Regarding Today’s Shooting Tragedy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

We are saddened and horrified by the hate crime and act of terrorism that happened this Shabbat Morning at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Our thoughts go out to the families of the victims, the staff and members of the Tree of Life, the Jewish Community, and all who mourn.

We are grateful for the first responders and heroes whose actions saved lives and who do everything they can to protect and serve.

In light of this tragic event, rest assured that our leadership will be meeting to re-review our security plans to determine if any changes are necessary, as our security is of utmost and critical importance.

There is no place for hate in this world. Our wonderful teenager friends, DoNotHate.org who came to our congregation to dwell in our Sukkah and mingle with our teenagers, just sent me this beautifully articulated note, which I’d like to share with you:

“…those who destroy one life destroy an entire world”
Sanhedrin 4:5

 

Dear Rabbi Meeka,

 

Shalom.

As we continue to fight towards eradicating hate once and for all, we’d like to reemphasize our commitment to work together with the Jewish community. We condemn the despicable events that took place this morning at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Please accept our deepest condolences on behalf of the Jewish community and know that we stand by the Jewish community in Wayne, New Jersey, and all across the nation and especially our friends at TBT during these difficult times.

 

Please let us know if there is anything we can do on our end to ease the pain that you may be enduring.

 

This is not what America is. This is not what America stands for.

 

With deepest sympathies,

Tuana, Hayreddin, Muhammed, Yusuf, Izzet, and Esad

I will end with a prayer, written by Rabbi Edith Mencher. I think it addresses the feelings and pain we are feeling at the moment. It gives us the strength to know that we are not alone:

We stand in grief
With the devastated families in our community.

 

We weep
Over the incomprehensible loss of life.

 

We cry out
With shock, confusion, and pain.

 

We mourn together
Over this senseless act of violence and destruction.

 

Be with us, God, in this time of sorrow and fear.
Help us, God, to offer comfort
to those whose hearts are shattered.
Rekindle hope and trust and courage within us and them.
Help us, God, to sustain our belief in the promise
that even in the darkest times –
even when we feel most discourage –
there is reason to trust
that love is never extinguished
and that light and spirit will prevail.

 

Help us, God, to rededicate ourselves
to building a world that is safer for our children.
Help us, God, to rededicate ourselves
to building a world that is safer for all people.
During these difficult days and nights, God,
bring comfort and peace and hope and light
to broken hearts and a broken world.

 

May the one causes peace to reign in the high heavens, let peace descend on us, and on all Israel, and on all the world.

 

Together we say, amen.

 

Rabbi Meeka

Save the Date!

December 1, 2018

8 PM

Come to celebrate the holidays with your TBT family! 

More details to follow…

Yom Kippur: Ultimate Forgiveness

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

“What would you do if you woke up one morning, to find a huge swastika spray-painted on your garage or front door? How would you react?”

That was a question posted in one of the rabbinic list-serve discussion boards to which I subscribe.

Some responses included:

“I would call the police and local authorities, and ask them to start an immediate investigation,”

Or:

“I wouldn’t want my children to see this, so I would spray paint and cover it completely as soon as I could get my hands on a spray can.”

Other comments included rage, deep sadness, concerns, and a call for immediate radical, national action.

But I found myself in deep thought.

How would I react if I woke up to find a huge swastika painted on my own garage door? After all, I am, as far as I know, the first Rabbi to live in Pines Lake, a community that up until the 60’s was completely closed to Jews and people of color. 

First, I would not panic. I would not panic or get too upset because to me, painting a swastika on someone’s garage door, in the middle of the night, is a cowardly act of sin’at chinam, unjustified hatred. 

As a rabbi, I would want to take this opportunity to teach our community, and whoever did this, that my husband and I are pretty nice and cool people. To do this I would invite everyone in our community to come and draw pictures of love, flowers, rainbows and peace signs around that horrible symbol, while incorporating it’s 4 broken branches into one complete painting of colors and messages of love to other human beings. 

I would invite the local newspapers to engage with us. To write a story on how a “whole community of people gathered together, and turned one act of cowardice and hatred, into a joyous opportunity for community building. Then, I would send a note via social media to invite those who drew the swastika on our garage door, to a visit for tea, cookies, and talk.

Recognizing that mostly, acts of hatred and intimidation stem from fear, ignorance, or both – I would want to give to whoever did this, an opportunity to get to know us, and get them to witness first hand that THIS is just another human being, who has no horns. I would invite them to sit with Dave and I, pet our dogs, and ask them where they learned to hate us?

I would want all the children of Wayne, of appropriate age of course, to learn and read about this incident. I would want them to engage in conversations, while I go from school to school, from class to class, and teach our children that “hate” has no place here. Only love, community building, and acceptance.    

Now…

The likelihood for this hypothetical scenario happening here in our town these days is pretty slim, although Wayne had its share of KKK and German-American Bund activity. For example, before WW II there were restrictive housing agreements that excluded non-whites and Jews from desirable lake communities like, Pacanack Lake and Pines Lake. 

But things have been pretty harmonious for decades now. No open intolerance has been recorded recently as far as I know, and nowadays, other than that Confederate Flag which was erected about a month ago at the Paris Inn, thankfully, we don’t really hear about or experience major hate crimes in our Town of Wayne.

But not all small towns across our country, unfortunately, get to enjoy this type of relatively peaceful coexistence. 

“250 white supremacists marched across the University of Virginia campus with tiki torches, deliberately evoking images of medieval mobs and Klan-cross burnings,” Joe Heim reported of the alarming Alt-right events that took place in Charlottesville Virginia, exactly one year ago. 

“Then,” he continues, “an even larger number rallied the next day. Decades ago” reported Heim, “[those supremacists] would have marched with hoods to hide their identity, but this time they showed their faces proudly, unafraid, yelling, ‘White Lives Matter, go the ….. [profanity word] back to Africa,’ ‘[profanity word] you [N word].’ ‘Our Blood, our Soil, The Jews Will Not replace Us.” 

The chants continued to echo, as the group paraded in circles, then climbed to the pavilion and joined together around the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Rally-attendees arrived in groups, waving nationalist banners and chanting catchphrases. Many carried shields and clubs, pistols, and long guns. 

Of course counter-protesters had also arrived: members of anti-fascist groups joined by local residents and church groups counter-yelled at the rally-people. Many of them also carried sticks and shields. At some point, a few dozen clergy members clasped arms, joining together in a march singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Yes, this happened in 2017, in the United States of our America.

But one former white supremacist, Frank Meeink, was not there.

As some of you may have heard in my short presentation during our incredibly powerful Slichot service on September 1st, I have talked about former skinhead Frank Meeink, whom I heard about quite some time ago. I bought his book, and sat for a few straight hours reading it, mesmerized, with my jaw dropped. Every now and then you could hear me saying out loud, to myself, “Oh My God. I just can’t believe this is for real.”

But it was real. 

For me, this book was the very first eye-opener; a deep-dive into the life of a truly reformed individual, who went from sheer hatred, to working with the Anti Defamation League. 

Before learning about Frank Meeink and his dark history, I had never really bothered to read or learn about the lives and background of former neo-Nazis. I didn’t care—I didn’t want to care. I was simply appalled and sickened by the very thought of “New Nazis.”  

Until about a decade ago, I couldn’t find the Jewish way within me to forgive those who have terrorized us, forced us to experience again and again the atrocities of the Holocaust, not allowing us to heal, to place our past in the past and lay it to rest. 

But as a Jew, especially as twice ordained clergywoman, I am required by our tradition to forgive when I am asked for forgiveness. It’s just what we do. And in this book, Frank Meeink has asked for forgiveness of his readers.

Which is why I decided to discuss the ultimate act of forgiveness as my last sermon, before we go our separate ways this evening, after Neila, the metaphorically spiritual closing of Sha’arei Shamayim; the gates of heavens. 

I wanted to have the chance to share with you my view on true forgiveness; even for those who are considered the lowly scum of the Earth. Everyone deserves “mechila,” true and deep forgiveness, including those who hated me, my people, and “the other” they never had the chance to really get to know.

I wanted to give all of us here the tools to answer a question we may be asked one day, by our children, students, or people we know. I wanted each of us to think about it, and understand that as Jews, we simply must forgive when we are asked to do so. THAT is the main message of our High Holidays each and every year: to heal ourselves by asking for forgiveness, and grant forgiveness even to those who did the unimaginable horrific things to us individually, communally, or even nationally.

Frank Meeink chose pretty early in life to be one of the most well-known skinhead gang members in our country. But after getting to know an African American, as well as a kind, Jewish man who gave him a second chance at pushing the “reset button,” Frank started his own journey of choosing a different life. 

At only 18 years old, Frank Meeink went to prison for several years for kidnapping a man he suspected was gay, and for beating senseless another man, an African American, for several hours.  

Yes, he was THAT bad. 

But while serving time in prison, Frank Meeink was exposed to people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds and started 

reevaluating his own racist beliefs. His transformation solidified after 

the Oklahoma City bombing, when he saw the iconic photo of a firefighter cradling a lifeless girl in his arms.

Over a period of a few years, utilizing the leadership skills God had blessed him with, Frank Meeink became a spokesman for the Anti Defamation League, regularly lecturing to students about racial diversity and acceptance. He also now works with the Philadelphia Flyers on an anti-hate program called Harmony Through Hockey, where he shows students how to create inclusive, compassionate, and nonviolent climates in their schools and communities. 

For me, the story of Frank Meeink opened a door to the realization that God is really good, because God gives us the tools to make choices in our lives. All we have to do is make the decision, then work with it, each to the best of our abilities. But the choices are always ours to make.

Frank Meeink made a conscious choice to separate and free himself from the claws of bigotry. He opened his heart and soul while going through the process of Teshuva (repenting), Charata (regret), and asking for Slicha (forgiveness). 

And Frank Meeink is not the only former Nazi who is speaking up about getting out of these hate groups these days. Last month I watched a documentary about former neo Nazi Christian Picciolini who became a mentor to young teenagers trapped in hatred circles. And this week People Magazine featured the story of Reformed white supremacist Derek Black, who became the heir of his father’s Neo Nazi’s Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site.

With the rise of racism and so much hatred in our country these days, you must agree that we all so need to hear such stories about remorse and redemption of these individuals whose souls were corrupted at early age by hatred and prejudice. 

Rabbi David Blumenthal said that Forgiveness isn’t easy to ask for, and it isn’t easy to provide. But the message of Yom Kippur is that it is something that we, all of us here, should strive for. 

Forgiveness requested and forgiveness given is in our power to both offer and accept. We do not need to wait until next year. It is a gift that will bring healing to those seeking forgiveness. It is a gift that will bring us healing too. 

Yom Kippur’s message suggests to us that no matter how terrible the offense, we should strive to acknowledge our wrongs, and make them right. From the Talmud we learn that one who harms another human being must not only apologize, but do everything possible to make that person “whole” again. 

Frank Meeink and other former Neo-Nazis I’ve learned about since, have done that. Their actions provided those whom they harmed an opportunity to heal, and these former bullies also gave THEMSELVES an opportunity to make a 180-degree turn, heal their own wounds, and redeem themselves.

Upon witnessing true repentance on the part of someone who injured us with his or her words or actions, we have to try to let go of the pain in order to set ourselves free.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote: “Forgiving is not something we do for another person.  Forgiveness is something that happens inside us. It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps, most importantly a letting go of the role of being a victim.”

Yom Kippur comes to teach us that without the ability to forgive, we lose the ability to move forward. We maintain our own sense of victimhood, and we live trapped by the past, rather than freed to move forward as a whole human being.

And in our own lives, our own relationships, surely we all have had hurts and disappointments. Our hurts ultimately can’t be mended by granting forgiveness to someone else, or even by their accepting responsibility. 

Forgiveness is something that we do to define ourselves. It’s a rejection of victimhood in favor of a self-image of wholeness.

Forgiveness isn’t easy to ask for, and it often isn’t easy to provide. But the message of Yom Kippur is that it is definitely something for which we should strive.

So what would I do, and how would I react if I woke up one morning, to find a huge swastika paint-sprayed on my garage or front door? 

I would first think about granting an opportunity for the offender to perform a Teshuvah, and for myself to escape the role of a victim. 

And then, using the story of Frank Meeink and others like him, I would teach all children, of all ages, the essence of Yom Kippur; to turn evil into a tool for growth.

Later on this afternoon, we will engage in a Yizkor service. A time when we remember all our loved ones, among them people who died in the Holocaust, family members who died defending freedom, fighting to free those enslaved by the machinery of Nazism and hatred.

And then, at the sound of the last Shofar blast, the Tekiah Gedolah during Neila, may we all be inspired to continue to grapple with even the hardest of tasks in repairing our own relationships. 

May we be blessed with the capacity to free ourselves by internalizing the essence of spiritual healing and true forgiveness, even towards those whose actions were so violent and harmful, like the actions of former white supremacist, Frank Meeink.

As we reflect on our lives and actions this Yom Kippur, may we each experience the binding up of old wounds, so that we may become instruments of tikkun, mending our families, our congregation, our society, but mostly – ourselves. 

In this Shanah Chadasha ha’ba’ah aleinu le’Tovah, in this new and good upcoming year, may we be blessed with the ability to continue to live a life of inner peace, understanding, tolerance and forgiveness. 

Baruch Ata Adonai, Praised are You Adonai our God, who inspires us to create a year of renewed spiritual existence, full of sweetness and a positive outlook on life.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah everyone, May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for all that is Good, wholesome and peaceful.

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

Erev Yom Kippur: #MeToo

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

In the more traditional and Orthodox prayer books, there is a paragraph that Jewish men are supposed to recite every morning. It declares the following: 

“Baruch atah Adonai E.M.Ha.O she’lo asani eesha,”

“Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” 

These difficult words are one part of a series of otherwise beautiful prayers called, Nissim be’chol yom, Every Day Miracles. For when we thank God for the gifts of sight, for waking up, our freedom, the functions of our body, and so on.

Then, in the midst of these beautiful blessings we also find “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” I can’t think of more controversial and frankly, nasty words, in all of our Jewish tradition. OUR OWN Jewish tradition!

And I can’t help but wonder: what do female teachers, mothers, and female mentors in the Orthodox world teach the girls in their own sector? What could they possibly say to their female students, that will eliminate the venom from this unhealthy set of words? 

“Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe” – is a beautiful and positive opening for a blessing, where we express our gratitude to God, right? But then, men continue on with reciting the negative and demeaning message of “who has not made me a woman.” And I’m asking: isn’t THIS combination of foul words, one reflection on wrongdoing that’s happened to women for the last few millennia? 

As students at the AJRCA, we were required to use an Artscroll Siddur, THE most comprehensive source for all Jewish liturgy which contains the full historical spectrum of our worship language. 

Since these controversial words appear in this Siddur (show), most of us made copies of the Reform Siddur’s morning blessings, then cut and glued it tightly onto that page, in order to cover these poisonous words (show).

Personally I find this verse deeply offensive, simply because I can’t imagine being anything BUT a woman. And no, there is no corresponding verse in any siddur that teaches women to respond, “and thank you God for not making me a man.” Instead, women are to thank God, King of the universe for having made us, women, according to “His,” God’s will.”

But let’s face it, being a woman—yes, even in today’s progressive 21st century—is indeed difficult. While opportunities for women have expanded, many women are still earning less than their male counterparts. Sexual harassments still flourish in the workforce, and on the streets. Many working women still perform most of the household chores, and biases against women are still, unfortunately, widespread.

Sadly, I will admit that there are some very compelling reasons to be grateful for not being a woman in this world. Here are just a few examples:

  • Other than possibly in jail, men, usually, are not raped. 
  • If men do happen to be raped, they probably won’t be told that they were, “asking for it.”
  • In most prayer books and Bibles, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, “God” and “men” share the same gender.
  • Men can be ambitious professionally, and no one will question their gender, or refer to them as “emasculating,” “too assertive,” or “too aggressive.”

And of course, the list goes on and on.

Written by male rabbis nearly 1,000 years ago, the words from this Siddur evoke for many of us anger towards sexism, which is so dominant in the traditional world, Jewish or not. These words come out of the religious haters of women: those who throw chairs at women for holding the Torah at the Western Wall; those who force their women to cover themselves head to toe, even when it’s 100 degrees outside; or those who force women to sit in the back of Israeli buses in some areas of the country. 

Such “blessings” thanking God for not making them a woman, enable religious sexism to silence female voices, keeping them from positions of communal leadership, and denying them the study and teaching of Torah and our sacred texts. This “blessing” is no different from other poisonous words of religious theologies that promote separation, cause pain to someone else, and claim superiority over others who are regarded as “less than.” This “blessing” exists in some form or another within orthodoxy of all traditions and religions. 

Yes, and ani ma’ashi’ma, I am blaming Religion, all religions that caused this despicable mistreatment of women, these religions that put us in a subservient place to men, our fellow human beings. 

I was asked recently why I have been speaking about many recent events happening in our country and around the world this past year, yet I haven’t really communicated anything concerning the #MeToo movement? Why haven’t I, like many other religious leaders in our country and around the world, condemned celebrities like Louis CK, Harvey Weintstein, Roman Polansky, Bill Cosby, and all the other famously infamous men who were finally brought to media-justice?

I didn’t say anything because I needed time to think.

And I have been thinking. Thinking hard as a matter of fact. About all the despicable abuse and repression many women have suffered in our world for thousands of years. So from this Bimah this evening, I will share that like many other women, I was addressed, and even touched inappropriately on a few occasions. But unlike so many women, I was never forced into doing anything I didn’t want to, or, thank you God, I have not been raped.  But I am, conflicted. 

I am conflicted because on the one hand, it is wrong wrong wrong! for anyone to think that they can uninvitingly touch, caress, suggest, drug, and enforce—especially when they hear the word “no.” It is wrong to touch without permission, period.

On the other hand, I am a clergy woman, a Rabbi, a Jewish teacher in Yisrael, and I am supposed to give honor to our Torah and its teachings; I’m supposed to address, with reverence and admiration the words of our Sages, and quote them often. 

But then, those “admired Sages” come up with “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.”

How can this type of written statement be anything but an embarrassment to any Jewish clergy—woman or man? What shall I tell our children? My students? How can I justify and refer to myself as a teacher of Talmud or Torah that puts me at the same level as someone’s cattle or slave?

Let me give you one such Talmudic example:

“An affluent matriarch asked Rah-bee Eliezer a very wise, text related question: ‘Why is it that there was one sin committed with the golden calf, and yet three punishments were inflicted on the Israelites?’

Refusing to answer her question, Rah-bee Eliezer responded: ‘There is no wisdom in women other than the spinning wheel, as it is written: And all the women who were wise in heart spun with their hands (Exodus 35).’

Rah-bee Eliezer’s son, Yochanan, said to him, ‘Why could you not answer her with some words of Torah? This woman was insulted! And because she was insulted, I will now lose 300 shekelsin donations from her every year!’

Rah-bee Eliezer then replied to his son: ‘The words of Torah should burn rather than be taught to women.’”

This story was quoted from the, Bavli Talmud, in tractate, Yoma 66b.

So the point here is that Rabbi Eliezer was upset not because the question was rude or unsophisticated. On the contrary, the narrative ends as his students approach him saying, “Now that this woman is gone, will you please answer her question for us? We want to know!” The point here is that the only thing prompting Rabbi Eliezer’s angry response, was the fact that a woman had the Chutzpah to ask it! Had a male student asked such a question, Rah-bee Eliezer might have been offered a Yahser Koach (attaboy) and a pat on his shoulder. 

But wait! It gets even worse. The Rambam, also known as Maimonides, THE greatest rabbi of all time, was quoted saying, “Women, slaves, and children are exempt from the obligation to study Torah.”  You’ll find this quote in chapter 1 of, Hilkhot Talmud Torah.

As we can see, an important component of studying Torah is being aware of, “who is excluded from studying it.” 

Many verses in our Torah, our Tree of Life, include the phrase Nashim va’avadim, women and slaves,” who are often also grouped with tzon u’vakar, cattle. What a demeaning reflection of our social status, in Our Sacred Texts. To add more gasoline to the fire, Rambam stated in Hilchot Talmud Torah that, “most women simply do not have the mental capacity to learn.” 

Are you listening to this, women who are present here this evening? In our Torah, our Sacred Text, as well as our Talmud and Gemara, we are considered, for the lack of better words, “simple and stupid.”

What makes Rambam’s passage even more jarring is its historical context. We know that the Romans had destroyed the 2nd Temple, great Sages were brutally tortured and murdered, Torah scrolls were destroyed and burned, and our people were divided, enslaved or exiled. 

And yet, the idea of “a woman asking a clever Torah question” was so scandalous that Rah-bee Eliezer declared that “he’d rather see the Torah burned – than taught to a woman.”

Modern day Rabbi Sharon Brous asks, “So how do we approach texts whose content periodically exposes serious distrust and even hatred of women?”

She answers her own question by saying that, “[one] option, is simply to walk away. This does not necessarily mean to leave Judaism entirely, but rather, to develop a distant relationship to the text and its Rabbis. Advocates of this approach pull the Gemarah off the shelf when they need a nice story, but are not flustered by painful passages because they read with the understanding that the text, patriarchal and ancient, is essentially irrelevant in our modern world.”

In other words, some choose to treat Rabbinic literature the way we’d treat an aging racist great-uncle or aunt. We feel some familial connection to them, but they never ceases to embarrass all of us at dinners and social events with their sexist and racist humor.

But for me, as an assertive Israeli-American woman who has been studying our Torah for many, many years, I really don’t want to “simply walk away” or “remain silent.” Yes, I am conflicted and embarrassed by some of our ancient texts; they put me and other clergywomen in a “lesser than,” extremely uncomfortable position, especially when we are trying to hail and promote the study of Torah, the genius of Maimonides and our Talmud.

Which is why I consider the #MeToo movement so remarkable. 

A new reality has risen: women around the world, not only rise up to higher, more powerful positions in politics and the corporate world, they are also being empowered by social media to speak out, to demand equality and appropriate behavior at all times, everywhere. 

TIME Magazine, for example, named the silence-breakers its Person of the Year in 2017. Prominent men are losing their jobs for behavior once considered acceptable.

And the #MeToo movement has brought to light just how widespread and systemic sexual misconduct has been for women, not only today but throughout history— including within our own Jewish tradition. 

And here are some more disturbing facts: In this country, our United States of America, not until the mid 19th century did a majority of states pass laws granting married women the right to own property. Women could not vote until 1919. It wasn’t until 1957 that women could serve on a jury—yes, in our country, in MY and your lifetime. 

I still cringe when I get mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. David Simerly. 

Ok, let me be even more specific:

Look at our own directory here at TBT: unless a woman is single or widowed, her name appears as, “Mr. & Mrs. Shlomo Cohen,” and the woman’s name, Shoshana, appears in parenthesis. 

Parenthesis! What kind of a message does this “seemingly harmless reference” send to our daughters, if our names appear in parenthesis, especially at a congregation that chose a female to be your Rabbi?!  

Our country is being pulled, kicking and screaming into the 21st century; let’s embrace at least this one little change more gracefully at Temple Beth Tikvah shall we?

Indeed, the fight for equality has been a long, uphill battle, and today’s women still struggle to have their voices heard and respected. And unlike the society of our ancestors, which valued the viewpoints and pledges of fathers and husbands over those of daughters and wives, today, thankfully, our parent movement, Reform Judaism, holds women fully equal to men, honoring and respecting in all ways our goals, achievements, commitments, and responsibilities. 

The good news is that “change” is taking place.

I am sure that if it were possible – those men who wrote the Torah and the Talmud, for sure, would have been brought to justice sooner or later. We would have chosen to ban their books, like we do with Bill Cosby’s old shows. We don’t watch those anymore. 

But unlike the men of today, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and other men who were exposed and brought to justice, our ancient texts are here to remind us how NOT to place on pedestals any of the so-called “sages,” our Torah, and old teachings. 

Of course there is value in all of that material as well: it teaches us how to not repeat history, and that our ancient teachers were humans too. 

And I would say to all our students: this Torah and our ancient texts were not written by God. Our ancient texts were written by other human beings, like you and me, reflecting the times in which they were written. 

My advice? Take our ancient teachings in their historical context, and make an educated choice on which rules to live by. Adopt the good, like “honor your mother and father,” and leave out the negative: “thank you God for not making me a woman.” Teach about the wrong message that’s communicated in this kind of ancient text.

There is absolutely nothing in the 10 Commandments, for example, that places “women” in a lesser, or lower stature. Our Torah gives us great examples of what it means to be “menches” and “wemanches,” decent human beings, and Ve’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, you shall love your fellow human being like yourself. It was written in male form simply because our ancient language was limited to gender classification.

Making educated choices: that’s what it means to study Torah in modern times. And the word “Torah” itself, by the way, is in female form.

Baruch atah Adonai, EMHO, she’asani eesha, Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of our universe, for making me a woman, for creating me in the image of goodness and kindness, and for giving me the wisdom and strength, to choose the path that is right for me. A path that honors and dignifies every human being, regardless of gender, race, or religion. Now THAT is a blessing I would teach each and every one of my students 

And for that, Modah ani I am so humbly and utterly grateful, In female form. Shanah Tovah (also in female form)

And for crying out loud Temple Beth Tikvah, please take us, women, out of those parenthesis, will you, please?

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

TBT TEENS!

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An evening of swing!

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Rosh Ha’shana, Day 2 Sermon: 9/11

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

I was just sitting down to drink my morning coffee back in California, trying to wake up at 6:00 am, when my sister called me from Israel—unusually early. “I wonder if she got the time difference wrong again?” I thought with a yawn. “Nu, ma koreh achoti?” What’s up sis? I asked jokingly as I picked up the phone. She was screaming in response, “MICHAL! ARE YOU WATCHING THIS? IMALEH HERE GOES ANOTHER ONE!”

While screaming she urged me to turn on the TV; and then, struck with a sense of paralyzing numbness my life, like everyone else’s in our country that morning, changed forever. My sister and the rest of the world were watching CNN, as they reported in real time, dire events unfolding in New York City. 

Each one of us, adults, who are present here this morning, has our own story to tell about where we were, and what we were doing when 9/11 took place. 

Our stories include details on how we found out, and what we did in the following days, weeks, and months as we each tried to make sense of one of the most painful memories in our personal and national history. 

Today marks the 17th anniversary of that day, which affected all Americans, without exception. 

This Rosh Ha’Shana morning we remember 9/11 and pay tribute to the thousands who lost their lives, and to those who remain behind; widows, orphans, and grieving parents. Today I will talk about the importance of remembering and teaching our children, and share our stories, and experiences, so they, and we, never forget the events that took place on September 11, 2001.

Most teens today aren’t old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001. They have little or no personal memory of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. They didn’t spend hours in front of the TV like we, the adults in their lives; parents and older siblings, watching surreal images of burning buildings turned into crashing mountains of destruction. 

Our kids don’t remember the news reports of the passengers, who forced United flight 93 to crash in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow it to reach its intended destination—the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Our kids don’t remember, but we must insure they never forget. We must teach them about “free will” and that the choice, whether to walk in the path of doing good in our world, or to cause destruction, is theirs to make.  We must teach them about the depths of inhumanity to which terrorist fanatics are willing to sink into, in the name of their corrupt cause, as they seek to destroy the very principles of life, freedom and democracy on which our nation is founded.

Next week, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read an excerpt from Parshat Nitzavim, which begins:  Ahtem nitzavim ha’yom kul-chem l’fnai Adonai Ehlo’hai’chem…,” “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God….” 

In this excerpt that I just chanted, Moses stands before the Israelites as a beacon of light, to remind our ancestors to never forget our challenges and suffering, which lead to our covenant with God.

The Hebrew word ניצבmeans, “to stand upright.” It has the same root as the word matzevah, מציבה “monument,” or a headstone erected in memory of a loved one.            

And we, today, are the Nitzvaim. 

We, the adults who remember this unimaginable level of massacre, are present here to insure that future generations never forget. We are the ones who must visit Ground Zero and take our children to stand next to us, in front of that Matzevah, 9/11 Ground Zero memorial monument, and tell them what happened. 

We must teach future generations that a very thin line crosses between “good” and “evil,” and that as they grow older, they will be entrusted with God’s gift to humanity called “free will.” 

This past July, finally I was able to bring myself to Ground Zero in NY, a place I have been avoiding, simply because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to tolerate actually seeing the place of all that destruction. But it was my niece Coral, whom some of you have met, my beautiful, sweet 22 years old intelligent niece who talked me into going to Ground Zero, because SHE wanted to see, know and witness first hand what happened. So Dave, Coral, and I went to Ground Zero, and as expected, I couldn’t talk while walking within that enormous tomb. I was speechless, I was sobbing, struck with memories and unbelievable agony, feeling the pain and frustration, in the face of that unimaginable loss of life.

Even as memories of the day become less painful, September 11, 2001, continues to have a major impact on us. Even those of us not old enough to remember the day must internalize these basic facts:

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist group hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two of those airplanes were flown intentionally into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, destroying both buildings. One was crashed into the Pentagon. The passengers on Flight 93, overpowered the hijackers and intentionally crashed into a vacant Pennsylvania field. In all, nearly 3,000 people died that day making it the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

When our nation, still in disbelief, desperately needed leadership, our President at the time, George W. Bush, concluded his speech with the following remarks:

This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time…None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Actually, the days, weeks and even months that followed 9/11 were pretty remarkable: all ideological differences that have been dividing our nation for decades were suddenly diminished. We were no longer strangers to one another. For a brief moment, we were all just Americans.  People waiting in line for the bus, or in the supermarket, talked to one another. 

There was a sense of camaraderie, a sense of kindness and gentle conversations. People were just friendlier with each other. And when we sang, “God Bless America,” we really meant it. We felt it. Many homes, balconies, private properties and condos erected the American flag, and kept it there for many months to come, to remind us of how united we, and our states were. There was something simply incredible in the air.

No doubt – traumatic events like 9/11 bring people together. Tragic ordeals bring people together because in a moment of disaster we remember how much we need and depend on each other. We find comfort and solace in sharing our pain with each other, as we tap into a deep, primal and human natural tendency — we go back to being a good old fashion tribe.

We, Jews, know this. We have lived as a tribe since the time we became a People in the Sinai Desert. And for us, as a matter of fact, the “do’s and don’ts of our religion” is secondary to a much deeper connection; the sense that we belong, that we are “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh, that all of us, Israel, are responsible for one another. 

This is the fundamental, basic, and simple message that stems from our Torah: we are to love one another as we love ourselves. And lovingly connecting with one another will ultimately lead us to connecting with The One, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. We share history, and we share stories and ways of living. For us, life is sacred. 

To murderers and terrorists, life is not.

The knowledge that life is sacred comes from somewhere deep inside our guts. It is part of what makes us human. It is an absolute truth that requires no further exploration or contemplation. Our sages explain it as a truth that emanates to our consciousness from the spark of divinity that lies within each of us. It is a truth that makes up part of the core of our Jewish being.

To murderers, psychopaths and terrorists, life is not sacred.

So why do we need to continue to commemorate 9/11, and tell our children, grandchildren, students, and future generations about the atrocities of that day?

Because we want to be able to tap into that source of connectedness with one another, when we feel disconnected. And we want to be able to draw solace when we are frightened, self-defensive, and hating “the other.” Tapping into that sense of connectedness with one another also helps bring us closer to connecting with God.

While the High Holidays ask us to turn inward to consider the nature of our lives, being here during 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah, which happens to be the 17th anniversary of 9/11, also encourages us to open the window of our hearts wider, to better respond to the world around us. 

Whenever a great disaster occurs, people naturally want to know where God was. Where was God during the Shoah, the Holocaust, or on 9/11? Many are angry with God, because of such unimaginable horrors. 

But for me, personally, I think that to wonder where God was, and to be angry with God, is to miss an important message:

As I mentioned in one of my earlier sermons, God offers us, humans, Free Will, and we get to choose what to do with it. God gives us hints and insights on how to create a just world, an unbiased righteous world. 

But creating that kind of a world – is the job of humankind. The price for our Free Will is God keeping out of our affairs. The question was never “where was God in the Holocaust or on 9/11, in Paris last year, within our own borders, or in Syria today.

The question was always where is the “humanity” in “humankind.”In all the millennia since the creation of humankind, why have we, humans, failed to create a world of tzedek, justice, for ourselves?!

No doubt that the 9/11 attacks forever changed America’s sense of security. Our world, where humanity was fashioned in God’s image for good, had spiraled downward to a level of hate and destruction. Satanic leaders and followers of al-Qaeda made a choice to kill civilians. Unfortunately, other haters of humanity are still engaged in doing so. 

Today we are reminded to follow basic laws we were given, to uplift the quality of our own life. As our contemporary world at times is still brought to its knees by extremists, we must remember that that brutal force will always be out there, pursuing destruction and annihilation of the ideals of liberty and freedom in our world. Because those dark forces, unfortunately, are also sides of “being human.” But, as I just mentioned, we get the option to choose.

We simply can’t abolish darkness by adding more darkness. We overcome darkness with light—doing good in our communities, teaching, and inspiring and encouraging our children to do the same. 

Because when we create a sense of spirituality, holiness, and connectedness, then the darkness vanishes on its own. As Jews we first and foremost believe in the power of goodness and kindness to combat the evil of the world, and for us, life is sacred. To murderers and terrorists, life is not sacred.

9/11 annual memorials and the Ground Zero Museum are there to remind all of us that freedom is not free, it requires continual reinforcement and vigilance to protect it—doing good must always be a priority in our lives. 

Architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker explained so eloquently why they chose to create the “Forever flowing water pool” they built at Ground Zero: 

“While the footprints remain empty…. the surrounding plaza’s design has evolved to include beautiful groves of trees; traditional affirmations of life and rebirth. These trees, like memory itself, demand the care and nurturing of those who visit and tend them. 

They remember life with living forms, and serve as living representations of the destruction and renewal of life in their own annual cycles. The result is a memorial that expresses both the              incalculable loss of life, and its consoling re-generation.”

Our responsibility as Jews, is to preserve the memory of the lives of those who were tragically killed that fateful morning. Let’s add it to our Yahrtzeit lists along with a reminder to “Never Forget.” 

You shall teach those words diligently to your children,” And speaking of children – while attending Ground Zero museum, I copied one of the poems that simply broke my heart. The explanation was that, in a New York classroom, one year after 9-11, students composed this poem. The teacher of that class, had perished in Tower One

List of ‘Don’t Forgets’ and ‘Remembers’

We were eight years old.

Before September 11th, we would wake up with a list of 

‘Don’t Forgets:’

Don’t forget to wash your face

Don’t forget to brush your teeth

Don’t forget to do your homework

Don’t forget to wear your jacket

Don’t forget to clean up your room

Don’t forget to take a bath

After September 11th, we wake up with a list of ‘Remembers:’

Remember to greet the sun each morning

Remember to enjoy every meal

Remember to thank your parents for their hard work

Remember to honor those who keep you safe

Remember to value each person you meet

Remember to respect other’s beliefs.

Now we are nine.”

May our worship today help us to recall that God has faith in our ability to be God’s agents. 

Then, with hope, determination, and our actions, this Shanah Chadasha, New Year, will be one of meaning and blessing for us, our families, and our country. 

Remember us for life, O Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, our God of life.”

Remember, and never forget.   Le’shana Tovah

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

Rosh Ha’shana, Day 1 Sermon: Shul

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

I’d like to wake you all up this morning with a funny short story I’ve recently read on Facebook:

“A man decides to stop using social media. Instead he’s determined to make friends without the benefit of Facebook, but still using Facebook’s methods. So, he leaves home to take a walk and as he meets people he tells them what he has eaten, how he feels, what he did last night, and what he will do tomorrow. Then he hands them pictures of his in-laws, his dog, and his garden. He also listens to their conversations and tells them he loves them.

It works!

Soon he does have followers — 2 police officers and a psychiatrist.”

It is a funny little story, but it does point to a pretty painful reality: for so many people Facebook has become THE community in which they interact with people the most.

We share so much more than we ever would with strangers. We are Facebook friends with classmates from elementary or high school, individuals we weren’t particularly interested in cultivating friendships with in the past. And I can’t help but wonder: if way back when we didn’t feel the desire to know much about these people, then why is it that now we pretend to be interested in looking at pictures of their whereabouts, distant uncles, mothers, or goldfish? 

And why should any of these strangers care about mine? Or yours?

“While it may be partially generational,” says Rabbi Louis Feldstein in his essay What Does a Truly Sacred Community Look Like? “… it also speaks to why so many seek the ease of virtual community: because building a real community takes real work.” 

Being part of a hands-on community – now that takes work, engagement, and involvement. Being a member of a truly sacred community requires being fully present. So let’s talk about OUR sacred community, our Temple Beth Tikvah, here, in Wayne.
Shall we? 

I have good news: our membership is starting to increase. Slowly but surely, we are welcoming new, and returning members into our midst. Members of our leadership have been working overtime, moving us in a new direction: we are changing. The type of community we are building strives to have something for everyone to connect us socially, spiritually, and educationally.

But what I really want to talk about is how essential it is for each and every one of our new and existing members to start getting more involved, if we want to continue to exist. 

Our House of Hope is NOT a virtual community. Never was, never will be. Period. In order to insure Temple Beth Tikvah’s continued survival, everyone must be actively engaged. That is the only way to insure the presence of a vibrantly thriving Reform Jewish Community here in Wayne. 

The Hebrew word for member is chaver, or chaverah for female, but it also means a friend.

Being a member of an organization means primarily being interested in what one gets, or receives in return for paying for membership, for example, being a member of your local YMCA, or a member at Costco, or the Golf Club on Ratzer Road. 

A participant in a community, on the other hand, while not necessarily sacrificing his or her own needs, is simultaneously interested in the welfare and the success of the community as a whole. 

So while paying dues to belong to our community helps keep the lights and heat on – the only way for our chaverim and chaverot  to get a return for their membership dues, or d’mei chaverut in Hebrew is to be here; IN the community. Participating. Interacting. That’s the WHOLE reason to keep this place, our House of Hope —  open.

I am wondering if using the metaphor of “membership” to define belonging to a community reinforces and preserves a mentality that is the very opposite of being involved in a community? What do you think? You can share with me later.

“Real religious Community is supposed to be covenantal, not transactional,” wrote Rabbi Michael Knopf in an article in the Ha’aretz Israeli newspaper. “Covenantal Communities are made up of people committed to supporting each other, committed to the infra-structure and systems that facilitate communal well-being.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not blind to the fact that many who want Jewish experiences can find them in any number of different venues. Venues with much less baggage, and for much less cost. For example, one can effortlessly find a freelance bar mitzvah local tutor, or readily “rent a rabbi” to officiate in their family’s lifecycle events.

Anyone can access almost any Jewish information one could ever possibly need, for free, by consulting Rabbi Google. And yes, anyone can purchase High Holidays Tickets and sit comfortably at the temple, say shalom to old friends, and then go on one’s merry way Zei gezunt, a gutten yontif and see you next year.

It’s hard when people decide to leave our temple, it’s hard being left. I know that most who leave don’t make that decision lightly. Some even deal with pain and discomfort when they finally make the decision to go. And even if a temple is large and growing, it is still hard when people leave. But when the temple is smaller, like ours is, each loss is far more painful.   

As a clergywoman for many years, I’ve had to deal with such departures. It is so very hard. It’s especially hard when those leaving have been long-time members, because when a small temple loses just one family it can mean great changes for our community as a whole. It’s not just a drop in attendance, or volunteers. It’s the loss of people we know; people we have grown to love. People with whom we have emotional investment; people we’re friends with. And that hurts. It leaves an open wound. 

I’ll take it a step deeper and admit the following: it really does hurt when people who I thought were doing well and were happy at the temple, simply utter these words, “we just don’t feel engaged” or “connected anymore.” That, my friends, is so hard to hear. These have been some of my toughest moments. Because deep inside, I know that we have been trying to do everything we possibly can to provide activities, services, programs, and office hours to try and insure all age groups feel connected and engaged. That’s why each and every one of us, staff and our highly committed lay-leaders, have been living, eating and sometimes almost sleeping here too!

And the most frustrating thing about the, “here are the reasons why I’m leaving,” conversation is that we don’t get a chance to make things right.

And that hurts us all, because WE so need YOUR help, any help we can get to make Temple Beth Tikvah relevant and engaging, in order to thrive in the present, pay homage to our past, for the sake of our future as a Jewish Community. Can you imagine Wayne without a Reform Shul that welcomes into its midst mixed marriages, gay marriages, and children of couples who celebrate both Hannukah AND Christmas?

In case some of you have forgotten, this is Wayne! A town with a many-layered history of anti-Semitism. Communities such as Pines Lake where Dave and I now live, and Packanack Lake that even into the 60’s and 70’s did not allow Jews and families of color to move in, as well as town officials within the same time period, who openly preached anti-Semitic messages.

For crying out loud – a Confederate Flag was erected about a month ago, here in Wayne, at Paris Inn!

Yes, perhaps nowadays your children are extremely busy, no doubt. They play soccer on Mondays, Basketball on Tuesdays, they horseback ride on Wednesdays, they play tennis or dance on Thursdays, rehearse for school plays on Fridays, and practice piano on Saturdays. No doubt, their lives are full of activities, which in turn makes your life full too; now add to that school homework, and who has time or energy to also engage in social Jewish life, at the temple, with so much else going on?

But what kind of support our, your children will have when in college they will hear slogans like “Zionists go home,” “Jews are the source of evil in our world,” or worse? 

Our synagogue is not just a building.

So many of you grew up here. So many of your children are now grown and don’t need religious school, as their Bar or Bat Mitzvah goals are over. 

“So why,” one may ask, “why should we stay members?”

One reason is because you have a cool rabbi on call should you need her care, listening ear, or guidance. You can always trust knowing that if you have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in our traditions with many years of life-experience with whom you can discuss your issues. You also know that if something bad happens, all members of your temple family will be free to call on your rabbi for support and guidance. 

But you don’t have to look to your rabbi only during times of crisis. Your rabbi and your temple are here to help you through the good times too; weddings, births, anniversaries, and yes, those high priority bar and bat mitzvahs too. And your rabbi can be goofy and funny as well, when she goes down to sit and play on the carpet with your children or grandchildren. Heck, your meshugie Rabbi will even bless your pets!

Another reason to become or remain a member is that You can help build a sense of a true Jewish community. You may not love everything about us, TBT community, or everyone here. But YOU can help make it YOUR community by letting your friends know that we are here, and our doors are always open. You can invite other, and new families to be in your Chavura, a smaller community within our temple that shares your family’s interests, and create a forever-lasting bond with them. No matter what, you will not be anonymous here at TBT, if you choose to not be.

There’s an old truism that comes into play when you also get involved in a community: the best way to learn, is to teach. In a similar fashion, the best way to bring good into your life, is to do good—to volunteer. We have a wonderful network of volunteers at TBT who are always looking to teach others how to bring goodness into their lives as well. 

Of course there are many levels of volunteer opportunities: from bringing food to potlucks, or helping to organize and distribute food at the food pantry, or all the way to larger things, like serving on committees to help make decisions for our temple’s future. You are always welcome to volunteer your professional skills for your congregation. Or volunteer to add beauty to our worship services by singing in the choir. Or learn about social justice action opportunities with a ready-made group of people with whom to practice Tikkun O’lam. There are so many different ways that you can help us make this place look better, newer, more gorgeous, inviting, and more pleasing to the eyes.

One of the ways that volunteers quickly realize how volunteering can bring goodness into their own lives, is by helping those who are sick, or injured, or just too old to get around easily on their own. This happens to all of us, and one day each of us may need the helping hand of a volunteer; even if it’s just for a ride to and from a Shabbat or High Holiday services. Our Caring Community for example, has such a great group of people who make sure no one is left 

Behind — but this group of helpers can always use more help.

Now for the “cons” or the “yeh butts” of synagogue Chaverut, friendship, membership:

Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary, a building, a janitor, teachers, running water, electricity, air-conditioners in the summer, heaters in the winter, fixing old stairs, and replacing an old cracking door – all of these features and tons more cost a lot of money.

How else can the temple survive and thrive if it’s members don’t help by paying dues? Any dues?

Also, as I said earlier, not everyone at your congregation is your best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are people who drive you absolutely meshugie. You probably drive them a little meshugie too, right Dave? 

But isn’t it the same in any non-profit social organization of people? Or in Families? Or in a tight-knit work place? Or in our country? Aren’t we a microcosm of every other social group in our world? And look at it this way: just like in every other social situation, it’s an opportunity to learn and practice patience, compassion, and perhaps, acceptance. 

Yes, we do always bug you to give money and do stuff. You do get periodic noodnik appeals for financial and volunteer participation. This Yom Kippur appeal will be no different.

But what will you do and where will you go if one day, your spiritual home forever will close its doors?

Where will you feel comfortable being Jewish while wearing your kippah and your own Talit? Where will your children raise their children Jewish? In Orthodox or Conservative environments? Will you feel comfortable worshipping without your spouse by your side? And 

Women, will you feel comfortable being told that only men can wear a kippah and a Talit? 

And where will you hold your own gay son’s wedding? After all, other temples in our area will tell you that your own child’s love is sinful. For crying out loud, how can any true love between humans be sinful? 

Can you imagine your town without our Progressive Temple Beth Tikvah?

Lastly, you may not agree with the way everything is done here. Policy is up to the Board, and the Board is entrusted to call those shots; you get to state your opinion, but you are not the boss. 

However, you can influence, and you can make a difference. If you feel strongly enough about an issue, you are welcome to become a board member yourself and help steer the temple’s direction. Because when you make a difference, a real difference, that’s when your opinions begin to have an effect.

Can you imagine Wayne without a Temple Beth Tikvah?


So please, rethink any decision to leave, or not pay dues to our temple. Instead, please help us implement much needed creative ways to be relevant, beautiful, appealing, and highly functional.

Being here for the High Holidays is simply not enough.

It’s time to help us preserve and continue to support this beautiful spiritual home, which our elders built in the face of the open anti-Semitism of the past. The good news is that we can still do something about it. Can we count on you to help? Because your local soccer or la cross team, Facebook, or any other virtual social media simply won’t be able to do what this temple can do for and with you, with and for us.

I’d like to bless everyone here with a good and healthy new year. Baruch atah Adonai, our God and God of all generations who came before us: Grant us a year of gratitude. Gratitude to You, and to one another.  May we do our best to change ourselves in such a way that we can help our community become a friendly space, where everyone is welcomed and valued, and everyone has a place.  Amen, and Le’shana Tovah.

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

Erev Rosh Ha’shana Sermon: God

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students,” says the Talmud. As a rabbi and teacher, my students often ask questions that stump me.

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE it! Being stumped by questions gives me hope: it reassures me that our children of all ages are still engaged and interested in continuing our Jewish path. In a few moments I will tell you about one such question posed to me a while ago. But first, let’s ponder the purpose and scope of education.

When we grow personally, morally, and spiritually, we allow ourselves to love more, forgive wrongs, accept differences, and ultimately, accept God and moments of godliness, as a constant presence in our lives.

The more we ask, the more we learn. The more we seek, the more answers we discover. And the more we learn, the closer we get to the highest goal: acceptance and trust in this scary process called, “life.” 

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character; that is the goal of true education.”

One such intelligent question recently took me by surprise. A 5-year old student (let’s call her Tammy), looked up at me from her, “Noah and the Ark,” coloring book, then just like that, out of the blue, asks: “Wabbi Meeka, where does God live? Where is God’s home?” 

That question stumped me because I was unprepared. Tammy asked a question that seemingly came from nowhere, other then the fact that a few moments earlier we sang the song, “Rise and Shine and give God your glory glory” in relation to Parshat Noach. 

I thought for a moment, then gave Tammy the answer that many Rabbis give when taken by surprise, “Can I get back to you a little later, after I’ve had some time to think about your wonderful question?”

“Yes wabbi,” Tammy replied, then went back to work on the giraffe in her coloring book. 

And I went back to my office to think. 

What do I tell a 5 year old who often hears “God this,” “God that,” “oh thank God,” baruch atah Adonai Elehonu melech Ha’olam, “give God your glory glory,” in the song, “Rise and Shine,” and so on? How do I respond to, “Where is God’s home?” 

Truthfully, I needed to clarify to myself my own idea of what, or who God is, in order to respond to anyone asking about God in general, in particular a 5 year old girl’s question about God’s dwelling place.

While researching I found a story about one of the greatest 20th century Rabbis of all time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who used to travel around the world, teaching in synagogues, churches, and universities. 

Whenever Rabbi Heschel gave an evening lecture, he would begin by telling the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle just happened!” People would stop to listen very carefully, wondering: “what miracle happened? Why didn’t we see or hear about it in the papers?” Then Heschel would continue, “a great miracle just happened—the sun went down!” 

Some people would laugh uncomfortably. Some would shake their heads at this crazy rabbi. Others remained puzzled about what he meant. Then Rabbi Heschel would begin his lecture by discussing how a religious person sees the world. The message would become very clear toward the end of Rabbi Heschel’s lecture, “Miracles happen all the time. Amazing things, magnificent things, miraculous things are happening all around us, at all times. But most of us don’t notice. We have learned how to ignore and take them for granted.”

A spiritual person, taught Heschel, notices those everyday miracles. A spiritual person, at any age, notices how amazing things, all things, really are. A spiritual person stops and wonders at the beauty of a sunset, the power of a thunderstorm, and an act of kindness by a stranger. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the “meaning of God,” Heschel taught, is to take things for granted. This happens to so many of us, as we grow older, and too often, more cynical. 

The opposite of knowing God, according to Heschel, isn’t a person who doesn’t believe in God, or an atheist. The opposite of knowing God is a person who doesn’t notice all the amazing things around us. The opposite of believing and spiritually knowing God is simply being bored and not curious.

So let’s clarify what God is not.

“God” is probably one of the greatest mysteries of our existence. The idea of God is one that no individual can truly know, understand, describe, or fathom. 

Throughout all of human existence, many have claimed to be “speaking on behalf of God,” or that they know, “what God wants human beings to do, or not do, and why, and how.”

That is NOT a human responsibility to announce “on behalf of” or “in the name of,” God. It’s a very dangerous path. For example, what will you tell your child if you happen to drive through the town of Topeka, Kansas, and see picket fences, signs, and banners surrounding a Christian church pronouncing that, “God Hates Fags?”

Who are all these people of different religions in our world, who claim to know who God is, who God hates, what God wants from us, and how God wants us to behave? 

Another example is one of Jerusalem’s Jewish ultra extremist anti Zionist sects, like the Neturei Karta, in Aramaic, “Guardians of the City.” They believe that the Land of Israel should be built only upon the arrival of the Messiah, and that Zionism is an actual rebellion against God. Who gave these people the right to defend God? 

Or Muslim extremists, who yell, “bis’mi’llah,” in the name of Allah, God, when they deliver fire-and-brimstone speeches against Western cultures. What does “in the name of God” actually mean? How do they know what or who God endorses?

How can anyone speak in the name of, or on behalf of Allah, God, Adonai? Who gave them that authroty?

So God is not any one person’s, or one group of people’s, BFF. God, also, does not choose A Person, or A People to speak through, in first person. 

For me, personally, God is a living experience. I find God when I walk my dogs in nature around the lake where we live. I sense God when I sit by the bedside of a person who is dying, holding his or her hand while chanting the Shma Yisrael, or officiate at our students’ Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

While personally I don’t know what, or who God is – I can only describe what I feel at times, when I see a beautiful intricate flower, when I smell it, when I touch it, and it feels so soft and velvety. 

That moment, of appreciating every petal, taking in its gentle scent and letting it fill my entire sense of self. That silent moment beyond verbal expression in words—that particular moment to me IS God.

And something miraculous moments happen when I lead you, my congregants, in Tefilah, in prayer: I, Rabbi Meeka the individual, move out of the way when we sing together, as Temple Beth Tikvah’s community unto God. Do You know THAT indiscernible feeling you sometimes get during and after Shabbat service here in our Sanctuary? That is God’s presence, which we tap into through our prayer and song. 

And I am bringing the question of “God” here this evening because I know that at some point in our lives, we have been, or will be, challenged with a simple question, “If God does exist, then why do bad things happen to good people?”

Why did so many innocent people perish during the Holocaust, including unimaginable number of children my student Tammy’s age? Why do innocent children die of incurable diseases? Why do fetuses die in utero? What have THEY done to deserve this fate?

Rabbi Harold Kushner, another of my favorite great thinkers, has a theology which says [and I quote]  “I believe in God…but I recognize God’s limitations. God is limited in what God can do by laws of nature, and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom. I [don’t] hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason…. God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.” [end quote]

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. 

Personally, I believe that God gives us tools to live good and meaningful lives; even when one is given a seemingly lousy hand to begin with, like deformity or incurable disease. I believe that if we choose to, we can make our lives full and meaningful. One example is Dr. Stephen Hawking who suffered ALS most of his adult life but managed to overcome his limitations to bring us closer to understanding our universe than any scientist since Einstein. 

And you know why? Because God provided Dr. Hawking with tools, and Dr. Hawking chose to make the most of them. In other words, God gives us freedom of choice, the rest is up to us.

So no, I don’t believe that it was God’s fault that millions of innocent lives were taken during the Holocaust. I believe it was the fault of humans who CHOSE to use God’s gifts in warped and evil ways. In ways that caused harm, pain, death, and suffering to other human beings. That was NOT God’s choice, that was humans’ choice.

So why DO people kill in the “Name of God”? Because they choose to live a life of anger, hatred, fear and evil-doing. God would never “Kill in the Name of God,” but humans choose to do so.

Some people argue that the Torah is the testament of God’s will and God’s love for us humans. For me the Torah is a human document, written over a period of hundreds, if not thousands of years by our ancestors who were searching for meaning and truth, trying to make sense of the world, in their time. Just like I am. Just like we all still are, in this day and age. 

Our Torah is sacred because our ancestors read it, carried it, and preserved it. But I don’t believe that God wrote the Torah. It doesn’t make any sense that God would write an unchanging text for one group of people, at one time, in a particular setting.

How can anything remain stagnant and frozen in time when everything else in the universe evolves, revolves, adjusts, and changes? How can anyone claim God’s Perfection in an ancient document, when its teaching points, for example, to stoning your daughter to death if she has an affair with someone who happens to be married? Or kill your son because he happens to love another man? How can anyone claim that THAT is God’s will?

No, God does not write books, God writes universes.

I teach our children to love the Torah, and to love God, because that’s what our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.

I don’t teach our children that the Torah is the word of God, or that loving God has anything to do with studying the Torah. Loving God has everything to do with truly loving oneself and one another. That kind of love, goodness, and connectedness creates more moments of godliness in our world.

Loving our Torah means connecting, with love, to our ancestors. We love our Torah because all generations who came before us have loved and cherished it. They suffered because of it, but also insured that our People would survive for thousands of years thanks to the One Entity all Jewish People have in common, wherever we end up. God, Torah and our People have the Number One in Common—One God, One Torah, One People.

And back to answering my little 5-year-old student Tammy, whom I talked about at the beginning.

After following that winding trail from God to the universe and everything, this is what I told her:

“Tammy, take your right hand. Place it over your heart. You can’t really see it, but can you feel your heart going ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom?”

“Yes wabbi,” Tammy replied.

“Now Tammy, who do you love the most in the world?” I asked.

Tammy answered without hesitation, “my mommy and daddy!” 

“Are they here? I continued asking “You can’t really see them now, but you do know that you love them, right?”

“Yes wabbi, I love my mommy and daddy!” 

“Now show me where in your body you feel that love for your mommy and daddy.”

Tammy closed her eyes and hugged herself with both her arms [like this]. And I said, “Tammy? You just found where God lives. God lives in your heart, in your imagination, in your body, in your tummy, and in your nose. God lives in you, and everyone else too.”

Tammy looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes and said, “I love God, wabbi Meeka,” then she closed her eyes and gave herself another big hug.

This story teaches us that “God” lives inside each of us. In the most basic form, God is a concept that we each need in order to survive the harsh and scary moments in our lives. Teaching our students to reach inside themselves to connect with that power is a great way to feel a sense of hope in times of fear, uncertainty, anger, or pain.

I will end with a poem I often read during Shabbat services:

“Teach me oh God a blessing, a prayer on the mystery of a withered leaf, on ripened fruit so fair, on the freedom to see, to sense, to breathe, to know, to hope, to despair.

Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise, as each morning and night, you renew your days, lest my day be today as the one before; lest routine set my ways.”

L’Shana Tova u’m’tukah everyone. May we all be blessed with a good and sweet new year, filled with learning and teaching. And may our synagogue, our Temple Beth Tikvah be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

Tashlich in Park

HH #6 - Tashlich-RH Dinner Invite from Rabbi Meeka--2018 (2)