Jews Standing Up for Ourselves…Because So Few Others Do

People hold signs of support near the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on December 29, 2019 in Monsey, New York. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP)
Photo Credit: Kena Betancur

This Sunday there will be a Solidarity March in New York; it is a response to the terrible wave of anti-Semitic violence taking place in our nation. 
I remember when I was in Rabbinical School that I attended a march in Washington, DC, in solidarity with Soviet Jews.  Little did we know at the time that communism would fall in a few years and that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews would be emigrating.  I also recall participating in rallies in support of political and social justice causes that did not directly affect me but that I felt were important to our society.  I even brought my kids with me or made sure they knew about it; this kind of behavior reflected some of the best of what Judaism teaches.
It seems so strange that after Jews (and the organized Jewish Community) have marched and rallied and lobbied for decades on behalf of others we must now join together in order to protect ourselves.  I sincerely hope that just as we have stood up for others, others will stand up for us.
These are trying times.  We cannot be silent.  At the same time we cannot allow ourselves to be divided; this is precisely what anti-Semites want.  We cannot accuse others within the Jewish community of supporting the “wrong” political party; our tradition tells us that this kind of behavior brought about the destruction of the Second Temple.  We must focus on what unites us.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to make it to New York on Sunday.  Rest assured, though, there will be many opportunities to stand up and stand together–not just for ourselves but for others who are persecuted as well.  The struggle, I fear, is only just beginning.

Hello! (I must be going….)

Image result for hi my name is

There was a big question mark back when my 20th High School Reunion rolled around.  Would I go or wouldn’t I?  I hadn’t gone to any of my previous reunions–mainly because I was usually travelling or it took place on Shabbat, but also because I didn’t really enjoy high school that much.  I felt like I didn’t share a lot in common with most of the other students; I couldn’t get away to college fast enough.

When the time came, I did decide to attend.  I went in with the following rule:  “if you didn’t talk to me in high school, I’m not talking to you tonight.”  I was pretty defensive about it all, but as soon as I walked through the door, it was great to see old friends.  Past concerns melted away and they were replaced with warm memories and lots of laughs.

That was many years ago (when I lived in Toledo) and, while I have reconnected with a few on Facebook, most of them have once again drifted off.

That experience gives perhaps 1% of the drama and anxiety surrounding the 20-year reunion of Jacob and Esau in our weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach.  The last time I saw many of my classmates we were getting our diplomas; the last time the brothers saw each other one had stolen a blessing and the other was threatening to kill!  Despite Jacob’s trepidation and planning, the reunion went smoothly.  In one of the most touching scenes in the Torah they come together, hug and weep.  Overall, it is a fairly brief reunion and the two head their separate ways; they do come together again to bury their father, Isaac, when the time comes.

The story of these twins and memories of my high school reunion remind us all that people dear and not-so-dear come in and out of our lives at different times.  It is rare that friendships last throughout the various stages of our lives; when it comes to friends, usually there are only a few to whom we hold on over the decades.  Family, however, is another matter.  Ultimately, it is sad that Jacob and Esau were never really able to patch things up, and our tradition tells us that we still suffer the consequences of that rift.

Not every relationship can be saved.  Not every relationship deserves to be saved.  Perhaps the lesson is to make the most out of the time we have with those we love; we never really know just how long they will be a part of our lives.Shabbat Shalom!

78 Years Later

Arizona Memorial

This Shabbat is not only Parashat Vayetze, but it is also the 78th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the US into WWII.
By December 7, 1941, Nazi forces had occupied Poland for over two years and their control over other countries by conquest or acquiescence continued to grow.  The systematic persecution and murder of Jews had already begun.  The US stayed out of the war for many reasons; after Pearl Harbor, there was no choice but to enter the fray.
Historians can (and have) talked about why we did not get involved earlier, especially when there was so much intelligence about the atrocities occurring in Europe.  On a more personal level, we know that as human beings we tend to not get involved in matters unless they directly touch us.  Judaism, however, teaches us that we cannot sit idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters–whether or not they are actually relatives, coreligionists, or fellow citizens.  It is up to us to speak up and act whenever we see injustice.
Of course, this is easier said than done.  We are risk averse, and getting involved often means taking a risk.  We do know, though, that there are times when others have put their necks out for us; we know what it feels like to be helped.  We also know what it feels like to be abandoned.  Our experience shows us that we cannot sit by the sidelines; as Pearl Harbor Day reminds us, unless we confront evil and injustice, they will come and confront us.
We remember those who lost their lives on that terrible day and pray that we learn the lessons of WWII, a time that forever changed Jewish and human history.

And God Wouldn’t Let Him Sacrifice his Son Either

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“Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  That is the challenge that Abraham placed before God when he heard of the Lord’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham negotiated with God until they agreed that if 10 innocent people could be found, the cities would be spared destruction.
I think about the question posed by Abraham this Shabbat in the context of the epidemic of gun violence in our country.  Just yesterday another school shooting “swept away the innocent.”  Who in that school could have possibly been wicked?  Who deserves to have their life cut short in such a violent way?
The Constitution does guarantee the right to bear arms, but too often the 2nd Amendment seems to be an impediment to achieving the very aims of that same Constitution:  “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Too often it seems that the Constitution is used as a weapon itself, and the innocent are swept away along with the guilty.
Will we, like Abraham, raise our voices?  Will we protest?  Thoughts and prayers are nice but that is not what Abraham did.  He spoke truth to power.  Can we follow his example?

The Holocaust, Pushing Myself, and an Admission of how Weird I Am

Image result for columbus jcc obstacle course

Warning: this will be a strange post, but one that will give you some insight into what makes me tick…and how Judaism and Fitness intersect in my life.

When I was younger, I was not athletic at all. This was not helped by the fact that when I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease (and my weight had dropped to 69 pounds). I was not a healthy kid and athletics were not really a thing in my family to begin with.

There were members of my family who were survivors of the Holocaust, and even more who did not survive. I remember learning about the Holocaust when I was in elementary school (too early to see the kind of documentary footage that was shown to me). I remember thinking as a teenager that had I been alive then, I never would have survived. I could not have made it without my medicine. I was weak. I was pale. It sounds morbid, but in the minds of some Jewish people I think we ask ourselves what our fates would have been had we not had the fortune to be on this side of the Atlantic or in the Land of Israel back then

As I grew older, I spoke with cousins who were survivors and heard their stories. Some of them were sent on “death marches” as the war was coming to a close. Concentration and death camps were being dismantled and evacuated, and inmates were forced to walk (or run) westward away from the advancing Red Army. Those who could not keep up were shot or died along the way; some made it until the liberation. I am in awe of my relatives who made the walk despite terrible conditions, inappropriate clothing to protect them from the elements, and a starvation diet. How did they find the strength to go on? What choice did they have?

Over the years in my fitness journey, part of my motivation was to be “ready” physically if things should ever get bad, if history (God forbid) were to repeat itself. When I run and I get tired, I remember those on the forced marches and I push myself to go the distance. This was especially true when I used to train and compete on the Black Diamond Obstacle Course the JCC of Greater Columbus. If you are unfamiliar with the course, it is outstanding and the result of a great deal of effort by committed employees at the JCC there. For a couple of years, the obstacle course was my playground. Often during my training I would think about those living in the forests or on the run in the woods during that dark period; the obstacle course runs through a wooded area by the JCC and near Alum Creek so the setting seems reminiscent. Again, whenever I felt I couldn’t do an obstacle I thought about my relatives, and pushed myself a little further.

I don’t know if this is normal. I used to think I was maybe a little paranoid, but perhaps I am more of a realist. I pray that things will never get back to the terrible horrors of WWII, but now when I think about it, I am convinced that I would have a much better chance of surviving than I did as a teenager. I am fitter, have greater endurance, and have tested my mettle on a few occasions. But who knows?

This is not my total motivation for fitness. In actuality, I want to stay healthy for my wife and kids…and someday grand-kids (?). I want to get the most out of life for as long as I can. I want to be fit–not because of fears from the past, but because of my hope for the future.

I was going to write about self-doubt…but I wasn’t sure

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One of my clients recently shared with me that they are working on trying to defeat self-doubt–not just at the gym but in life in general.

This struck a chord with me as I think it probably does with all of us. Sometimes we listen to the voices of others who tell us we cannot accomplish something, but more often it is the voice inside our own head that is telling us that we are unable, unworthy, or even unlovable.

As a relatively new personal trainer (only in the industry for about 18 months), I have my doubts as well. I don’t know the name of every muscle. I don’t always know the perfect exercise for every issue presented to me right off the bat. I have self-doubts about the work that I do.

Funny thing is that it is really all in my head. My clients have no idea that sometimes I feel like I’m winging it. [Unless, of course, they read this blog post!] Then I see the results that my clients are getting and I wonder why I am doubting myself; they are making progress that pleasantly surprises me and them. I remember all the studying I did to past the ACE PT Exam, and all the continuing education and reading I have done since them. Then I tell myself, that maybe I actually do know what I am doing.

I realize that some of my self-doubt comes from being new at this. I remember when I first became a rabbi that I had doubts about my capabilities. When I graduated from seminary I was almost 29 years old; what did I know about anything? I would agonize over sermons, eulogies, classes I would teach, etc. Did members of my congregation even know? [Not unless, of course, the read this blog post!] To this day, I am still in contact with friends from my first pulpit and I hear stories about the difference I made. After 25+ years in the pulpit, I felt good about my “craft.” I was confident that I was able to help people and that I was even ready to mentor others. This came with years of experience–not in my first congregation.

I remind myself of this when self-doubt creeps up at the gym while I am training others; I cut myself some slack and tell myself I don’t have to be perfect. In fact, none of us has to be perfect. No one expects it from us: not our families, not our employers, not our partners, not even God. All we have to do is try to be the best we can be; it may not be enough for some, but that is their problem not mine.

Perhaps a New Year’s Resolution for 2020 will be for me to work on banishing self-doubt–not just at the gym but at life in general. As Stuart Smalley used to say on SNL, “I’m good enough and I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

The morning after…

Dia de los muertos

As I write this message it is Halloween night across America and Dia de los Muertos in many Spanish-speaking countries.  I have lots of memories of trick-or-treating as a kid…and of lots of candy too.  
I don’t want to comment on whether Jewish families should participate or not, but rather to note that the macabre focus on the dead in Halloween is foreign to Jewish tradition.  But wait…what about Yizkor…and Yahrzeits…and Kaddish…and sitting Shiva?  It is true that Judaism has a way of memorializing the departed, but death is never glorified.  Martyrdom is not something to be admired, but seen as a sometimes necessary evil.  The Kaddish prayer is a praise of God and doesn’t even mention death.  The Book of Psalms tells us that “the dead cannot praise You [God].”  In other words, the preference is to be alive.
The Torah teaches us that we always have a choice.  Life and death are before us, so “choose life.”  We do not know what happens after we are gone.  We do not know for sure about the full nature of the spiritual world.  All we can know for sure (and even that in a limited way) is the world of creation in which we live.  
It is for this reason that Judaism never came up with a Day of the Dead.  Rather, each day is a day to focus on living life to the fullest.  May we all be blessed with many years of good health and life!  Lechaim!