In Gratitude: An anniversary

Image: Textile art with Genesis 21:1 and a vision of Jerusalem with lions of David, the skyline of the Old City, and stone tablets flanked by doves. Art by Barbara Binder Kadden, photo by Ruth Adar. All rights reserved.

I was ordained a rabbi ten years ago today in the City of Angels.

The photo is of a beautiful hanging that Barbara Binder Kadden made for me when I set off for school in 2002. Barbara asked me for a verse from Torah that was particularly meaningful to me. I cited Genesis 12:1: “Go to yourself, from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you.” Those were God’s words to Abram, after which Abram set off to become the patriarch Abraham.

Thirty two years ago I set out from Tennessee without a clue, much as Abram set out from Haran in Genesis 12. Like Abram, I became a Jew, I acquired a name, and I had many adventures that for good and ill made me into the work-in-progress I am today.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my teachers and colleagues. Rabbi Rachel Adler mentored and mothered me through my years in Los Angeles. R. Tamara Eskenazi opened the doors of Torah for me. R. Dvora Weisberg and R. Joel Gereboff unlocked the gates of Talmud. R. Lew Barth taught me how to dig treasure from the fertile ground of midrash. Yossi Lechem enchanted me with the algebra of Hebrew grammar (you had to be there.) Steven Windmueller and Bruce Phillips equipped me to deal with the changing Jewish American scene, and R. Michael Berk taught me about Northern California Jews. Barbara Kadden taught me the best of what I know about educating adults. Linda Feldman taught me how to walk softly and avoid tender toes. Rene Molho z”l taught me about the Shoah, and gave me perspective on Jewish community that I try to pass along.  R. Sandy Akselrad hired me, God bless him, and taught me how not to fall on my face in the real world. Yuval Selah tutored me in Hebrew for four years with infinite patience and love.

I am grateful for my study partners, R. David Novak, R. Deborah Goldmann, and R. Robin Podolsky. I’d have learned nothing without them. I am grateful to R. Sabine Meyer, with whom I continue to explore the wonders of teaching “Intro” and the Torah of canine companions. And where would I be without Fred Isaac, my first Jewish study partner, and Maryann Simpson, my partner in studying class dynamics?

I am grateful for the students who inspire me to learn more and and be a better servant of the Jewish people, including you, dear readers.

Finally there are the people without whom I have trouble imagining the world. Rabbi Steven Chester has been my rabbi, my mentor and my friend since I first knocked on his office door in the early 1990’s. My sons, Aaron and Jim Scott, inspire me to choose life over and over again; I am so much more alive because of them.

And then there’s the love of my life, Linda Burnett. (Thank you for baseball and everything else, my dear. You are right, these are the good old days.)

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Rabbi Steve Chester, giving me his charge on May 18, 2008 in Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

 

 

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Prayer for Baseball Trades

Image: PacBell Park, San Francisco, summertime. (350543/Pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-That-Is! In Your wisdom You commanded the orderly progression of night into day, and set the planets in motion with a word. Grant seychel to the baseball team managers as they set our players in motion from team to team, from franchise to franchise. May they achieve the perfect harmony they seek. Amen.

Give comfort to the players in motion and their families. May their new home be a good home, and may they be greeted with enthusiasm wherever they go. Amen.

Console the fans, O God of Compassion, as they mourn the departure of favorite players. Give them open hearts to receive the new faces, the bats and gloves of new players. Give them patience for a period of adjustment. Amen.

May the bats be mighty and the pitchers wily. May the green diamonds overflow with the joy of the game, and may all players and fans alike end each game with gratitude for what went well, and energetic discussion of what lacked.

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

* A rabbinical note: The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although certain skeptical Wissenschaft types insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

Pearl Harbor Day

Image: The USS Arizona burning and sinking in Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. Public Domain.

Pearl Harbor Day was the 9/11 of my parents’ generation. My parents were children that day, so for the first part of my life, that was my view of it: something terrible that happened to grownups far away.

Then I married into a Navy family, and the meaning of Pearl Harbor Day changed. Linda knew people who had been there. One of her uncles died at Midway, later in the year. Her father spent that war on a battleship, a career sailor. All the memories and associations came tumbling out when we visited the USS Alabama Memorial in Honolulu. Pearl Harbor Day became much more immediate to me through her. We never visit Oahu without making the pilgrimage to the Arizona to pay our respects.

I learned, at the memorial, how the skipper of the USS Nevada deliberately ran his burning battleship aground so that it would not sink in the entrance to the harbor as the Japanese had planned. Even though there were failures at the top that left us open to attack, the men and women on the ground met the challenge with heroism as the bombs fell and history took a sharp turn.

We are at a different moment in history now, and sometimes I feel like I’m on a sinking ship. You know the list of things I’m talking about: all the uncertainties we face.

But on Pearl Harbor Day, I am hopeful. There have been other times in our past when U.S. leadership was lacking. What happened then, and what I trust will happen now, is that the basic courage of the average American will rise to the occasion. It may be messy, it may take a while, but good can prevail.

We Americans do terrible things when we are afraid. After Pearl Harbor, we interned innocent Americans who had Asian faces. After 9/11, we have been horrible to anyone who speaks Arabic or looks like they might be Muslim. There’s no denying that we have sometimes let our fears carry us into evil, worrying more about what-might-happen than about the truth of a situation.

However, I see signs of hope. This week a policeman who murdered Walter Scott in South Carolina got a sentence of 20 years. That is not just a victory for Black Lives Matter, it is a victory for all of us. Bad cops are bad for everyone. I see acts of kindness and goodwill all around me: donations to food banks and to blood banks, people reaching out to those suffering from natural disasters. I read about people caring for lost animals, and trying to solve the riddles of homelessness.

This Pearl Harbor Day, my focus is on the good in the United States of America. We are capable of great things. We are capable of change. We have seen dark days before, and we have risen above them.

This gives me hope.

 

 

A Jewish Halloween?

Image: Two jack o’lanterns grinning in the dark. (fotomek/pixabay)

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. However, the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

But come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

RavAdar
Who IS this guy?

Survival in A Tough Time

Image: Sonoma, CA, in better times. (jessebridgewater/pixabay)

Hurricanes. Wildfires.

A little over a week ago we said the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who by water and who by fire,” expressing the fact that we simply do not know what the future will bring each person. And since then, we have seen so many bad things: the aftermath of hurricane and floods in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and the fires in the West, especially in Northern California this week.

The news from Washington is deeply upsetting to many of us. Who would have thought we’d see a President of the United States have a name-calling match on Twitter with one of the leaders of his own party? Who would have thought we’d see a name-calling game of nuclear chicken play out on Twitter between heads of state?

I have not posted for a week. Some of that was a bad back, but most of it was depression. As I’ve said before, I’m prone to it. It simply had to be lived through.

I did all I know to do, which was to pay attention, do mitzvot whenever I could, and try not to beat myself up. The fog has lifted a bit, and I know something: I must balance my attention. I must pay enough attention to what’s bad in the world to actively do battle with it. I must pay enough attention to the goodness in the world, especially to the goodness in other people, to maintain my soul.

One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot, 4.2.

I watched on social media as neighbors leaped to each other’s aid here in California. A woman I know who is unemployed put the call out on Facebook that she was looking for a way to help. People in the Jewish community opened their guest rooms and couches. Friends opened Go-Fund-Me pages for households who lost everything. A friend of mine found transport out of harm’s way for a bunch of horses.

Firefighters and first responders risked their lives to get people to safety. Reporters, too, risked life and limb to keep us informed, those of us who were desperate for news. I am a long way from the wine country, but I will never forget the Oakland Hills Firestorm; I woke up dreaming about it before I knew about the new fires up north.

It has comforted me to see people responding to other people. It strengthened me when I contacted one woman about fire aid. I mentioned that I couldn’t drive due to my back, but I’d buy gas for someone else, whereupon she immediately asked if I needed help or shopping. Her offer warmed me like chicken soup.

Never forget, in these awful times, that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is human kindness. In Hebrew, it’s the virtue of Chesed (KHEH – sed.) Our small acts of kindness – not “thoughts and prayers” but actual kindness, listening quietly, respecting difference, offering food, offering shelter, offering what we can – those things serve to strengthen the person on the receiving end and the giver as well. If someone gives me some – wonderful! If not, I can still give it to others and receive the benefit: a miracle!

We have many of us grown cranky since last November: it is HARD making phone call after phone call, writing little postcards, while worrying that North Korea might actually know how to get a bomb to our neighborhood. It is exhausting watching a bully in the Oval Office, watching him abuse his staff, insult veterans, and encourage white supremacists. So we get irritable. We feel tired. Some of us get depressed.

This week I re-learned the advice of Mr. Rogers’ mother:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. – Fred Rogers

So, look for the caring people. BE one of the caring people – not caring about Humanity at Large but caring about the human being right in front of you, the one who is tired or thirsty or who needs a friend.  As the liturgy and Masechet Peah of the Jerusalem Talmud tell us:

These are things that a person eats from their fruits in this world, and the foundation exists for the next world, honoring one’s father and mother and doing good deeds and bringing peace between one person and his friends. And Torah study is greater than all of them. – Peah, 1a, Jerushalmi

Responding to Hate in 5778

Image: Members of the Temple Sinai Community write messages of love and New Year’s wishes on paper covering anti-Semitic graffiti. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

How was your Rosh Hashanah?

Linda and I watched services at our congregation online for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I knew from experience that the seats would not work well for me, and we had an aliyah to the Torah the next morning. I love the flexibility that the online service gives us for managing such things.

The next morning, I woke to an email from the staff, titled: “Graffiti on our building”:

Shanah Tovah.

We received a call early this morning that someone wrote anti-Semitic slurs on the side of our building. The police have been contacted and we will have security on the premise. The graffiti will be covered when everyone arrives for services this morning.

While this is surely upsetting, this will not define our experience of coming together as a community today. Our strength and resilience will sound through our voices in song and prayer.

The graffiti will be covered with paper. We invite members of the community to write words of love and friendship as guiding lights for the coming year.

May this be the year that peace comes to our world.

Whoa! Not what we wanted for the new year, that’s for sure. Still, I marveled at the creativity of the solution. Instead of allowing the graffiti to stay visible, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin chose to cover it with paper and then encouraged us to cover it with blessings.

This response was possible in a Reform setting. Cutting paper, hanging paper, and writing would all be problematic in a halakhic setting, but it certainly was a satisfying way for us to “talk back” to the person or persons who had done this. It also gave us a chance to model before our city that we choose love over hate.

Our responses included everything from “Shalom!” in a heart to “Go A’s!” (the local baseball team.) During services, painters came to cover the graffiti, and staff moved the paper indoors to the meeting hall. We painted over the bad and kept the good.

In case you are wondering what was written on the wall: it was ugly, it was obscene, and it was baldly anti-Semitic. Those words were written with the intent of terrifying us, of spoiling our joy in the New Year. We are choosing as a community not to focus on them, not to hold them up, because to do so would be a reward to the person who wrote them. Law enforcement knows what the words said, and an investigation is underway.

I’m happy to report that the police came immediately and stayed watching over us all day. the mayor showed up to support us, and local TV stations broadcast interviews with congregants. We felt loved by the city of Oakland. We did our best, with our graffiti, to love her back.

I teared up multiple times during the service, thinking how many times Jews have said those exact prayers after something dreadful happened. We aren’t the first Jews to pray in a vandalized building. We won’t be the last, alas.

Also, I was aware of the fact that not every religious group gets this treatment. In Charlottesville, the police department rebuffed the Jews who asked for help during the demonstrations this summer. I know that many African Americans have reason to be concerned by a police presence. I know that mosques in the United States face graffiti and much worse on a regular basis.

We are a long way from the ideal still, but I hope for the day when, in the words of President George Washington:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. – Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, August, 1790

Washington’s words carry some irony, of course. The enslaved persons on his plantation and elsewhere in the new nation could not “sit in safety” and many of them were “of the stock of Abraham.” Still it is my hope and prayer that just as those words are more true now than they were in 1790, the day will come when they are indeed accomplished.

May the day of peace for all those “of the stock of Abraham” (Jew and Muslim, and spiritually, Christians as well) and for all of every faith community come speedily and soon.  Amen.

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Messages from the Jews of Oakland (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

A Visitor to Beit Adar

Image: One very unhappy skunk. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar. “Beit Adar” means “The house of Adar.”

I woke this morning to the sound of three poodles barking. They were going absolutely bananas – something was wrong. I got my cane and went out back to investigate.

To my horror, the three of them were gathered around a skunk. I waded in and hollered “Leave it!” and when that didn’t work on one of them, used my cane to push her away. I locked the dogs in the house, much to their annoyance.

It seemed odd that the skunk had been sitting still for all the barking until I saw that she was stuck in a hole in the old wire fence. She had apparently used up her spray earlier, probably during the night, because I couldn’t get more than a slight whiff of the odor. She seemed exhausted.

(No, I do not know the gender of the skunk. I’m assuming, and perhaps projecting.)

I called Animal Control. The police department picked up, and they informed me that (1) Animal Control had been budget-cut out of existence and (2) I should call a pest control company. I called a couple of pest control companies, and they “don’t do skunks.” Slightly relieved (exterminators?!) I texted friends and family looking for suggestions.

My friend Jake texted me and said he was coming over. He threw a cloth over the skunk’s head and nipped the wires holding her. She backed out and headed down the hill. Now he’s out mending the fence for me.

So why put this on the blog? A couple of Jewish values came into play here.

  1. Chesed – kindness. Jake was kind to come over and help me. There was a time when I might have gone out there and cut the skunk free myself, but I am no longer able to do that sort of thing. He took time out of his day to help.
  2. Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is a negative commandment. We are commanded not to be unnecessarily cruel to animals. I did not let the dogs torment the skunk, even after I knew that she was unlikely to spray them. Jake was as gentle as he could be to the creature.  Leaving her caught in the fence would have been wrong. Killing her would also have been wrong, unless there was no way to free her.

Torah is not just about “spiritual” matters. In fact, within Torah there is no distinction between spiritual things and other things. Torah applies to all of life, even to a little skunk stuck in a fence.