And the Sun Sets on Congregation B’nai Torah

In Ecclesiastes we are told:

For every season there is a purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, a time to die…a time to build, a time to tear down. (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff)

This Shabbat is my final service at Congregation B’nai Torah in Highland Park, Illinois. Next week, is the congregation’s final service before it closes its doors for good on June 30th.

I will be moving to Stony Brook, New York to become the rabbi of Temple Isaiah.

For me, I get to begin a new chapter in a vibrant and vital community.

For my B’nai Torah community, however, the congregants have to cope with the pain, loss and anguish of watching their beloved congregation of almost 60 years cease to exist.

Sunset on Lake Michigan, view from B'nai Torah. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel
Sunset on Lake Michigan, view from B’nai Torah. Photo credit: Sharon Sobel

Congregation B’nai Torah was once the center of liberal Jewish religious life on the North Shore of Lake Michigan. As the sun sets on this once prestigious synagogue, it represents the end of an era.

This is a sad day for us all. But just as the sun sets each evening, a new dawn does break. It will take time to find the beauty in the new day. To find a way back toward healing and wholeness.

I will offer these words to my beloved community this evening:

My Farewell Remarks to My Congregation B’nai Torah Community, Friday, June 20, 2014

Rabbi Evan Moffic, of Solel Congregation also wrote a beautiful piece:

We All Hurt When A Synagogue Closes

Shabbat Shalom – may it be a Shabbat of peace, healing and community.


Yes, Time Magazine, He IS “Worth It!” Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl Home…A Jewish View

The cover of this week’s Time Magazine has a drawing of US Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl against a backdrop of a US flag.

The large caption reads: “WAS HE WORTH IT? The Cost of Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl Home”

Cover of Time Magazine, June 16, 2014 issue
Cover of Time Magazine, June 16, 2014 issue

I know that headlines sell magazines. But I find this very troubling. “Was he worth it?” Really? Aren’t we taught in our tradition that each and every one of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God?

Later that same day, I was working with one of my pre-Bar Mitzvah students on his d’var Torah for the fall. His Torah portion is Noah. He chose to focus on the verse (Genesis 6:9) that states: “Noah was righteous in his generation.”

My student did a beautiful job summarizing the Torah portion, explaining its meaning and sharing what commentators have to say about it.

Then the discussion became interesting when it was time to relate it to modern times. What does it mean to be “righteous in one’s time?” What does it mean to expend one’s effort on behalf of others and do the right thing? The student then went on to criticize President Barack Obama for making a deal to trade 5 Taliban terrorists to free the “deserter Bowe Bergdahl.”

I paused when I read this. On the one hand, I encourage my students to apply the lessons of Torah to modern life. On the other hand, it concerns me that we have been so quick to judge Bowe Bergdahl when all the facts are still not known.

I used this as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about what our tradition has to teach about justice. We are taught by our tradition:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…
Justice, justice shall you pursue…
Deuteronomy 16:20

And we are also taught:

מַצִּ֣יל נְ֭פָשׁוֹת עֵ֣ד אֱמֶ֑ת וְיָפִ֖חַ כְּזָבִ֣ים מִרְמָֽה׃
Matzil n’fashot ad emet v’yafiyach.
Truthful witness saves lives,
but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.

Proverbs 14:25

We don’t know the entire story about what happened to Bowe Bergdahl, or why he made some of the choices he did. What we do know is this: every human life is sacred. Israel makes many of the same sacrifices to bring back their captured soldiers, just as President Obama made the decision to bring back Sgt. Bergdahl.

We need to wait to learn the rest of the facts, for justice to run its course before we are quick to judge.

My colleague, Rabbi Keith Stern, (Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, MA) wrote a beautiful piece about this, an open letter to Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, which sums up how I feel. I share that with you below:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl,

I truly can’t imagine what these past several years have been like for you. Knowing your son was being held captive by the Taliban, not knowing where he was or the status of his health… I’m sure you haven’t slept well for years. And then this: the anxiety over whether Bowe would be freed (we know there had been similar plans aborted), the thrill of his safe release… and now the firestorm of criticism and hypocrisy.

I’ve never met you nor have I met Bowe. Thankfully I found the Rolling Stone article written by Michael Hastings (who tragically died in a car crash last year). I feel like I know you and Bowe and his situation a little better.

Bowe’s childhood growing up on 40 acres of lush farm tucked into remote country sounds like another world to me, a suburbs boy who’s raised his kids in a fairly insulated and protected environment. Bowe had a whole world to explore on a dirt bike. He loved his bb gun. It sounds glorious and free.

But you tempered his freedom. You homeschooled your kids and rigorously set out a moral system by which they could evaluate their actions. They learned about accountability for their behavior.

Bowe tried to find his balance point between responsibility and adventure. Mr. Bergdahl, you seem to have been a tremendous influence on Bowe, telling him not what to do but rather to do what he thought right. What an honorable man you are. It is not easy to parent a child with so much energy and drive and curiosity, a kid who seemed determined to push the envelope, to become an Olympic fencer or to join the French Foreign Legion or, for that matter, the US Army.

The two of you obviously know a whole lot more than I do, so you may know much more about Bowe’s story and why he left his post. The Rolling Stone article painted a disheartening story about his unit and its lack of leadership and discipline. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with the kind of chaos that seemed to constantly flare up into trouble must have been mentally challenging and exhausting. The point is, nobody knows yet why he left his post. So why are so many people judging Bowe? He is being pilloried in the press by pundits and politicians who profess to know something. These people use lies and half-truths to turn your son into a shirker, a deserter, a turncoat. It is striking to me that there is no such thing as circumspection, no benefit of a doubt. There is no empathy, no mature sense of propriety. I am ashamed of the way some of our country’s politicians and journalists have spoken, for they truly besmirch the good name of this country, not to mention, of course, your son’s honor. In the Jewish tradition such talk is utterly unacceptable.

So now you are in limbo. Bowe is safely returned to the US, but I would guess you are still not sleeping. You’re wondering what shoe may yet drop. But I know that you must be so relieved that at least you know where he is. I am so saddened that his welcome home ceremony was cancelled. I get it, but that must have been yet another bitter pill to swallow.

I’m sure people have pointed out all of the facts about the prisoner swap that enabled your son to get home. As a Zionist and a Jew, I know that Israel has released thousands of prisoners in order to return Israeli soldiers from captivity. In fact, Israel has swapped prisoners to get dead Israelis back. It’s never easy. It’s always controversial. But in the end most Israeli parents need to know at the end of the day that their children will not be abandoned in captivity.

 Like I said, I don’t know what happened. We may never really get the truth. But this I do know: It doesn’t matter if Bowe had deserted his post or not. The story may end up unfavorably. Your son may be in legal trouble. As David Brooks wrote today:

It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship, and loyalty to the national community we all share. Soldiers don’t risk their lives only for those Americans who deserve it; they do it for the nation as a whole.

I am so sorry for your anguish. I hope you are soon reunited with your son. And if things get harder, if there is litigation and more circus antics in the press, please know that many of us who are parents and grandparents and proud Americans send you our love and support. No matter what, he’s still your boy.

Rabbi Keith Stern

In Praise of Strong and Compassionate Women

Yesterday, four remarkable women took me to lunch to wish me well on my new professional journey.

These are some of my congregants who have been studying with me, worshipping with me and engaging with me on many different levels over the past two years. They are not only my congregants, but they have become my friends as well. And I have learned as much from them as they say they have learned from me. They are a very accomplished group of women:

  • one has her Masters Degree in Political Science/American Government. Following a highly successful career in both the business and academic world, she ran for public office and had 16 distinguished years in local government.
  • two of them have Phd’s in different subjects and served as professors in local universities.
  • one was a teacher and very instrumental on the board of the local Hillel.

The women presented me with a gift: a lovely book on Women Throughout the Ages.

A Farewell Lunch with Some Remarkable Women
A Farewell Lunch with Some Remarkable Women

One common thread wove through our conversation: they felt it was special and unique to have a woman lead them as their spiritual leader. For this group of women – who were all at the top of their own areas of expertise – they felt that women bring a unique perspective to the rabbinate.

As a woman who was born in 1960, I always find this interesting. I don’t often think about my gender in my approach to the sacred work that I am doing. But my gender is an integral part of who I am. It informs the decisions I make and how I view the world, consciously or subconsciously.

From a Jewish perspective, since our ancient texts were written by men, we lack enough stories about women who were both strong and compassionate who can serve as role models for our community. But there are a few that I love.

One example is the Prophetess/Judge Deborah. In Judges, Chapter 4, we read about Deborah who was leading the Israelites at that time. She used to sit under a palm tree and people would come from far and wide to seek her wise counsel. As the Israelites were about to go to war against the Canaanites, she summoned her general, Barak to give him his “marching orders.” He refused to go unless she would come with him. Deborah said that she would accompany him, but that if she did so, God would only deliver the enemy’s head (Sisera) to the hands of a woman. Barak doesn’t care – he is afraid to go without Deborah by his side.

Deborah is compassionate and strong. She is not afraid to do the difficult task in order to bring about the greater good for her people.

Our world has changed dramatically since Deborah’s time. We do know many more strong women and many more compassionate men. But we still have a long way to go.

Artist-Poet Judy Chicago states it best, in her famous poem “The Merger” from her exhibition “The Dinner Party:”

And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again. 

– Judy Chicago