Monday, January 23, 2012

Celebrating MLK, Interfaith Writings and a Flash Mob in Jerusalem

If you were at Beth Emet on Friday, January 13 for the Martin Luther King Shabbas dinner and conversation, you know that you were at a history-celebrating and history-making event. But if you couldn't be there, you can get a small taste of that night from text and links below.

I had the pleasure of contributing a personal story connecting King, to my father, to the civil rights movement, to the North Shore, and back to Beth Emet. Here is the text of that piece and the link to the radio interview that followed on Monday, January 16.  EBB

In 1958, 29-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr was a guest speaker at Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston. Admission was $1.75. The program says King was considered “one of the outstanding Negro leaders in the country.”

Five years later, in 1963, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, rhetoric that set the tone for the civil rights movement and ultimately earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

…. A hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Negro is still not free.. 

Rabbi Andrea London and Reverend Mark Dennis at the WBEZ Studios 

That same year, my parents moved to Glencoe. In nearby Deerfield, town leaders were threatening to keep an integrated apartment building from being built by turning the area into a park. Eminent domain, they said. My father, a white, Jewish businessman, had been moved by King’s mission to end racial segregation and discrimination. So he went to the rally in that park to protest and brought me along. I was almost four.

What happened there has stayed with me since: I can still see the huge crowd forming a large circle. I can still feel my father’s hand in mine and see the smile from a tall, black man as he took my other hand. And I will always hear that chorus of men’s, women’s and children’s voices singing “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome, someday…” 

….We need to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice

Later that year, my dad, who at 29 had become active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was arrested at a demonstration at the Chicago Board of Education office. CORE was demanding the resignation of the superintendent who was authorizing the building of new schools in white neighborhoods but not black ones. My father and 36 others were arrested and jailed at this nonviolent sit-in. A photograph of my father being dragged off by police made the cover of the Chicago Daily News.

Race relations in the 1960s was less about talk and more about demonstrations…. rallies … sit-ins … jail time or violence. The worst of course was in 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot on the second floor balcony of a Memphis motel.

A few years ago, a recording of King’s synagogue speech was found in a congregant’s basement. Beth Emet’s Rabbi Andrea London asked Second Baptist Pastor Mark Dennis to co-host a Friday evening sabbath service on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Evanston Jews and Baptists prayed and sang together. Portions of King’s 1958 speech were played, followed by dinner and a table discussion between the congregations about the challenges and next steps for race relations in the community.

Today, Martin Luther King would have turned 83 years old.
Would he be disappointed that we are still talking about race relations? Or would he be pleased at how different it looks?

“I have a dream that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream.” 

I have no way of knowing if the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners were in that room last Friday evening, but I do know that some fifty years after King first spoke about racial equality in this same community, his dream for blacks and whites to sit down at the table of brotherhood became a reality.

Ellen Blum Barish

In other news....

Several Beth Emet women - Marilyn Price, Betsy Fuchs and myself -  are featured in the launch of an online interfaith publication titled Creative Space, produced by the women of SoulSpace, a women's interfaith circle that celebrated 10 years in 2011.

Marilyn Gehant, founding mother of SoulSpace, writes, 

"We invite you to enter Creative Space and share the spiritual writing and images of our Jewish, Christian and Muslim contributors. The seeking spirit of women of faith is at work in our inaugural posting of Creative Space.  On the way to a wedding, in sacred spaces, through home ritual, women pray and make meaning of life’s gifts and challenges.  In the stillness of the woods and in the coolness of a swimming pool, they listen more deeply.  To earthquake shattered Pakistan and the holy places of Israel, they journey to form relationships in faith.  Waiting on the tarmac or sitting near a hospital bed or stirring a cup of coffee, women form images and expressions of souls searching the many manifestations of Adonai, God, Allah.  

Here's the link to read more:

And finally, because my daughter is en route back to college today from her first trip to Israel, I couldn't resist posting a link to this
wonderful Youtube video: a flash mob in Jerusalem. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Know Us by Our Names – and by Our Deeds

I have had a long-time fascination with synagogue names, how they came to be adopted, and how the name of the congregation and the values it reflects “play out” in the life of the congregation, if at all.  (I blogged about this three years ago on the Reform Judaism blog, at  

Here at Beth Emet, our founding story remains familiar and our founding principles are embedded in our congregational culture, where all are free to express the truth (emet) as they see it.  And the story is memorialized on our website, so that any visitor can know what we stand for and how we came to be in the place where we are.

But it must be said that openness to truth and freedom of speech are both relatively passive, the terrain across which our journey takes place.  The Beth Emet journey, over these sixty-plus years, has been one of action, and our action theme for the current year is tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue.  This theme provides us with programmatic focus, putting an even greater emphasis on what has long been integral to our congregational DNA. 

The instruction to pursue justice comes out of Parashat Shoftim, but the parasha also reminds us of other values, including rachamim, mercy, shalom, peace, emet, truth, and ometz, courage.  Hopefully these too are part of our genetic makeup. 

Fusing our Beth Emet stress on tzedek with my personal interest in what temples call themselves, I decided to take a specific look at congregations that incorporate tzedek in their names.  Given the distinct emphasis Reform Judaism has historically given to social justice, one would expect to find more than half a dozen on our roster of 900 congregations.  But that’s all there are.  (This compares, on the one hand, with 16 Reform “emet” congregations, and with 14 Conservative “tzedek” congregations.)

So what do the tzedek congregations of the Reform movement do about pursuing justice, and about featuring its pursuit?  Although all have active social action programs, with mitzvah days and interfaith programming and soup kitchens among their activities, only one of the six provides visible attention to its commitment to justice. 

B’nai Tzedek, in Fountain Valley, CA, reminds its congregants and its visitors every time they enter the sanctuary of where they are.  On the right side of their bimah wall are the words "Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof" – “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue.” On the left side of the bimah wall are the words "Marbeh Tzedakah Marbeh Shalom" – “The More Justice, the More Peace.”  Their website goes on to explain “Congregation B'nai Tzedek is committed to pursuing justice in synagogue life as well as in society at large. B'nai Tzedek means ‘Children of Justice.’"

We read in Tanchuma Vayakkhel:  Every man has three names: one by which his parents call him; another, by which he is known to the outside world; and a third, the most important, the name which his own deeds have procured for him. 


As it with people, so too it should be for synagogues:  they should be known not only by their names but by their deeds.  Our congregational names need to be more than identifiers – they need to be a starting point for our identities.  We read in Pirke Avot 1:18, The world stands on three things – on truth, on justice,* and on peace.  Much as I hope that every congregation lives up to the value its institutional parents inscribed in its name, and hopefully stresses it in some manner, no single one of our core values can be the only thing we do.   

*Full disclosure:  The Hebrew here is din, not tzedek, emphasizing law without the overtone of compassion inherent in tzedek.

Larry Kaufman

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Talmudic Lessons for the Wanna-Be's

I was lucky enough to be in Boston recently on the day Elie Wiesel gave the second of his three annual lectures at Boston University, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend (especially since he was introduced by Deanna Klepper, chair of the BU Department of Religion and wife of Beth Emet’s former cantor, the renowned Jeff Klepper.)

Prof. Wiesel’s subject was Eliezer ben Hyrcanus—Eliezer the Great, one of the rabbis whose insights are found in the Talmud and well-documented in Pirke Avot, in which Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai essentially describes Rabbi Eliezer as smarter (or does he mean more worthy?) than his four other disciples put together. 

Yet Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated following a dispute in which he steadfastly disagreed with the other sages--a strange situation for the same avot who set such store by the values of study, discussion, dissention, debate and interpretation. 

I have little doubt that Prof. Wiesel was actually making a crucial statement about what is happening too often in our political discourse here in the United States. And it should serve as a lesson to our leaders as they return to Washington for more Congressional shenannigans—as well as to us and our wanna-be leaders as we head into election season.

Legend has it that the debate that caused Rabbi Eliezer such trouble was over whether a certain oven was ritually pure. The oven was a special type, built in a certain way. Rabbi Eliezer argued rationally that it was pure, while all the others argued it was impure. Despite Torah’s requirements to comply with the rule of the majority, Rabbi Eliezer remained firm. When his rational arguments failed to convince them, Rabbi Eliezer turned to the supernatural. If this oven is pure, may this carob tree prove it, he said. And the tree was torn out by its roots and blown away. Still, his colleagues were unconvinced. May this stream of water prove it, he tried. And the stream flowed backward. With the others still unimpressed, he called on the walls of the building to prove his point, and they began to topple. But the other sages shamed the walls for interfering in an issue of law, and they ceased falling. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called upon Heaven to verify his interpretation, and Heaven scolded the others for disagreeing with Rabbi Eliezer.

The sages, however, invoked the laws of Torah as the operative authority over “the celestial intruder” and, out of Rabbi Eliezer’s presence, declared all his earlier legal opinions regarding purification matters invalid, and then excommunicated him.

“Isn’t the Talmud based on dialogue?” Prof. Wiesel asked. “Isn’t that which makes it so glorious, transcending time and frontier and fashion? Which means, isn’t the Talmud a celebration of the right to be different? To demonstrate the beauty of discussion and dissention? Why then should the great Rabbi Eliezer be punished and ostracized… and ultimately expelled from the academy? Only because he believed in it and he had the courage to say in what he believed?...His voice is personal, solitary—so what?  Is it so bad to be a minority of one?”

His conclusion is that Rabbi Eliezer’s mistake “was to call upon heaven rather than on logic…Talmudic debates, as all debates, are, and must be, rational, logical. They must take place at the human level. Once you introduce the supernatural element, it dominates the discussion and in effect, eliminates the participants. Such an attitude is dangerous…They were angry not with his views, although they disagreed with them, but with his methods.” 

And those methods involved God’s opinion in a case that rested on points of law. “They were not arguing about mysticism, or poetry…” Prof. Wiesel said both sides should have argued legal issues. Rabbi Eliezer, he said, “should have reasoned with them, drawing on his knowledge and experience. He should have used filibuster tactics to prevail upon them…(seeking) evidence from different sources, formulating new interpretations” to convince his friends, rather than relying on supernatural and divine judgments.  

“The sages,” Prof. Wiesel noted, “sought to avoid conflicts, disputes, fragmentation. They were not against minority views, nor were they against different opinions. They were against fanatic opinions. And none is as fanatic as the one that claims to derive from heaven. Such attitudes inevitably provoke splits. And in those critical times, with the Temple ruins still in everyone’s memory, the Jewish people needed unity of purpose and an awareness of man’s duty and power in order to be able, literally to be able, to dream of the new glory and sovereignty.” 

Substitute a few words in that paragraph, like “World Trade Center” for Temple, and “American” for Jewish, and you have a contemporary lesson. Concluded Prof. Wiesel, “Had Rabbi Eliezer used his human qualities…he would have remained their friend and their teacher...”

Can someone please pass along his lesson to our Congress and the wanna-be’s?

Janet Reed