Sunday, May 29, 2011

Selected Group

Having just perused my father’s sermons from 1971 through 1974 a couple of things are happening. First of all I am surprised that he so assertively voices his opinions on a variety of topics. Maybe I shouldn’t be. He was a man with clear convictions. I listened to him voice these convictions over the course of many years. Perhaps I took it for granted at the time. And it’s not that clergy today don’t also make their opinions known. Perhaps it is his tone—you might call it a bit preachy. It seems just a bit less evenhanded than the tone of today’s clergy. Perhaps it is a reflection of an age when things seemed more black and white. Now, not only do we deal with so many nuanced shades of gray, but at least for some, we couch our words with more of an ecumenical approach. I don’t see a lot of that in Dad’s words. He is clearly a Jewish/Israel chauvinist. He loves his people and what they stand for. He stands by them and defends them from most criticism. He is willing to acknowledge some failings, but ultimately is a staunch advocate for the land, the religion, the people.

In the early reading I see a few themes emerging, namely Israel, anti-Semitism, and the religious apathy that threatens the survival of Judaism. He cites a lot of history. He loves to report on the writings of great Jewish thinkers past and present.

Now that I have gotten a taste of some of his last words I am considering how to proceed. One option is to continue moving slowly backward through time, looking carefully for precursors to his latest thinking. I am inclined to do that, but another file is beckoning me. There are quite a few files devoted exclusively to High Holy Day sermons. Among these is one titled, “Rosh Hashana – Yom Kippur – NCT (Selected Group)". I remember how Dad would spend most of the summer cozied up to a stack of books and articles. It may have been somewhat of a burden to anticipate the demands of writing the four sermons of the year that the entire congregation would hear. At the same time, I imagine it was his greatest pleasure to immerse himself so deeply in Jewish, ethical, historical, and political thought. He was a scholar. During the summer “hiatus” NCT--the Nassau Community Temple--pretty much ran itself. Dad was the Jewish chaplain at the Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camp in the Catskills. For the most part he had eight weeks of uninterrupted study. Unlike the weekly Thursday night cram session, for his holiday sermons he had the luxury of time to deeply consider the themes he wanted to address, the scholars and texts he wanted to quote, and the words he chose to use to deliver these critical messages. To see a file that he deemed as “select” among all of his holiday sermons intrigues me greatly.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Win One for the Planet

Deep breath.
Back to reality after the splendid weekend of Jewish community, rest, joy, prayer, meditation, yoga, walks in the woods, pickle making, amazing food, and--oh, yes!--the magnificent bike ride.

The ride itself started Sunday morning, bright and early, from Winchester Woods retreat center in Occidental. We read the travelers prayer in Hebrew, English and Arabic. I had the honor again to sound the ram's horn to signal the start.

Chilly and clear skies were very welcome after last year's frigid deluge. The experience was very different, having only some strong winds to battle on the first day. It was much more conducive to savoring the scenery under these circumstances. Many more smiles. And a few more miles, too--taken to avoid the most killer ascent from last year. We rode out the Bohemian Highway about 12 miles to Route 1 on the Pacific coast. My only regret was that we only went along the shore about 8 miles before heading back inland--no better way to take in the coast than rolling along the green bluff overlooking the beach, black rock outcroppings pushing up from the foamy surf, with expansive deep blue sea and sky beyond. The climbs were still sufficiently challenging, and had their own beauty. Surprisingly, the much anticipated final descent into the valley on Sunday was regrettably rigorous given the head wind we encountered. Nonetheless, months of preparation seemed to have had the desired effect--not just the muscles, but the breathing, and the mental resolve--all carried me through.

After close to 60 miles we arrived at Walker Creek ranch--a Marin County educational farm. I settled in, and then took a brief tour--fed willow leaves to some goats. The sheep preferred to stay at a distance. We sampled bits of the organic garden that school kids from all over the state get to work on during their week-long visits to Walker Creek. If you've never tried raw rhubarb, I recommend it! (not the leaves--they're toxic--just the stems. One of our evening activities was a viewing of the documentary Flow--"a case against the growing privatization of the world's dwindling fresh water supply with an unflinching focus on politics, pollution, human rights, and the emergence of a domineering world water cartel." This is clearly a topic that warrants further examination.

Monday, a shorter ride--about 45 miles. Not as much climbing. Less windy. A bit less scenic mile for mile than Sunday, as we went through suburbia on the way to San Francisco. Nonetheless, riding into Sausalito is always exciting. Riding over the Golden Gate Bridge--especially fun on a clear, crisp day. I'm not sure we were supposed to ride through as much of the Presidio as we did on our way to Temple Emanuel, but the scenic route we took offered some views of the city that I had never seen before.

When it was all done the memory of the intense grinding, pedal after pedal, seemed to magically disappear (except for a little soreness today). What we were left with was a profound sense of appreciation for the privilege of being with such a unique community--diverse in many ways and united in our love of Judaism and repair of the planet. Grateful for Hazon--Nigel Savage's vision that is unfolding before our eyes--working to create sustainable communities throughout the world. Grateful for the Hazon staff, the volunteer crew supporting the ride, our fellow riders, and of course to all of the contributors. The full expression of gratitude came as we stood in a circle in the temple courtyard singing the Shehecheyanu prayer--thanking God for our lives, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this precious moment.

Your contributions propelled me to the top of the donation chart for most of the last five months. Two days before the ride, a fellow rider was so tired of seeing my name at the top of the list that she contacted her friends and offered her personal matching fund for additional contributions. I am content being at number two knowing that we inspired others to give more generously. My "competitor" and I got a laugh out of it and became friends--a win-win-win, with Hazon, or I should say the planet, being the big winner.

Thank you so much for your support. And yes, for a few stragglers--donations are still being accepted at


Sunday, May 1, 2011


It’s like standing before a giant buffet, a banquet of the most appealing and appetizing delicacies, wondering where to start. One could say that I decided to go for dessert. Intuitively something in me felt moved to “begin with the end in mind”. I opened the two thin files—the one marked “SERMONS – BRUNSWICK ’74 – ‘75” that I mentioned previously, and a companion, “SERMONS – BRUNSWICK – H.H. [High Holy Days]”

One motivation was simply to see what themes I would find there that might be foreshadowed in earlier work. As it turns out there was more to that concept than I might originally have thought. After all, there Dad was, in new pulpit with a new congregation and with a file of thousands on previously written sermons. Why not recycle a few old gems? —Which in fact he did as it turns out. I don’t want that to sound disparaging and certainly not unethical. In fact the clues that these folders leave behind demonstrate Dad’s talent and integrity. I was impressed that when he faced the challenge of speaking to his new congregation for the first time he sought inspiration from similar first in his life. In the same manila folder as his first sermon for Temple Beth Tefilloh (TBT) of Brunswick, Georgia in 1974, there beneath it was the first sermon he delivered to the Nassau Community Temple (NCT) in 1951, as well as the first sermon he delivered in the new sanctuary constructed by NCT in 1960. Those might have been too difficult to find since they were singular events in time. Perhaps more impressive, in a time before Google, was that his very last sermon, delivered on November 8, 1974 coincided with the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, and Dad was able to dip into his archives and pull out a sermon about Weizmann that he had delivered December 12, 1962!

Each of the three sermons that I am considering to include from the brief Brunswick era owes its roots to earlier words that Dad had written. This is evident because in each case he has both the original as well as the edited TBT version in the file. Moreover, he has carefully noted the date and the location in which he gave these sermons. In the case of a “recycled” sermon there are two dates and locations noted. In some cases he took pieces of several older works and combined them in a new way to create a hybrid that he must have felt better matched the new audience and occasion. It is apparent that he did not choose to just pull out the old sermon and blindly redeliver it. It is clear, from the editing that he thoughtfully and contentiously adapted it to the new circumstance, or in some case simply improved the prose from a stylistic perspective.

As I delve further into the files I may find further evidence of  “recycling.” Then again, I have heard somewhere that rabbis tend to only have five sermons that they repackage time after time. I suspect I will see a few themes emerge in that respect.

I must add that when I opened the first file folder, and read the first sermon that lay on top of the pile, when I discovered that it was the first sermon Dad delivered in Brunswick, I was struck by its clear, simple, eloquent and hopeful message as he embarked on this new venture. It occurred to me that I had begun with the end in mind, but for him it was a new beginning. I liked seeing him tie the threads of his earlier sermons into the tapestry of his new congregation. In a way it reminds me of the custom on Simchat Torah of reading the final words of the torah and immediately beginning to read it from he beginning anew. Quite literally, some of Dad’s High Holiday sermons were indeed delivered as his last at NCT and his first at TBT. One can only wonder, as his understanding of his new community grew, whether he would have continued this practice or found himself moving forward with new thoughts tailored to his new surroundings.