited verbatim, and applied to it a very Jewish practice of debating and arguing with God. The result was a piece that powerfully communicated the confusion and cultural malaise of the early 1970s, questioning authority and advocating for peace.[vi]

Leonard Bernstein is the first American composer whose background in synagogue music makes a marked impression upon all areas of his work. Whether it was Westside Story, Candide, On the Town, On the Waterfront, Wonderful Town, or his sonatas, fugues or symphonies the sounds he heard as a child and his excellent education musically and Jewishly come through.

Bernstein was a proud Jew. He refused to change his name to something more American. And he was a Zionist with a strong connection to Israel. He conducted the then Palestine Philharmonic in 1947 and would go on to help found and regularly conduct the Israel Philharmonic. He helped forge the creative arts and music program at my alma mater, Brandeis University.

Leonard Bernstein lived an “and” life. He was a great American composer and he was not the greatest lyricist.  He was a father and a man who struggled with his sexual identity. He was an American and he never hid his Jewish identity.

I don’t know if we have any composers or conductors in our presence tonight the likes of Bernstein. However, we are all here as human beings searching for meaning. So how do we add some more “and” to our lives? Perhaps we can learn from comedy.

In improvisational comedy, “yes, and” is an important technique. As Tina Fey explains it:

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for wax figures.” … Now we’re getting somewhere.[vii]

Fey continues:

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.[viii]

Our lives are an improvisation. And they are varied, beautiful, difficult, wonderful, challenging, inspiring, and meaningful. And it is when we embrace the “and” that we are best able to bring our full selves to it.

Yom Kippur comes to remind us to be like a vav, to embrace the and, to stand tall with a hook into heaven, to be fully present, to allow the music of our tradition and the words of the ancient Hebrew to connect us to God and to our Jewish family on this sacred day. And, the challenge is to stay connected all year long.

Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shabbaton, is the day for re-centering ourselves, connecting to our own successes and failures and committing to do better in the New Year. It is the day when we speak aloud of faults, name our vulnerabilities, and come out at the end, we pray, with direction and focus to be our best selves every day of this New Year. The haunting melody Kol Nidre tugs at our hearts as does the sound of the shofar like an alarm to be like a vav with our feet planted and still connected on high to our Jewish heritage, to God. The challenge is for this to be a day that infuses our souls with meaning that we carry on to every day.

So, in order to embrace the “and” in this New Year we can say YES AND. We can contribute with positivity, good intentions, and know those things will be reciprocated from others. We can meet with people with whom we might disagree and we can make sure they are our adversary not our enemy. We can continue to find ways to infuse Judaism into our lives and go about our daily business. To read Jewish books and articles, listen to Jewish podcasts from which we can learn new things. And if they’re of the right age, ensure that our children’s Jewish education is a priority. We can make sure our kids finish homework, get to soccer, baseball, and dance and that they are present for their Jewish learning and community. We can work hard to provide for our families and we can give tzedakah.  We can stand tall like the letter vav and be vulnerable to the mysteries of the universe. And like Leonard Bernstein, we can be American and Jewish.

As it says in the Torah portion we will read tomorrow, it is not too hard for us to do, it is just as easy as a simple song.

**The sermon anthem was “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass.




[i] From A Treasury of Chassidic Tales, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., NY, 1980; 1992.

[ii] Wolpe, David. “Honoring the and” The New York Jewish Week, July 11, 2018.

[iii] I took an online course with Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth on June 25, 2018. Much of this material comes from that webinar.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, p. 30.


[vii] Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little Brown and Company, 2011. P. 84.

[viii] Ibid.

[1] From A Treasury of Chassidic Tales, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., NY, 1980; 1992.

[1] Wolpe, David. “Honoring the and” The New York Jewish Week, July 11, 2018.

[1] I took an online course with Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth on June 25, 2018. Much of this material comes from that webinar.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid, p. 30.


[1] Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little Brown and Company, 2011. P. 84.

[1] Ibid.

Posted in family, Temple Beth Hillel | Tagged , | 1 Comment

We’ve All Gone to Look for America

Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon.

Shana tovah, happy new year.

Last winter I traveled to Washington, DC with six of our TBH teenagers to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. It was a jam-packed weekend in which we celebrated Shabbat, learned about a variety of issues before Congress such as homelessness, bail reform, and foreign aid. There was also time to see some of the monuments and museums that make Washington, DC a special place.

Washington DC, as we all know, is where large marches and actions happen. While our little group was traveling across the country, the March for Life took place. If you don’t know, the March for Life’s purpose is to “end abortion by uniting, educating, and mobilizing pro-life people in the public square.”[i] Many groups support this annual event that includes a weekend filled with a variety of activities, especially for young people who are bused to town with their high schools and dioceses to participate.

Our students did not know that this event coincided with their L’Taken weekend until we arrived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The 500 Reform Jewish teenagers who filled many yellow school buses were ready to go and experience this museum, fully aware that it might not be easy. I gathered my six teens together and gave them minimal directions and asked them to meet me in the Hall of Remembrance at the appointed time. I encouraged them to experience the museum in a way that felt comfortable for them.

I kept my eyes on my teens and made my way through the overwhelmingly crowded museum. And as I walked down through the permanent exhibits I was struck by the March for Life teens easily identified by their t-shirts that said, “unborn lives matter,” or “March for Life,” and red “Make America Great Again” hats, juxtaposed with our Reform Jewish teenagers, many wearing their women’s march, youth group and NFTY t-shirts.

As I made my way to the Hall of Remembrance, soon followed by our teenagers I had a bit of a mess on my hands. I expected some emotions at the powerful exhibits contained within the museum’s permanent collection. What I could not have planned for was the shock and disbelief of our teens at the other teenagers visiting the museum. We moved to a more appropriate location and spent a few moments processing their encounter with such large numbers of teenagers whose political and religious views, based solely on the hats, t-shirts, and religious iconography they were wearing, differed so drastically from their own. Though they each knew one or two people whose opinions on political issues varied including family members, classmates, and family friends, they had never been around so many people whose views they did not share.

This is the reality of living in our blue bubble in Los Angeles, California. And as a result, in this age of hyper-connectivity, most of us are more disconnected than ever from our fellow Americans.

It is no great secret that when we look at a map during any period of polling or following an election that Americans hold a variety of opinions on political issues and candidates. The challenge today is that the people who vote differently than we do, who support a differently political party, do not live anywhere near us. We don’t run into them at the grocery store, on the ball field, at synagogue, or the mall.

In Los Angeles County for the June 2018 primary election 83% of eligible voters registered to vote.[ii] Of those 83% of voters, 51% registered democrats, 18% registered republican, 2% independent, and less than 1% registered to the Green Party.[iii] In the last presidential election 72% of LA County voters selected Hillary Clinton, 22.5% of voters selected Donald Trump.[iv]

I share these statistics not because they are political. I present them to you to demonstrate the like-mindedness in voting in our county. And what happens here is precisely what is happening all over the country; places are becoming strongly red or blue. Purple, the blending of republicans and democrats leading to hotly contested elections between parties, is elusive on any election map.

In the 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing deconstruct migration in American in the last several decades and the role that movement has had on many areas, especially elections. Bishop and Cushing found that:

As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics. … Over the past thirty years, the United States has been sorting itself, sifting at the most microscopic levels of society, as people have packed children, CDs, and the family hound and moved. Between 4 and 5 percent of the population moves each year from one county to another—100 million Americans in the past decade. … When people move they also make choices about who their neighbors will be and who will share their new lives. Those are now political decisions, and they are having a profound effect on the nation’s public life. … In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties.[v]

Perhaps the great sages Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle said it best when they claimed, “we’ve all gone to look for America.” Communities of overwhelming sameness are not American.  America is a country that thrives upon diversity of all kinds; race, religion, gender, views on foreign aid, big or small government, even sports team allegiance.

When reflecting upon the writers that influenced him, the late Philip Roth beautifully reflected on America of the 20th century. He wrote:

The writers who shaped and expanded my sense of America were mainly small-town Midwesterners and Southerners. None were Jews. What had shaped them was not the mass immigration of 1880-1910, which had severed my family from the Old Country constraints of a ghetto existence… but the overtaking of the farm and the farmer’s indigenous village values by the pervasive business culture and its profit-oriented pursuits. These were writers shaped by the industrialization of agrarian America … which, by providing jobs for that horde of cheap unskilled immigrants, expedited the immigrant absorption into society and the Americanization, largely by way of the public-school system, of the immigrant offspring. … They were made, in short, by the force that has been at the heart of the national experience since the country’s inception, and that drives the national legend still: relentless, destabilizing change and the bewildering conditions that come in its wake—change on the American scale and at the American speed. Radical impermanence as an enduring tradition.[vi]

Roth is describing his personal influences, and simultaneously, he identifies a story that many Ashkenazi Jews will find paralleled in our own families. The experience of our ancestors’ immigration whether we like it or not, is the foundation of our American experience today for we are their inheritors. Instead of doing what they did, adapting to change, we 21st century Americans live with relentless change by closing ourselves off. We isolate ourselves and seek out people with whom we agree. We keep people around who are more and more ‘like us.’

Sameness and uniformity of opinion are not Jewish values. We value healthy debate, discussion, and a multiplicity of opinions! In Mishnah Avot we learn, “every argument for the sake of heaven’s name is destined to endure. But, if it is not for the sake of heaven’s name—it is not destined to endure.”[vii] A disagreement of this type, known as machloket l’shem shamayim, disputes for the sake of Heaven, are best exemplified in our tradition by the schools of Hillel and Shammai whose disputes over matters of law are preserved in the Mishnah and Talmud.

For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha [the Jewish legal ruling] is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. [How were they kind and gracious?] They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.[viii]

Imagine! Two parties disagree over a vital societal issue who are well versed in Jewish law yet they can still disagree productively AND function in society together. It is like the classic rivalry between any two schools. In my family we joke that my parents had a mixed marriage. They both grew up in Los Angeles and my dad attended LA High and my mom went to Fairfax High and yet they created a beautiful home and family. The ancient world of Hillel and Shammai was no different. We learn in the Talmud:

Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from Beit Shammai. [With regard to] purity and impurity where these ruled [a matter] pure and these ruled [it] impure, they did not refrain from using [utensils] the other deemed pure.[ix]

Hillel and Shammai’s students weren’t enemies. They were mishpacha, family! They sat at yontif dinner together and did not argue over whether or not the plates were kosher, how Chanukah candles were lit, or the mezuzah was hung the correct way on the door.

I think the nation that we want to live in, the America we want to know is not monolithic. It is multi-faceted, filled with differences that are respected, and replete with a shared patriotism that is enriched by diversity.

Today, Rosh Hashanah, is the birthday of the world, the beginning of humanity. That’s right, it is the celebration of our humanness, not our Jewishness. In this new year the challenge for us is to seek out the humanness in other people, especially those with whom we might disagree.

In his final statement to his fellow citizens, Senator John McCain wrote:

We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.[x]

We are living in uncertain times. If we want our country back we need to realize that the people with whom we disagree are adversaries not enemies. When we make them enemies we dehumanize them and create unending cycles of hate.

In The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity, Sally Kohn writes:

…what neuroscientists have been learning through a massive volume of research in the last few decades—is that like a computer, our brains are made up of hardware and software. The amygdala is part of our hardware and performs the same basic functions in all of us—like a processor or memory card in a computer we all buy from the same store. But what each of our particular amygdalae learns to fear or even hate, that’s what therapist Athena  Staik calls “soft-wired” information—specific coding written by our lives and the society around us. Which means it can be reprogrammed. Doing so starts with awareness.[xi]

Sally Kohn’s book talks about growing our brains. Here at Temple Beth Hillel we help grow hearts. We shape hearts when we are open to innovation and ideas. Open to God or the possibility of God, or comfortable sitting next to someone whose belief in God seems so meaningful to them. We shape hearts when we embrace families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and political leanings. We shape hearts when we use the Jewish values we teach here, to lead us to action in arenas big and small to create the world that we want to see. We shape hearts when we seek first to understand, listening deeply before we rush to judgment in the hallway, the parking lot and the board room. We shape hearts when we prioritize Jewish over convenient.

Our teenagers hearts were shaped that sunny January day in Washington, DC inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know this because they took all of the emotions they experienced and translated them into passionate advocacy speeches they delivered to Representative Brad Sherman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Senator Kamala Harris on separation of church and state, reproductive choice, and immigration reform. These speeches made a targeted request of our representatives to take a specific action on pending legislation rooted in Jewish values while being polite and professional. It is my hope more of our 8th-12th graders will travel with me this winter to the American South on a special Civil Rights journey so that we can continue forming hearts as we challenge their minds. Please see me after the holiday to find out more or if you are interested in helping to support our teen travel experiences.

May this Rosh Hashanah Day, the first day of this New Year, be the first of a year filled with potential for what will be. May we work and be invigorated in creating the America that we want to have. May we turn our political enemies into adversaries so, though we may never agree, we always remember they were created in the image of God just like we were. May we work tirelessly to grow our hearts and our minds. May we recognize the humanity in every person that we encounter every single time.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.





[v] Bishop, Bill and Robert G. Cushing. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing us Apart. p 5.

[vi][vi] Roth, Philip. (2017, June 5) I Have Fallen In Love with American Name. The New Yorker.

[vii] Avot. 5:17

[viii] Eruvin 13b

[ix] Misnah Yevamot 1:4

[x] August 29, 2018

[xi] Kohn, Sally. The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity. P. 149.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Happy 74th birthday, Mom

Dear Mom,

Happy birthday! It might seem strange to wish you a happy birthday when you’ve been gone now for almost eight years, nevertheless, happy birthday. Early this morning I looked through pictures, so many pictures, and the sadness of not being able to call you and sing felt overwhelming. You would love that and hate it in equal parts.

You’d love it because you loved the attention of a birthday. Always the life of the party and thrilled for any reason to celebrate, birthdays were always something special. I miss hearing your voice sing your ‘happy birthday’ song harmony. You’d hate it because I know you want me out there, living life, doing my thing. And you never liked it when I was sad. So I promise in honor of your birthday, the sadness will be temporary and I will go out and chase the day and bring lots of joy wearing your jewelry.

And don’t worry, MY SISTER and I will celebrate you after Shabbat in the best way we know how.

I miss you and love you forever,


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment