Saturday, March 21, 2009

What about the Rebitz-men?

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle just ran a great piece on rabbis' husbands. Is their role different from that of the traditional rebitsohn -- rabbi's wife? Follow the link to find out.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Just saw the question about numbers and why they're important. Shabbat is coming, will answer afterward. Good question, hold the thought.

Shabbat shalom, y'all!

Economic uncertainty

Economic uncertainty has invaded our national psyche like a cancer threatening to burst through the body. Those of us born post-depression haven’t seen anything quite like this. In the Jewish world, important institutions are closing their doors. Some of them are suffering in the aftermath of Bernie Madoff. Madoff aside, the economic downturn is wreaking havoc. In this vein, it’s important for us to understand what’s happening to the Jewish community in Milwaukee. After all, that is the hub of Wisconsin Jewish life.

Recently, the Federation there has:
1. Cut the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle from a weekly to a monthly publication. Six of their employees – including one who worked there for a quarter of a century – are losing their jobs. What we will lose: a continuing stream of information about the Wisconsin Jewish world – as well as Jewish news in general. The Chronicle was an important vehicle keeping Green Bay Jews from feeling isolated.
2. Ended the chaplaincy program that ensured that all Jews in all Milwaukee-area hospitals were visited by rabbis. Rabbi Len Lewy – who has served for years as their head chaplain – a rabbi greatly respected in the community – will soon be out of a job.

This will pose serious difficulties for Milwaukee. Congregational rabbis depended on Rabbi Lewy to notify them when members were hospitalized. Otherwise, that’s difficult given privacy laws and the large number of congregations and hospitals.

Green Bay isn’t as complicated. We only have four hospitals, who all have chaplains who notify me if our members are hospitalized. We’re a small congregation, which makes hospital visits relatively easy.

This is a huge blow for sick people in Milwaukee – and for our own members who sometimes must go there for treatment.

3. Their food pantry is in serious trouble – which will make it much harder for needy Jews to keep kosher.

Funding is drying up for other projects – like the Day of Discovery, a great adult ed experience that a number of us here enjoy every year. Meanwhile, we’re either worried about our own jobs, or are watching our friends lose theirs.

So … what do we do?

The first and most tempting idea: hang our heads. It’s hard to avoid. This is sad. However, we must resist the temptation to let the uncertainty throw us into panic. The parshah known as Ki Tisa – Exodus 30:11-34:35 -- is a guide of what NOT to do when life is uncertain.We must NOT let our fears drive us into building a golden calf – because that’s exactly what drove our ancestors to such a heinous, blatant act of idolatry. They feared that Moses wouldn’t come back to them. He said he’d be gone 40 days. By the 40th day, they went into full-blown panic and insisted that Aaron build them a golden calf. That way, they’d simply replace both Moses and the God who had apparently swallowed him up.

Let’s focus on the uncertainty that led them to irrational fear.

I do not want to minimize the uncertainty generated by lost income and disappearing jobs. However, when our world seems to be falling apart, this is a signal that we must shift our own paradigms – the framework that helps us make sense of the world.The Golden Calf i reminds us that we dare not lose sight of our value systems. We tend to look at the Golden Calf as a stupid blunder – a sin – our ancestors committed thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, it’s a sin that it’s easy for US to commit. I don’t worry that we’re going to start melting down our gold and making statues to worship! I’m talking about something a lot more insidious.I’m talking about the way we see ourselves.

Our self-esteem is often tied to our jobs. We define success by markers such as: where our kids go to school; our prominence in the community; the size of our houses and how much money we make … and how much money we spend; even how busy we stay. We may feel more important if we’re busy – but that says nothing about HOW we spend our time … just that we spend it.

These “values” distract us from our own internal worlds. These self-descriptions are missing one important factor: what kind of people are we? Or more to the point, what kind of person am I?If I’m busy all the time, what am I doing? Am I helping others? Am I nurturing my family … or myself? Am I too “busy” for even a small amount of Jewish learning or communal prayer? Is “busy-ness” a virtue in itself, or do we use it as an excuse to avoid service to the community? What do we really value?

Of course money is important. We have to eat! We have to send our kids to school, keep a roof over our heads! On the other hand, there’s an old Yiddish proverb that: shrouds have no pockets.

The tremendous uncertainty of our times forces us to examine ourselves. Otherwise, we risk seduction by fear, false values, and depression that renders us unable to function. And at this point in time, we cannot spiritually afford to sit back.

Sometimes, there are solutions. Not always great ones. I would love to see my colleague, Rabbi Lewy, stay on as chaplain. While that’s not possible, the Council of Wisconsin Rabbis IS looking for ways to solve this problem and see that ailing Jews receive the spiritual care they need.The Council is also working to help find alternative funding for the Day of Discovery. What WE can do … here:
1. First step is always self-assessment.
2. Then … we must distinguish what we need … from what we want.
3. And each of us must ask ourselves … how can I help my community? Maybe we can’t give as much money as we’d like. But every one of us CAN give of ourselves.

Our society has become one of taking … not one of giving.

Individual needs … while important … have long superseded the needs of the community. What I want to do often bears no relationship to what others need me to do.We must shift our cultural paradigm from materialism to core values.

These measures certainly won’t solve the economic crisis … nor will they bring certainty into our lives.However, they WILL help us to withstand the changing times.

And now we come back to the Golden Calf … and what we did learn:
1. Moses forgave us
2. More importantly, God forgave us!
3. And WE … put away our idols … faced our uncertainty … and followed the King of Kings into the wilderness.

I see this as is a call to collaboration on helping our friends find jobs … and helping them survive if they can’t.We must work together … help each other … and turn our hardships into blessings.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Striking a blow against freedom

In the Torah portion this Shabbat, our ancestors got insecure and made a golden calf. This comes just after God redeemed us from the cruel bondage of the Egyptians. We experienced a number of great miracles which culminated with a the great Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Yet, forty days later, the newly-freed slaves reverted to the slavery implicit in worshipping idols.

Maybe the Jews were insecure. They didn't understand freedom. How could they? Life under Egyptian bondage had been cruel. Our people suffered. But, they knew what to expect of life. To us, it doesn't sound like much of a choice. Who would choose suffering over freedom -- even if freedom does mean insecurity, not knowing what to expect?

The sad reality, many of us live just that way. We're reluctant to change life patterns, even if some of those patterns cause us pain and sorrow. It can be as simple as lousy health choices or as complex as living in an abusive relationship. The comfort of the known world is often more luring than seeking a better life. Change is scary.

However, the Golden Calf episode wasn't even a reversion to old habits. The Egyptian overlords were idol-worshippers. Tradition tells us that throughout that period, the Jews remained true to Hashem.

Perhaps the Jews were trying to emulate their overlords. At this point in the saga, when they built the golden idol, Moses had been on the mountain for forty days. They gave up hope that their leader would return. They lost faith ... not just in God, but in the hope of living as free people. Otherwise, they wouldn't turn away from God and emulate their hated oppressors at the same time.

How do we handle our own fears? Do we revert to bad habits? Do we try to be like others -- and not like ourselves? Do we respond to our own oppression by trying to be like our oppressors?

Lots of questions for the Israelites, and lots of questions for ourselves.

Rabbi Shaina

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Parshah for Shabbat

Tetzavah, the parshah for March 7, is Exodus 28:31-29:18. It begins on page 508 of Etz Hayim.
The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of memory. Therefore, the maftir Torah reading will be Deuteronomy 25:17-19, beginning on page 1135 of Etz Hayim. This reading relates to Amalek, a group that attacked us during the desert wandering. We read it because Haman is descended from Amalek. The Haftarah is I Samuel 15:2-35, on page 1282 of Etz Hayim.