Lech L’cha! It is time to move on!

Lech L’cha! It is time to move on!

Thus opens this week’s Torah reading, as YHVH tells Avram to hit the road, leaving behind all that he knows. Well, he is leaving everything he is familiar with, which is not the same thing. For somehow Avram knows something about the divine and when he “hears” the voice he understands it, he recognizes it.

It is easy to look around us and think we see the real world. Those thoughts, feeling, hunches, voices in our heads? Not so real. But what if we have it all backwards and our internal life is the only real aspect of our world? Great questions. Seeking the answers has inspired not only the religions of the world but entire fields of academic and medical study: psychology, anthropology, philosophy, neurology, etc.

This reminds me of Yom Kippur, where engagement with the material world is limited and the internal world is magnified. It is strange, then, that the language we find in the Torah is “afflict the soul,” since it seems like the soul is the aspect of our being being heightened. The word for soul, nefesh, can mean many things, as is often true for Hebrew, which has far fewer words that English. The list in my lexicon reads: soul, person, self, life, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion.

I invite you to stop for a moment and transport yourself back those weeks ago, noticing what is recalled from that day. Ponder your usual perspectives about this high point of the High Holy Days. What was denied? What was magnified? What was heard, felt, understood? How can the impact of the day keep guiding your life this year, and onward?

To where do you need to Lech L’cha / move yourself forward??

We are Free – to Save a Life

Last week’s wonderful conversation about Jewish tradition when approaching questions of life and death brought together so many important issues, and some that have been on my mind for a long time. The questions at hand often relate to the conflicting ideas of freedom and responsibility, especially in light of the current conflicts around mask wearing and the “re-opening” of our economies and gathering places. A few highlights make the Jewish perspective fairly clear:

1. Freedom is not the same as Redemption – We were redeemed from slavery in Egypt in order to create a just society, not for the sake of personal freedom. Holding personal freedom above communal welfare is wholly antithetical to Jewish wisdom.

2. Save a Life – Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a “soul” is more important than almost any other commandment, including keeping Shabbat. Not only is mask wearing a good thing to do, but it has been suggested that one say the mitzvah blessing before donning one in order to fulfill the mitzvah of saving a life: “asher kid’shanu bimitzvotav vitzivanu al pikuach nefesh.”

3. Build a Parapet – When you build a house with an accessible roof (very common in hot places and biblical times) you must build a railing to assure no one falls. Pesky regulation say some. Torah says it is the law!

4. We are Responsible for One Another – The Aramaic here is “aravim,” or all mixed together. Our personal and communal futures are interconnected. Some choices are good for us and others. Others bring good to an individual only by creating hardship for others. Judaism prefers the first choice.

5. Scarcity creates Ethical Dilemmas – Here the rabbis are not clear and medical ethics continues to struggle. In Talmud, it was one jug of water for two people. There was not agreement on whether it was better that one man should live or none should watch a friend die. This recent article addresses this type of question in today’s terms.

As a healthcare professional with a long standing interest in ethics and public health, I have long struggled with the clash between personal freedom and our communal structures. Much of the “regulation” in our society – for instance, requiring wearing seatbelts or helmets, or passenger side airbags – aims to keep everyone safe from injury. But these individual choices have impact on broader systems in our society – insurance, healthcare, and the emotional and moral toll of someone having caused a death that could have been avoided.

Individuals demanding freedom from masks, social distancing, and take-out are then at higher risk for illness individually and in the community. While they choose to take the risk to become ill, they then depend on systems that are communally funded (insurance) and morally obligated to treat all patients regardless of ability to pay (and already stretched too thin.) This recent article addresses the need to treat all patients the same, even if they are lock-down protestors. It also discusses the horror and fear present in the hallways of hospitals and hearts of healthcare workers.

Similar examples apply to the helmet-less rider and unbelted driver and the critical-care patient who rejects the requirement for medical insurance. We all pay the collective financial, emotional, and civic toll caused by preventable deaths, injury, and illness and our system. Is it ethical to ask those who opt out of these regulations to opt out of using our communal resources?? Jewish law says no. But it also says that opting out is not really an option.

A Season of Counting

We are in the season of counting. Parashat Emor, which we will read in the coming week, specifies the ritual for the omer. The first sheaf of the harvest, the first omer, which is lifted up by the priest, accompanied by an olah, a burnt offering, of a perfect yearling lamb. And then we count off seven weeks. On the fiftieth day the sheaves become loaves, the offerings multiply. Amid the abundance we are reminded to be generous, leaving the edges of the field and all missed and dropped produce for the poor and the stranger.

Deuteronomy (chapter 16) tells us more: “You will keep the festival of Shavuot/Weeks…. You will rejoice, along with your families and servants, the Levite and the stranger, the orphan and the widow.” The bounty is to be shared with those near and those in need.

By the Talmudic period, Shavuot celebrated the gift of Torah, rather than the summer harvest. The fifty-day journey from redemption to revelation. By the beginning of May, we will be almost halfway to Sinai. But this year we are also counting other, larger, numbers.

By the first day of the omer, 2756 people in Wisconsin had contracted COVID-19, 402,923 in the U.S. By press time over 2 million had been infected worldwide with 160,000 dead. These huge numbers echo the magnitude of the Exodus and approach that of the Sho’ah.

We read Torah each year with new eyes and a new heart. This year, with the counting of illness and death as background, the counting of the omer can feel trivial by comparison. The Kabbalists provide a practice to help guide us on this year’s difficult journey, using the weeks of the omer to explore the sephirot, the divine qualities, in the Tree of Life. The ten sephirot provide a broad perspective of ways of being in the world. All ten of the sephirot can be mapped on the human form, but tradition suggests we can only access the lower seven.

The first week of the omer, the week of Pesach is characterized by chesed, unbounded love, perfect for this festival characterized textually by Song of Songs. We begin by feeling the love of the one who redeems us from slavery and opening our doors (metaphorically this year) to all who desire. But this love quickly transitions to judgment and boundaries, the week of gevurah, as our doors shut, our open hands retract, and we retreat within more secure borders.

Perhaps you have been feeling this push/pull of chesed and gevurah over these weeks. We yearn to reach out and connect with our loved ones as we retreat in fear, and by public decree, into our own spaces. We seek a way to help those in need and others putting themselves in harm’s way for the public good and watch others outside, or online, and judge their distancing, their face coverings.

The resolution comes from tiferet – compassion, mercy, balance. We can temper our anger, knowing we cannot intuit the actions or motives of another. We can quench our desire, accepting there is wisdom within the barriers. But where do we go from here?

These first weeks of May correspond netzach and hod, flowing from tiferet and mapped on our two thighs, guiding our journey. Netzach, or victory, may be interpreted as perseverance, an enduring strength bringing us through extended struggle. Its reflection of hod, with strong relationship to hoda’ah, gratitude, allows us to be appreciative and accepting of what is in the moment. Together, these contrasting energies move us forward, step by step.

An ancient tale of Solomon provides us with the saying, gam zeh ya’avor/this too shall pass. While this may seem a crass or flip response to a pandemic, it is the only real truth we have. Every step of the journey is new. At any moment we may need to access our strength or submit to a reality beyond our control. Our hearts will break for the losses that are endured and reach out to those in need. Our anger will stir in the wake of irresponsibility. We will feel hopeless and retreat. We will steel our strength and forge ahead.

And at the end of these seven weeks we will rejoice in the gift of Torah, sharing our bounty with those near and in need, casting off the excess that we can leave behind, grateful that our tradition provides guidance for the journey.

Light in the Darkness

With Thanksgiving behind us the winter holiday season is moving into full swing. This year, with the “late” Jewish calendar, our Hanukkah festivities are pretty much concurrent with Christmas, winter break, vacations, etc. While there is no question that Hanukkah is the most misunderstood, taken out of context, and Americanized holiday, I am not sure it really matters any more to many folks; we have bigger problems to deal with in our world, right? But I so wish it did.

As we learned at a recent Tuesday morning session, a lot of the Jewish calendar is pagan celebration in disguise. And at springtime and the winter solstice the Christian calendar tracks right along with us. The miracle of the oil and the birth of Jesus at the end of December are equally mythic, and equally young. The historical story that created Hanukkah wasn’t until the 2nd century BCE with the addition of lights a century or two later and the current date of Christmas wasn’t set until the fourth century CE. These holidays, and the pagan festivals they are based on, bring light into the darkness of this time of year.

What we have lost along the way, however, is the experience of the darkness. How can one truly appreciate light if there is nothing but light along the way? As Wendell Berry so eloquently wrote:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

I was moved by this recent NYT piece about Advent, the season leading up to Christmas, acknowledging the need to experience the darkness before the light. The ideas and concerns of this writer will resonate with many of you and echo many of our own challenges of this time of year.

And of course, we will bring light to the hungry and homeless in MKE again this year. Please see below for a new model of the Tikkun Ha’Ir Gifts for the Homeless program, through which we will provide cheer to 22 infants and their parents. AND we will be providing Christmas dinner at the St. Vincent DePaul south meal site – look for details and sign up sheet next week!

Week of May 5, 2019

It has been said that when the world feels overwhelming and problems seem insurmountable, it is good to focus on things that actually have a chance of success. To that end, I have been keen to deal with my front yard, a little bit of which washes away during every rain and creates a little pool of mud where the sidewalk is uneven near the corner. My house sits up above the sidewalk and the front lawn is more like the side of a hill. Since we live at the low end of a sloping street, other properties also contribute to the mud slick, but we only control what we can control, right?

So, on a warm, sunny spring day (remember that Monday, about a month ago?) inspired to take advantage of the weather and solve my mud problem, as well as to give my teenager something physical to do, I grabbed a shovel, handed her a hoe, and pointed to a 4 foot wide strip of patchy grass and soil on the hillside. Thirty minutes later, a layer of all-in-one seed and mulch blanket was in place, with the “biodegradable paper liner” facing down as per the instructions on the bag containing the 40 foot roll of product I had bought in anticipation of this moment. Two cold weeks later, following the busy-ness of preparing to march to freedom, two seders, and twice a day watering, the faded, but essentially intact, all-in-one seed and mulch lawn blanket, along with its “biodegradable paper liner” was scraped off the wet soil and composted and bricks were placed along the sidewalk to stem the tide of mud (which would have been useful for brick building prior to marching to freedom.)

Having fit in a visit to the garden center and purchased a pound of loose grass seed at some point during the week-long march to freedom, I set out on the next warm, sunny afternoon, scattered a generous layer of the seed over the strip of bare soil, and, after carefully soaking off and composting the “biodegradable paper lining,” covered them with a fresh layer of all-in-one seed and mulch lawn blanket. Two not quite as cold weeks later, following a lovely mimouna celebration, another abandoned counting of the omer, and twice a day watering, the strip of all-in-one seed and mulch blanket looks a bit like a yeshiva boy’s cheek, with irregular, wisps of grass emerging. I can’t explain just how exciting this is. Maybe, if grass can grow where there was a mudslide……..

Since this week contains the Israeli yamim, the obvious “then” to the sentence above would involve doing something to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. (Now you understand why I would rather discuss my front yard, right?) Sadly, things on that front are looking worse every day (but you should see my grass!) We will have a chance to share our hopes and dreams and frustrations this Shabbat, when our service will be full of Israeli music, old and new, and dinner will feature a talk by and discussion with special guest Gili Meisler. Gili, an Israeli writer and filmmaker produced a documentary about his brother Giora, an Israeli soldier of the Yom Kippur war who disappeared “missing in action.” Gili has been searching for “him and for himself” ever since. Gili is also the director of media and communications for ‘The Parents Circle – Families Forum’, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the ongoing conflict.

If you would like to share the joy of working with dirt, then I hope you will join Shir’s annual garden project. We will be building garden plots for refugee families through the Victory Garden Blitz program. We need lots of hands for building, filling, and even planting these plots on Sunday May, 19.

Wait! What did I say? Rumor has it that hearing things clearly during our services, especially High Holidays, can be challenging. If you have concerns about this, please complete this short, focused survey.

Continue reading to learn about all the excitement coming up!!


Last night I had the pleasure of teaching a session on “Jewish Time” for the community-wide introduction to Judaism course, hosted by the JCC. How exciting to introduce learners, seekers, and future members of Jewish families, whether through marriage or conversion, to unique aspects of Jewish life and practice. Somehow we covered topics as diverse as “Why is it year 5779?” to “How is Shabbat an antidote to slavery?” For the last few minutes I answered questions about Reconstructionist Judaism; as you know I am fond of sharing our rich and values-based legacy.

Todah rabbah to Rabbi David Brusin for leading last night’s shiva minyan for Bob Jacobs and to the many community members who gathered to support Marilyn and her family. We will gather again this evening and hope that the weather does not preclude participation. Of course safety is of the utmost importance, and Marilyn will certainly be pleased to hear from you at any time. Staying in touch and expressing your concern and affection after shiva is over is a mitzvah!

As a result of tonight’s shiva, Shir’s February board meeting has been moved to next Thursday evening. It is the first meeting with our new leadership and everyone is welcome to join us! And as always, I invite you to look below for more ways to engage with and support our community through ritual, study, good works, and FUN!

We Bring Warmth in the Cold

While it will be tough to compete with the weather for any news this week, I am going to try, especially because there is so much warmth to share after this past weekend. Even given our first burst of cold, we had at least a double minyan brave the weather to celebrate Shabbat together and explore Reconstructionist thought. From Rabbi Brusin’s story of discovering RRC when he did not fit in anywhere else, to acknowledging that our congregational growing edge may be in our exploring the role and experience of our non-Jewish members and guests, we touched on a wide variety of issues and ideas, both personal and communal. Missed it? Look for a reprise of the learning as an Adult Education program in the coming weeks.

After enjoying a very low key Shabbat day with my family, I experienced an amazing Sunday which contained concentric circles of lovely people and energy. That morning, I was honored to be at the funeral for Barbara Lutsky’s father, Milton Schwartz. I had never met Milton, and learned that this was a man who epitomized the idea of a mentsch.  He was hailed as considerate and thoughtful, a man who listened more than he spoke, treated every person with respect, supported his family and his business with diligence and care, and kissed his beloved wife hello and goodbye every day of his life, while appreciating every kindness she, and all, bestowed upon him. How grateful I was to be reminded that there were, and still are, people like Milton Schwartz in our world.

Next on the calendar was our Shir annual meeting, highlighting our activities of the past year. With updates to our dues structure, our administrative organization, our space, and our board leadership, CSH is ever evolving! The energy was upbeat and positive. See below for more details about the meeting and opportunities for getting involved as we continue to build our programming at CSH and in the wider MKE community.

Finally, I was this month’s host for the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee’s “Amazing Faiths” dinner. Ten participants representing eight faith groups, plus a moderator, enjoyed a light meal in our dining room and explored how faith works in their lives and traditions. While our role was limited to providing food and space, we definitely absorbed the energy of fellowship. I spent part of the evening sitting just beyond the dining room door catching up on the days email, and so appreciated the counterpoint that the conversation behind me made to the daily news!

If you have not been to any of the IFC’s programs I hope you take a look. On February 24, I will be helping with the second installment of the “Amazing Faiths Dinner 2.0” program, which features a presentation by a local faith community (Ba’hai this time) followed by a shared meal and conversation. As I noted at Sunday’s meeting, my community efforts have decidedly been in the areas of interfaith and justice work, including the Black-Jewish caucus, the Jewish-Catholic programs at the Federation as well as the Lux Center, as well as the IFC, and, of course, MICAH and THI.

Sadly, all these warm relationships will not be enough to protect us from the arctic conditions out there, so stay warm and safe. Good news is it sounds like we will have a reprieve before Shabbat!

On Shabbat morning we delved into the early phase of Moses’ call to redeem the Israelite slaves. Whenever we sit down together and study text I am surprised by two things:

1) Even when we think we know the story or content, we never get it quite right and find ourselves learning it all over again!
2) Whether we recall something correctly or not, we often see with new eyes or from a new perspective and perceive something wholly new.

The hiddush (a new idea – from the same root as hadash!) this week took place at the burning bush. For a long time, the interpretation that has been prominent was the idea that it was Moses’ ability and willingness to pay enough attention to even notice that the fiery bush was not being consumed. As we looked closely at the text this time another detail called out. Moses was walking by shepherding his sheep and noticed the fire in the bush. And then he stopped and turned to take a closer look.

Perhaps it is the challenging times we live in that made this moment feel so important. It is so easy to see something and continue walking along. What does it mean that Moses was concerned and interested enough to stop what he was doing and change his intention and focus? What would it mean if all people had the curiosity and concern to stop, and to turn, engaging with something outside of our own agenda or trajectory?

Between the Holiday Edition

Wow, what a party and what a feast! We are so grateful to Lil Rev and his friends for amazing music, humor, and important messages to think about at this time of year, and this year in history. Thanks to Sam Essak and the latke crew for immersing themselves in oil on our behalf. As usual, Marlene, Adam and Erin went beyond the call – they take such good care of us!

Thanks in advance to Jen and Sam Essak for hosting Shabbat Dinner tomorrow. Their table is full.

Opportunities for feeding the hungry abound this month. Shir is once again providing and serving the Christmas day meal at St. Vincent de Paul. Plus, we have been invited to participate in the annual Pathfinders holiday meal, taking place at our usual space in Plymouth just before our December 21st Shabbat/Solstice service in the Graham Chapel. AND there is still time to contribute to Tikkun Ha-Ir’s holiday gifts for the homeless as well as have your financial contribution to THI doubled. See all the details below.

Also below, you will also find a link to our member survey. Shir leadership would love your feedback!

Yes, it is pretty late in the week of December 10th. Some weeks are like that 🙂

Rising Up!

SO many thanks to Kai Mishlove and special guest Samaher Aldaye who taught us so much about the situation with refugees here in MKE. Their experiences were enhanced by the screening of parts of the new film THIS IS HOME. If you missed it, or are excited to see the film in its entirety, stay tuned as we work to bring the film to a MKE-wide audience. Also stay tuned as we begin to organize opportunities to get involved supporting local refugee families.

As we know, the program we presented on Shabbat, and the effort to support refugees seeking asylum altogether, has been closely linked to last weekend’s shooting. SO many aspects of this story are tragic, including the fact that this man believed stories regarding the character, and actions, of refugees that are simply untrue. In an amazing story in the Washington Post about the Jewish personnel involved with Bowers’ care, hospital president Jeffrey K. Cohen noted: “He listens to the noise, he hears the noise, the noise was telling him his people were being slaughtered. He thought it was time to rise up and do something.”

And now it is time for us all to rise up and do something, including redoubling our commitment to support all those seeking safety and asylum in this country, and including electing a government that supports the basic human rights of all people, regardless of gender (cis, trans, or non-binary), sexual orientation, religion, skin color, language spoken, country of origin, or previous convictions. These rights must include freedom from fear of physical or emotional harm, from slander and lies, and from being detained while doing the activities of daily living. It includes the right to vote, and easy access to fulfilling this right. It includes the assumption that ALL PEOPLE are considered innocent until proven guilty.

On Sunday, Shir members gathered to pray, vent, and process. One theme evident soon after we arrived was that many were neither shocked nor surprised that an event like this could happen in the current political climate. The primary theme just before our departure was the importance of loving, and caring, and giving even more within all the communities we are part of. Then, Monday evening’s MKE community-wide vigil was powerful and empowering, as all facets of the Jewish, religious, and civic communities gathered in solidarity. One theme from the evening echoed our own: love more! Another has been expanded into a nationwide movement: Go to shul this shabbat, and invite your friends and community to join you. In support of that effort, two things are happening at Shir.Friday night will be a “pop-up” Shabbat dinner, not previously scheduled, for all who wish to be together this Friday evening. The morning Song and Study is being moved to our space at Plymouth and will feature an Islamic scholar from Marquette who will join us for a text study and teach us about the Genesis stories that appear in the Quran.

Lastly, while you have likely received or seen myriad statements, there is an exhaustive response from the Reconstructionist movement regarding the Pittsburgh shooting, including news regarding our affiliated community, Congregation Dor Hadash, on the Reconstructing Judaism website.