The sermon got done!

CAUTION- Long post ahead!  Here is the sermon from last Weds night.  I think it worked!


Erev Rosh Hashana 5774

Building the Mikdash Me’at


Anyone need drywall work done?  Last month, we took 2 trips to New York to help rebuild houses that were destroyed by hurricane sandy.  We mudded.  We sanded.  We painted, trimmed, installed insulation.  The first house we worked in was owned by a single mom and her 8-year-old daughter, upstairs in a tiny loft space while her downstairs was being rebuilt.  Another house was of a 90-year-old woman who was bouncing between relatives while the gutted inside got redone. 


At one house, where our volunteers were installing insulation, the homeowner came to Rachael Yourtz.  This woman cried as she told Rachael about losing everything and the long road ahead in rebuilding her home.  She also cried when she talked about the gratitude she felt. 


We didn’t just do an abstract concept of social action.  We built houses.  But it was more.  We helped rebuild people’s lives. Our work was holy work, and our building was of holy places. The walls we were building became a mikdash me’at. 


What is a Mikdash Me’at? It’s based on a line in Chapter 11 of the Book of Ezekiel.  As the people of Israel languished in their Babylonian exile, the prophet Ezekiel told them that God was a mikdash me’at: a little sanctuary.  The “real” mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, had recently been destroyed, and the heart of the lives of the Jewish people had been cut out of them.  The holiest place in the world lay in rubble.  Ezekiel tells the people that even though God has scattered them among the lands, yet God has been a small sanctuary, a Mikdash me’at, to them.  


The Talmud expands the Mikdash me’at to mean synagogues and study halls.  This is our Mikdash me’at.  Later rabbinic commentary tells us that everywhere can be a mikdash me’at: our homes, our schools, our offices, our very beings.  As we left for Long Island, it was with this in mind.  We would be creating a mikdash me’at through our hard work, sharing of ourselves with those in need.  We would create a mikdash me’at within ourselves, the feeling of doing holy work.


It was not just the doing good that made the experience special. It was that we got to share it with each other, to form bonds with each other.  When we got on the Virgin America plane together to return home, it was with the experience that had drawn us all so much closer to each other. 


The story is told of a great rabbi who is given the privilege of seeing the realms of Heaven and Hell before his death. He was taken first to Hell, where he was confronted with a huge banquet room in the middle of which was a large elegant table covered with a magnificent and crystal. The table was covered from one end to the other with the most delicious foods that the eyes have ever seen or the mouth tasted. And all around the table people were sitting looking at the food…and wailing. It was such a wail that the rabbi had never heard such a sad sound in his entire life and he asked, “With a luxurious table and the most delicious food, why do these people wail so bitterly?” As he entered the room, he saw the reason for their distress. For although each was confronted with this incredible sight before him, no one was able to eat the food. Each person’s arms were splinted so that the elbows could not bend. They could touch the food but could not eat it. The anguish this caused was the reason for the great wail and despair that the rabbi saw and heard.

He was next shown Heaven, and to his surprise he was confronted by the identical scene witnessed in Hell: The large banquet room, elegant table, lavish settings, and sumptuous foods. And, in addition, once again everyone’s arms were splinted so the elbows could not bend. Here, however, there was no wailing, but rather joy greater than he had ever experienced in his life. For whereas here too the people could not put the food into their own mouths, each picked up the food and fed it to another. They were thus able to enjoy, not only the beautiful scene, the wonderful smells, and the delicious foods, but the joy of sharing and helping one another.


When we got back from the east coast, Eli Melmon, the youngest member of our crew said that he felt good contributing because the amount of people that had been hit and the amount of people helping, was not exactly an even ratio and there need to be more people to even out the ratio.  We can’t leave each other behind if we’re to create mikdash me’at.  We need to share generously.    


Reality is though that sometimes sharing is not possible due to circumstances: a hurricane takes all that we have, we lose a job, unexpected illness taxes our resources.  Our neediness takes away our ability to share with one another.  But many of us face neediness that goes beyond poverty and resource depletion.  It’s the neediness of being overburdened by life, being overwhelmed by tasks.  We are needy in a different way. 


It’s as if we live a natural disaster that has taken away not our homes or our purchasing power, but our very souls.  We may not realize it, but we’ve lost the ability to share because of either circumstances or our own conscious choices. And losing that ability to share hinders our ability to build that Mikdah Me’at, or even tears it down.


When I’m able to make time for Rockin’ Shabbat, for example, I love the music and the story.  But I really love the ability to share Shabbat. Think about Avinu Malkeinu or the Neila service.  The tunes and liturgy could move us if we were by ourselves, but when we do them together with our community, “Wow!”  It’s a peak experience, partly because we share it with each other.  When someone brings up Avinu Malkeinu in class, others nod their heads and look with a reverie, understanding exactly the types of feelings of others because they share those feelings.  Those who have been to Israel together in this community have a special bond that they share with each other.  Shameless plug- we’re going again.  There’s still space!


In April we had the amazing experience of neighborhood Shabbat, where so many of you generously opened up your homes.  Afterwards, I talked to one person who had been skeptical about going, but afterward let me know how happy he had been to share the experience with others in our community.  Sharing each others’ lives is what we’re talking about when we talk about relational Judaism.  You’ll hear many more times over the next couple of weeks, and by email, about the Sukkot brunches that we are doing in neighborhoods.  Host one of these, or if you can’t, then say yes to sharing in someone else’s Sukkah. It’s because the nature of community is to share.


“I would love to build a sukkah, but….”  as you imagine the feelings that are created by family and friends as we share laughter and stories. Ah, the sukkah….. My favorite holiday is Sukkot.  It isn’t hard to figure out why.  Eating outside, having friends over, visiting other people’s sukkot.  Building, decorating.  What a blessing.  The themes of sukkot:  Gratitude, fragility, celebrating bounty, relief that the crops turned out okay.  All of these resonate with me. 


On a deeper level, what really resonates with me is the conception of the sukkah as a mikdash me’at.  We share with each other our bounty, and create deeper relationships together.  There is something about building something, or if we can’t build it ourselves, about sitting in a newly constructed space.  Whether it’s a home on Long Island, or a sukkah in our yard, the physical space lends itself toward being a MIkdash Me’at, a place where fresh starts are possible, where holiness can reside. 


And so you might ask, why talk about Sukkot tonight, on Rosh Hashanah?  Well, there’s precedent in Nehemiah 8, where on Rosh Hashana Ezra tells the people to build a sukkah.  And for the first time since Joshua leads the people into the land, they do it.  Starting today, we build the mikdash me’at for this year: spiritually, on Rosh Hashana, and physically, on Sukkot, where the Sukkah becomes our holy.


I know that this year, as I sit in my Sukkah, and in the Sukkot of friends, I will be thinking of the kitchen in Wantagh with the refrigerator floating in 4 feet of water, and of the signs on houses in East Rockaway that read “uninhabitable”.  By constructing a temporary structure, I create empathy with those who lack, and I recognize that it can all blow away one day, in the breath of the wind.  I will also think of those who were routed from their homes by the fire on Woodside Road, and know that I and others here will respond to their needs, to help even the ratio between those who were hit, and those who help out.  When I share my bounty, it should also be with those in need, to bring cans to Second Harvest, to serve food at Maple Street Shelter. 


We are blessed to have elbows that bend.  And we are blessed to have arms that want to feed each other.  We are blessed to have arms to put around each other.  And we are blessed to be able to use those arms to pick up those who need it.  We can use those arms to build a sukkah, and yes, to even put in some drywall.   May this be a year when each of us construct the Mikdash Me’at, the little sanctuary that is the holiest place in the world.  Shana Tova.

Writer’s Block

Aggggghhhhhhh!!!  I’m giving a sermon is in 56 hours and I have 3 sentences written.  Plus a sentence fragment.  So if you want to know why I haven’t posted anything in a week, here it is.

Everyone who knows me says, “Don’t worry – you’ll get it done.  You always do!”

OK, I appreciate the encouragement, but honestly, I’m somewhere between freak-out and hara-kiri right now.  I am generally a calm person, but today I’m a little wiggy.  At least I know the gist of what I’m going to talk about, and it expands on the posts I made last week about our disaster relief trip, and about  Sukkot and sharing.   When it’s done, I’ll put it up here, and then I’ll get back to the regular posting.

But for now, stay tuned….

A thought for Shabbat

What if everyone in our community bought one extra can or other non-perishable every time he or she went to the grocery store, then brought it to CBJ to donate to Second Harvest?   Or brought it to their child’s school, or to Second Harvest directly?


Picking up sushi for lunch at Whole Foods?  Grab a can of lentil soup.


Big shop for the week at Lucky’s?  An extra box of crackers would be good.


Heading to Trader Joe’s for some samples and snacks for the kids’ lunches?  How about a couple of packages of pasta?


Think about it:  we have about 800 adults in this community times how many trips to the grocery store each week?  3?  4?  7?  Not to mention when our kids run to the store.  We’re talking about thousands of items a  week.  Over the course of the year?  As a community, we could donate hundreds of thousands of cans of soup, sauce, baby wipes, etc.  The impact on those in need would be huge.


But the impact on each of us would be even greater.  Establishing a rhythm of donating every time we shop, even if it’s only a 79-cent can of tuna fish, makes us into conscious daily givers.  It’s different to shop for others as well as for ourselves.


And think of the impact this will have on our kids.  Every time we’re at the grocery, they see us grabbing an extra item, and telling them why we’re doing it.  Better yet, let them pick what you’re going to drop in the basket, and send them to get it from the shelves.  Now everyone in the family is involved in the mitzvah of helping the needy, and everyone is empowered in the decision-making process as well.


Now think of the impact when you encourage your friends from Central Middle School, and from Beth Am, and from your kids’ soccer leagues, and from your book group to buy something extra for people in need every time they shop.   And think of the impact it can have when your kids challenge their friends to try to donate as much as they do.  The Valley term for this would be “going viral”.  Others may call it “the ripple effect”.


I’m going to call it ONE CAN.    ONE CAN donate 250,000 non-perishables this year.


Shabbat Shalom, everyone!!

Build a Sukkah!

Eating outside.

Crowding around a table with friends and family.

Lingering over great food as darkness envelops.

Lots of laughter, and perhaps a glass (or two) of wine.

Now do it the next night. And the next. And the next….for 8 straight nights.

Sounds like a great time, non? Sounds like….


Best holiday of the year. Build a hut; insert a table and chairs; add a roof of branches; decorate. Now go inside and eat. Especially this year- Sukkot starts on September 18, for goodness sakes! It should still be warm at night.!
So you don’t have a sukkah? You can buy a kit on the web or go to Home Depot and get some pvc pipe, connectors, and something to be your wall.

So you’re not religious, so what’s the point? Come on! Read the beginning of this post. We’re not talking heavy davening here (not that there’s anything wrong with it!).

So it’s too hard to do? I can do it. No excuses there.

But seriously, it’s great to build a sukkah. For me, looking out at my yard every day and seeing the booth there reminds me of a holiday of joy and gratitude. Gratitude that I don’t have to live in it (for real), and joy in the blessings of my life. Sukkot puts me in touch with what I have, and more importantly, in what I can share with others. The curse of need is that one can’t share what he or she has because of lack. Conversely, the blessing of plenty is that we can invite those closest to us, and strangers alike, to enjoy our bounty collectively.

Brief commercial: Host a CBJ Sukkot Brunch! Sunday, September 22. Contact me (or comment below) if you’re interested in hosting. Or if you can’t host, let me know if you need a place to go.

So act quickly, because the holiday will be here soon, and you need to get the materials. And get your invitations out; people get booked up quickly this time of year 😉

Happy rest of August!

Rebuilding Long Island

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Google Maps tells me that I am over Beatrice Nebraska right now, bumping our way through the clouds as Virgin America conveys me back to SFO from JFK. I’m listening to Nolwenn Leroy, pop superstar in France, if in unknown on our shores, and my latest musical obsession, singing in English, French, Celtic and Breton(!).   Hopefully, by the time we reach the Colorado border, I will have a postable entry finished.

So I am not alone on this flight.  Sitting a few rows from me are 8 teenagers, most of whom are from CBJ, who accompanied me to Long Island to assist in rebuilding houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy.   With two of our other young adults, they formed the second group that accompanied me to the east coast.  Last week, Rob Saltzman and Paul and Eli Melmon joined me for a week of painting, sanding and mudding.

Wait a minute.  Hurricane Sandy?  Wasn’t that storm a long time ago?  Like October 29, 2012?  What still needs to be done?  I haven’t seen anything in the newspapers (or more likely, on Yahoo News) about it for months.

And that’s the point.  Once the media has exhausted its attention span on a disaster, it ceases to exist in the minds of its readers.  Unless, of course, those readers happen to live on the New Jersey shore, Staten Island, Long Island, or Brooklyn and ride the R train to work.  All of those areas are still struggling in ways often invisible from the street view.   Driving through the south shore of Long Island, one might never know that entire neighborhoods sat under feet of water and lost power for weeks on end.  Until one enters a house and finds…..

Let me back up for a moment.  How did we get here in the first place?  It started in May, not too long after the devastating tornado that leveled Moore, Oklahoma and surrounding communities.  I was reading a story about the cleanup effort, and one volunteer was quoted as saying that you can’t even imagine what it is like unless you are there.

Now, I don’t know why, but at that moment, a spark flashed in my head.  I realized that what was missing for me this time is that I have never done any hands-on relief work; I’ve only ever sent a check from afar.  As I thought more about it, I realized also that we as a community have never had an organized response to disasters.

This isn’t to minimize the work we have done, both as community and as individuals.  We serve dinners at Maple Street Shelter; host Home and Hope; and participate in innumerable mitzvah projects locally.  The Arfins, among others, went to New Orleans to rebuild houses many of our physicians have gone to poor countries and donated their medical services; our attorneys do so much pro bono work.

But an organized effort to disaster?  When disaster strikes, Rabbi Ezray will send an email out to the community asking for donations, and many people respond generously.  That financial support is critical, but we haven’t been there.  And that is especially true for our teenagers. I have struggled over the years to find a formula to connect our teens to Jewish life in an ongoing and meaningful way.  So connecting the dots here, I thought we may have something.

Back to the spark from the story of that volunteer in Oklahoma.  That evening, I sent a message to Nechama- Jewish Response to Disaster (the only Jewish disaster relief organization), which was on the ground in Oklahoma, asking if it would be possible to bring a group to help with the recovery effort.  I received a quick response from Jess, who was coordinating the relief efforts.  She let me know that Nechama would only be in Oklahoma for a short time, but that rebuilding houses on Long Island would be ongoing until April 2014.

As luck would have it, Nechama had room for groups to volunteer the first and second weeks of August.   And what would the work be?  Drywalling, laying insulation, mudding, sanding, painting.  And how handy did one have to be to participate?  Well, not very, as it turns out, because the tasks were very well taught and overseen by Nechama staff.  With such an undaunting set of tasks, fifteen volunteers signed on for a great mitzvah project.

Let me take a minute to comment on the Nechama staff.  Wow.  A group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings being paid next-to-nothing, and mostly non-Jewish!  All of who have dedicated themselves to lives of service.  Americorps, Habitat for Humanity, All-Hands Volunteers, FEMA are just some of the organizations these young people have worked for.  And why do they do it?  One staff member, Scott summed it up best: Because we are needed.  It just made me stronger in my conviction that this country needs to institute mandatory national service for our youth.  But that’s another post for another time.

So what did we find when we entered the houses?   In the first house we worked on, it was 1095 square feet, mostly on the ground floor, with a small room upstairs.  When the water entered the house, it was so high that it lifted the refrigerator up and floater the heavy appliance in several feet of water.  In one closet, the high water mark was visible at about 3 feet.   The people who lived there, a single mom and her 8-year-old daughter, were living in the room upstairs, with no kitchen, and little useable living space downstairs.  We mainly spent our time there painting, as it was close to completed.  Soon, they will have floors again, and will be able to use their downstairs space.

Other houses were not as advanced.  In one, there was barely drywall put up, and we spent most of our time filling in seams with drywall compound (mudding) and sanding.  Needless to say, it was a lot of dust!  A 90+ year-old woman was the resident of that house, and she had to relocate to her daughter’s house while hers was in disrepair. Rachael Yourtz had a beautiful Facebook post in which, at another house, the woman who had lived there was so grateful, she broke down in tears.

Life on Long Island, and other places in the New York area, are far from normal still.  Life in many places in New Orleans is far from normal.  While the headlines fade, the struggles don’t.  Please keep that in mind when you have a spare day in New York (Nechama is a wonderful organization to work with), or when you’re considering where to take your next vacation.  Or if you’re going to Hawai’I, maybe you can volunteer at Second Harvest for a day.  Travel that incorporates social action is on the rise, and I for one hope to work it in to my life in much more regular way.

Well, Colorado has arrived beneath us, and Nolwenn has given way to Green Day- oxymoronic musical choices for sure- so it is time to wrap up.   I hope you will find this series of thoughts and observations to be informative, if not at times humorous, educational, inspiring and occasionally controversial.