A response to the tragedy at MSU

The best short term response to the tragic shooting at MSU this week is to go to your house of worship this Saturday or Sunday. To find out why, read on:

Ford produces cars. Microsoft produces software for presenting ideas. Apple produces hardware on which we produce or consume content. AT&T and Comcast and Verizon and T-Mobile create networks for connecting and sharing content. Walmart and Amazon sell virtually everything. Chase manages and produces money. Exxon Mobil produces petroleum products. Consumer’s Energy produces electricity. Hilton creates places for travelers to gather.

Every business and non-profit produces or creates something. Every organization has a purpose. The role of synagogues, churches, houses of worship is unique – our mission and our product is goodness in the best and broadest sense. We teach people how to be good, we encourage people to be good. We are the only institution with this mission. There are many other organizations and businesses which do good things, like providing food, shelter, clothing, protection from harm, medical care, education, and more. But the core mission of an institution of religion is to transform and shape the human animal into a better human being.

Most, but not all, houses of worship advance their mission by invoking God. Teaching and scripture invoking a transcendent Divine are a powerful way to encourage people to live up to a high set of ideals and behavior. But strictly speaking, I’m not arguing here that belief in God makes people better. I’m arguing that gathering together regularly in a religious community makes people better.

If you don’t gather regularly in a house of worship, where do you learn what goodness is? Where is your impulse to be a good person reinforced and encouraged? Not on social media, not by consuming media content, not in the workplace, or in the sports arena or the gym or at the theater or in the classroom or in any other place, real or virtual, where people regularly gather.

On Tuesday, the morning after the tragic shooting at MSU resulting in the death of three people and the injury of five others, I shared the following at our morning service:

Near the end of our weekday morning service we read Psalm 20, including the verse, “They call on chariots, they call on horses, but we call on the name of Adonai our God.” Chariots and horses were the technology and the heavy weapons of their day. Ultimately, reliance on the technology of weapons brings death. The antidote to reliance on instruments of war and destruction is to gather in places focused on transcendent behavior, on goodness.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the MSU shooter or any of the previous 66 mass shooters so far this year went to church or to any other house of worship regularly. Attending worship regularly does not guarantee that there will be no tragic shootings. But if houses of worship do their job of producing goodness well and if more people committed to attending, it’s hard to imagine that it would not have a positive effect. And stronger background checks, gun safety laws such trigger lock or gun safe requirements, and extreme risk protection laws could also help.

If you are part of the Ahavas Israel community, please join me this Shabbat. If you are a part of another religious community, here or elsewhere, please join your community this weekend. And if you are not part of a religious community, please consider finding one in your area and making a commitment to grow goodness.

Divre Harav – February, 2023

Gathering for prayer and study is the core activity of a synagogue. Making this happen requires the participation of the community, to form a minyan of ten adult Jews, to welcome people as they come in the door, and to help lead the service. We need people to read the Torah portion and the Haftarah selection from prophets, to facilitate the Torah service by assisting the Torah reader and others coming up to the bima, to lead parts of the service itself, and to prepare a little kiddush, to give us some time to eat and socialize before we go home. We also honor people with smaller parts, to be called up to the Torah to say a blessing for one of the aliyot of the Torah reading and to lift and dress the Torah.

Without the participation of our synagogue community, we could not sustain a service. Some parts require more familiarity with Hebrew than other parts. We want each person to be able to participate in the service in a way which is comfortable and meaningful to you. If you do not want to participate in a leadership role, we still invite you to be present, to lift up your soul in prayer and to learn a little Torah. But if you would like to take a larger role in helping with our service, we would like to help to do so.

No qualifications are necessary to take a Torah honor such as an aliyah or gelilah, dressing the Torah. The gabbai’im will help you know where to stand and when to start saying the blessing, which is printed in Hebrew and English transliteration next to the Torah; or assist you in rolling the Torah shut and putting on the mantle, breastplate, and finials in the right order.

Lifting the Torah takes a bit of practice to learn the technique, but does not require you to be an olympic-level weight lifter. If you’d like to practice in advance of a service, I can make that happen. You might also want to watch a video explaining how to lift the Torah properly, such as this one, from Adath Jeshurun in Minnesota: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6B4x9zxqv8

Qualifications to be a gabbai, helping to coordinate the Torah service and assisting the Torah reader: knowledge of the order of the service and some ability to follow along and help the Torah reader read the words correctly. If you’d like to be a gabbai, I’ll meet with you for about an hour to do some training.

Qualifications to read Torah: basic knowledge of Hebrew reading, the more vocabulary and grammar you know, the better, but many people begin with nothing more than the ability to pronounce the words.

Qualifications to lead a service: fluency in pronouncing the Hebrew words, basic knowledge of the melodies, the ability to sing them with kavanah and energy, and the willingness to be the representative of the congregation.

Currently, Cantor Fair is teaching a Torah reading class. He and I have spoken about scheduling a class either in Haftarah trope or in leading a service in the late spring/summer. Please let him or me know if you are interested, and which class most interests you.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Gabbai – one of two people who assists with the Torah reading. The word itself comes from a term for one who collects and distributes tzedakah funds.
  • Shaliah Tzibur – One who leads a service, literally, a representative of the congregation
  • Ba’al Kriah – Torah reader (sometimes called the ba’al koreh, but ba’al kriah is the grammatically correct term)
  • Hagbah – Lifting the Torah
  • Gelilah – Dressing (literally, rolling shut) the Torah
  • T’amim or ta’amei ha-mikra (also called trope in Yiddish) – The system of punctuation and musical notation of the Hebrew Bible.

Divre Harav – February, 2021

Why should Congregation Ahavas Israel and Temple Emanuel share a building?

Imagine that 150 years ago or 50 years ago, we had formed an intentionally combined community that supported both traditional and liberal Jewish practice. Imagine that we had offered multiple streams of programming, learning, and prayer, holidays and life cycle celebrations, for two communities side by side, hand in hand. If we had done this years ago, what would we look like today? 

Rather than feeling like two tiny communities separated by a distance of a couple of miles, we would feel like one small community magnifying and sanctifying each other. Rather than trying to overcome the aversion of feeling like a stranger in each other’s building, we would see full participation in programs like our joint scholar in residence, no matter who was hosting the service or leading the Shabbat table ritual. We would see fewer people reluctant to participate in the other congregation’s programs out of a fear of feeling foolish or ignorant of their practices and customs.

We didn’t accomplish this 50 years ago, but we have the chance to do it now, profoundly changing the future of our community. We are in a better place now than we were back then to accomplish this.

When I arrived in Grand Rapids 27 years ago, the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids was still known as the Jewish Community Fund. It became a Federation shortly after I arrived, reflecting the fact that it had evolved from a fundraising organization for Israel into a fundraising and programming organization for the good of the Grand Rapids Jewish community as well as Jews around the world. The Jewish Theater and the Shir Shalom Chorus were both relatively new. These organizations, along with the Jewish Cultural Council, brought people together regardless of religious affiliation. The synagogue and temple took a step towards this vision of a shared campus when we combined our religious school programs more than 15 years ago, creating the United Jewish School. Representatives from the synagogue, the school, and the temple are currently working together to hire a Cantor/Educator to oversee with the music program at the temple, provide some cantorial support at the synagogue, and to be the Director of the UJS. We have a track record of successful partnerships across the community that reassures us that we can share a building and support each other’s differences with respect.

Sharing a building wisely means that we can lower our ongoing building and maintenance expenses, freeing up resources for more and better programming. The collaboration committee has recommended moving towards a shared campus on Fulton Street at the current location of Temple Emanuel. We are at a critical stage right now where we have to decide whether we as a synagogue community are prepared to keep moving forward. I can tell you that I trust the integrity of the lay leadership of Temple and the Federation and I trust Rabbi Schadick, and I am excited with the prospect of designing a new space in a shared building. Before this can happen, the synagogue board and the synagogue membership will have more opportunities to cast their vote on whether to move the project forward. There have been several opportunities for the synagogue board and membership to ask question, and there will be more opportunities in the coming weeks and months. I will do my best to answer your questions about the project, or you may contact Sandy Freed or any other member of the Collaboration Committee (the following synagogue members are on the committee: Judy Joseph, Barb Wepman, Diane Rayor, Lanny Thodey, Marni Vyn, Rick Stevens, and Marisa Reed). I hope you will join me in embracing this vision of the future of Grand Rapids Jewry.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kahal, Kehilah – Congregation, community
  • Merkaz K’hilati – Community Center
  • Amuta – Association
  • Hevra – Fellowship
  • Matna”s – An abbreviation for Mercaz tarbut, noar, u’sport, Center for Culture, Youth, and Sports

Divre Harav – October/2019

R. Hananiah, the Deputy High Priest, says, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if it were not for fear of it, one person would swallow one’s fellow alive.” Pirke Avot 3:2

Most weeks, we join together reading a prayer for our country in our Shabbat service. We do this to show gratitude that we live in a free country in which the laws protect us and ensure our freedom of religion. But similar prayers has been included in synagogue worship since 14th century Spain, in the form of a prayer for the king, asking God to help him and strengthen him against his enemies. Rabbi Hananiah’s instruction is based on a verse from the 6th century BCE prophet Jeremiah, who instructed Judeans in Babylonia to “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to Adonai on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (29:7).

Such prayers recognize that for better or for worse, the Jewish community prospers when the government is secure and prosperous, or when the government is stable and adopts leading to economic growth and prosperity. Typically, though, they also recognize that all governments are imperfect, and conclude with a messianic hope for a world free of war in which all people live in friendship and freedom.

Rabbi Hananiah’s attitude towards government is guarded. First century Jews certainly didn’t love the Roman government who destroyed the Temple, but understood that a society without rules and the means to enforce them will devolve into chaos. In fact, among the seven basic laws of humankind (known as the Noahide laws) that Judaism believes are incumbent on all people, is a mitzvah to live in a community with established courts of justice.

With this in mind, I ask you to join us for services on Monday, October 21 at 9:30 a.m. for the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. Along with our regular Festival service and the Yizkor memorial service, following services we have invited members of the Grand Rapids Police Department to Kiddush, to thank them for their keeping an eye on our property and responding to our requests for special event coverage. Please join us to greet and thank them!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishtara – police
  • Tzahal – an acronym for Tz’va Hagana L’Yisrael – Israeli Defense Force
  • Heil Ha’avir – air force
  • Heil Hayam – navy

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2017

Hillel says, “Do not separate from the community – do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death and do not judge your fellow until you are in their place. Pirke Avot 2:5a

Protestants are famous for disagreeing and forming new denominations. Jews are just as disagreeable, but tend merely to form new synagogues rather than new movements. Apparently, this is not a new phenomenon. Hillel, a first century BCE pre-rabbinic figure, cautioned people of his generation not to fracture the community. He then gives two specific warnings against behaviors that would lead people to separate from others in their community.

First, don’t be too sure that you are right and the other person is wrong. Don’t stake your participation in the community or your relationship with that individual on your correctness. Have the humility to open yourself up to the possibility that the opposite is true, that you are wrong and the opposing opinion is correct. It will not be until you have passed away and are called before the Holy Blessed One, the Supreme Judge, that you will know the whole truth of the matter.

Second, you might think the other person is dead wrong and be tempted to withdraw from the relationship. However, because you are not omniscient, you don’t know what led your fellow to make certain decisions and to choose a particular path. Were you in his or her shoes, you might have chosen to make the same set of decisions. Therefore, do not so quick to disconnect either with that person or with a community of people who make decisions that you do not fully understand.

Hillel was a strong proponent of remaining in relationship and learning from people who are different from you. He would be deeply disappointed at the degree to which our society is broken into segments who only read or listen to news that confirms what they already believe, and associate only with people of a like mind.

Don’t separate from the community even when remaining in the community is challenging, because that’s precisely when you have the most to learn and others have the most to learn from you. Be humble and non-judgemental and remain in the community with the goal of enriching yourself. For Hillel and for us, Judaism is not a religion to be practiced alone in one’s home. The concept of minyan urges us to pray in community, not because God hears communal prayers better than solo voices, but because we are more powerfully transformed by prayer when we are not alone.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

Common “first” names of synagogues:

  • Aidah (or Adat) – Congregation, (Congregation of …)
  • Kehillah (or Kehillat) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Kahal (K’hal) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Agudah (Agudat) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Beit (often transliterated Beth) – House of …
  • B’nai – children of …
  • Anshei – People of …
  • Mishkan – Temple