Culture and Values

My love affair with Jewish learning began at an early age. I was an unusual kid who loved Hebrew school from the start. But my classmates didn’t share my affinity and my passion for yiddishkeit. I recall an early high school reunion where a group of old friends gathered around a table in a suburban Philadelphia catering hall. I noticed that all of us at that table had been members of the same Hebrew school class. Thirty-three of us were confirmed together in 1974.  Reuniting, we gravitated to one another as naturally as old family members would. Most notably to me was the fact that of all of the kids who were confirmed together, I was the only one who was Jewishly engaged at all.

Of course, at that point few of us were yet raising children, the entry point for synagogue affiliation for so many people. But still, the complete disconnection from anything Jewish was sadly striking to me.

Today’s Jewish leaders are wringing their hands about the next generation, fearing that the current model of synagogues is no longer appealing to the next generation. While many in my generation eventually found their way to synagogues, their Jewish connections are more tenuous for them and for their children.

There are several new trends responding to changing needs and interests of younger Jews.  One is the popularity of hands-on service work. Tikkun Olam (a kabbalistic term, meaning, “repair of the world”) is the buzzword and its appeal, as an expression of Jewish values, is transforming the Jewish narrative in our day. It has become a key element of this generation’s Jewish identity.

Looking back on my Jewish upbringing (my family’s life revolved around the synagogue), I can’t recall many experiences of going out into the world to help those in need. One exception was the annual Christmas volunteering at the hospital, when it felt like the staff humored us by giving us busy work because they didn’t really need us. In Hebrew School we collected tzedakah, but we had no personal connection to those who received it. It wasn’t so much about needy people; we gave our money to JNF for trees in Israel. We gave as much support as we could to help Israel and to efforts to free Soviet Jews. Jewish peoplehood was our cause.

Maybe that is why my classmates were so disconnected 15 years after our confirmation. In adulthood we entered an open, increasingly diverse world and embraced the freedoms of American culture. Our Hebrew school education had done little to help apply the values of Judaism to our world.  What we needed was Jewish engagement that informed out lives and infused our secular world with meaning.

That is why social justice work is so important.  It is the complement to the study of the ancient Jewish texts and ideas. Jewish texts teach tikkun olam as our responsibility for the world. The mitzvot/commandments are what make the work uniquely Jewish.  Social action infuses our Jewish communal life with ultimate value.

Recently, our synagogue participated in a Habitat for Humanity build sponsored by our community’s interfaith council. The experience was inspiring. Our volunteers spanned three generations. While adults laid flooring and painted, several teenagers did the back-breaking work of digging a ditch. Everyone gave the work their best effort and worked alongside the Habitat client who will soon have a remarkable opportunity to own their own home.  This wasn’t busy work — we knew we were making something happen that will transform lives.

We have traveled to New Orleans to rebuild after Katrina, and we regularly help to feed hungry people in our community. There is so much more we could do, including advocacy work to address the root causes of poverty and need. But our work is a good start, and it is also a living classroom for our children.

Today’s Jewish leadership is worried about the loss of attachment to Jewish peoplehood. I share that concern. But the “service work” trend can strengthen Jewish identity. This generation will, with our help, come to appreciate the value of the Jewish prophetic message to engage in social justice.  That is a powerful answer to the question, “why be Jewish?”

This is what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan meant when he talked of the value of living in two civilizations — the Jewish and the American. What a blessing that we are giving our children the opportunity to make Jewish learning come to life in this way!

This is it — it is Elul. It is the time of year when we are given the gift of an entire month to reflect on our lives in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. It’s like a good warm-up before a workout — when we have prepared ourselves during the month of Elul, we are ready to use our teshuvah (repentance/spiritual turning) muscles well on the New Year.

My kids have often reminded me of the need for good stretching before and after exercise. I’m not good at this — I am impatient to get to the bike or the treadmill and get my heart rate up. To be honest I have to admit that I am lazy about stretching before my workout. And I pay the price: my muscles complain and sometimes ache, and it’s all my own fault.

My kids and I recently took a four-day hiking trip on a beautiful mountain trail. It was steep and rugged. They are a lot younger than I am and amazingly agile. I thought I was in good shape — until I began this hike. But I was intent upon keeping up with them and not holding our journey back. In pushing forward, we all forgot about the necessity of stretching — that is, until I was limping from injury.

Now nursing my sore tendon, I am reminded once again of the value of warming up — getting ready, being prepared.

So here we are — we can enter the New Year unprepared and risk that the journey of teshuvah, repentance and renewal, might not work. It could even leave us bruised and alienated.  All those words…all those prayers — they are for us, that we might emerge into the New Year feeling a sense of possibility, hope and optimism — a renewal of spirit.

The month of Elul is a gift. On this, its first day, let’s unwrap its potential to help us heal our wounds, repair ourselves and be closer in the New Year to our very best selves.

An Elul journey can include prayers, meditations, journal-writing, etc.  Our spiritual practice belongs to us — the challenge today is to decide what it will be, and to try our best.

I wish you a Hodesh Tov, happy New Month. This auspicious month of Elul is the beginning of our journey.

You can help create healthy and sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.
An opportunity to support Hazon.

You may know of my passion for great food: organic fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods. Hazon, a wonderful Jewish environmental organization, is doing great work as a leader in the Jewish Food movement and environmental education. With the help of Hazon, we can create systems for sustainable, ethically produced, healthful food so that future generations can continue to enjoy the earth’s bounty, as we do.

Hazon raises funds annually through a Labor Day Weekend bike ride in New York. I will be riding in this two-day Hazon NY ride – on the “Recon Riders” team, to support Hazon’s inspiring work.

I invite you to contribute to this cause. It’s a great way to make a difference.

If you would like to donate to Hazon as a sponsor for my ride, follow this link:

Or checks can be sent to Hazon.
(Please include a memo designating your donation to Amy Small’s ride.)
Makom Hadash
125 Maiden Lane Suite 8B
New York, NY 10038

If you would like more information about Hazon, visit their website:

• Did you ever do something generous for someone selflessly, only to feel disappointed that your kindness or efforts were not acknowledged?
• Did you ever send an invitation that went unacknowledged?
• Did you ever contribute to a team effort only to find you’ve been suddenly displaced without conversation, explanation or warning?
• Have you ever been criticized in a way that seems like a personal attack, where the critic lacked the finesse to consider your feelings in the way the message was delivered?
• Have you every felt wrongly accused in a dispute, dismissed or mischaracterized by others?

Most of us could answer in the affirmative to at least one of these questions. Well-intentioned people sometimes forget their manners. We are human, after all, and we make mistakes. We may get sloppy in our interpersonal conduct when we are tired, distracted, hurting, or absorbed with our life issues. But we all share a hope, indeed an expectation, that these mistakes are aberrations, not ways of being in the world.

We all want to live in a world where people are considerate, grateful, communicative, kind and thoughtful. When we get up in the morning, that is the world that we hope to greet with each new day – where we feel connected, appreciated, and safe.

For ages we have been striving to learn how to become better people. This is where our patriarch Abraham steps onto the stage. Abraham and Sarah set off in search of a new covenant, in relationship with the Source of all Life. Yet, sprinkled into the opening narratives of our patriarchs/matriarchs are stories of painful interpersonal misdeeds. The Torah records our ancestors’ misguided actions so that we might learn from their mistakes. Ultimately, the Torah’s teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) comes to direct our course.

We keep trying, and sometimes we get it right. In the sweep of history there have been good times and bad times. In good times, our accomplishments are awesome and holy. In other times, it seems as though humanity sometimes enters a warp of self-absorption or selfishness and even bad-temper. Then, people don’t always treat each other well. Some people act out from a place of hurt or fear. The challenges we face may cloud our view of the sacredness and awe that Abraham led us to seek.

It seems that we may be living through just such a challenging time.

Stephen Carter, in his 1998 book, “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy” talks about “sacrifice and neighbor-love”: He reminds us that the command to love your neighbor as yourself is “the simplest of commandments and maybe the hardest one to follow.” It requires us to act with love toward others, which is a hard discipline to cultivate. Carter suggests that we get there by seeing this as a moral obligation that is absolute. “Why?”, he asks, “Because that other human being, whatever his or her strengths, weaknesses, and simple complexities, is also a part of God’s creation.” In religious terms, this discipline is sustained by a powerful sense of awe in glory of life and this universe.
We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.

Just this week I had several conversations with some folks in our community about their own private hurts because of actions of others. The questions listed above describe the shape and substance of these hurts. Yes, mistakes happen. But one person observed that this feels like a cultural issue – there is too much self-absorption going around, she observed. I thought of Stephen Carter’s book, which had already been reverberating in my mind to teach again. I thought of the “civility campaign” of the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) and the public divisiveness in our culture right now. It does seem that we need to recover our center – as a people commanded to direct all of our actions mindfully, in regard for each other’s feelings and humanity.

We are approaching the festival of Pesach (Passover.) It is not only about liberation from Egyptian bondage. Pesach envisions a world in which all people are freed from the “narrow places” (from the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim.) May this celebration renew our commitment to shaping a world where the expansiveness of God’s glorious world is ever-present, and we all act in accordance with the rule to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our community was blessed by the opportunity to learn from a gifted spiritual teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, during this Shabbat. Shefa taught us about the spiritual practice of chanting; teaching us beautiful melodies with inspiring words to help us access God’s love. “It’s all about love,” she taught us. What else could Judaism be about, if not God’s love? The chants Shefa has composed use short phrases from the liturgy or other sacred texts, extracting the essence from an otherwise wordy tradition of Jewish prayer. Prayer shouldn’t be about “reciting” words, about being “yotzei” (having completed an obligation), or just saying a lot of words without opening our hearts. Prayer is a practice, and the practice of meditation and chanting helps us to open our souls to open to receiving and giving love.

I think it’s hard to know what this means without actually experiencing it. With kavannah/spiritual intention fueling each word, melody and motion, we are transformed. Scraping away the mundane “stuff” of everyday life, these repetitive, uplifting chants help us to get down deeper to the realities of our soul. Chanting with Shefa was like peeling away the onion of inner defenses to get down to our core, contemplatively, reaching for wholeness. Singing with community was like being in a chorus of angels.

So when I came home tonight after two glorious days of learning and singing with Shefa, I was still feeling this when my friend called. This friend had just had major surgery, and she called to thank us for supporting her and for providing a homemade feast for her family for Shabbat dinner. She talked about how difficult it had been for her to accept help; she likes being independent and doesn’t like to impose on others. It was not her way to allow others to take care of her. But once she was convinced to allow friends to help, she was able to experience something she never would have known before – the unbelievable power of the generosity of friends. Acknowledging that this is still something she struggles over, she said it has been a remarkably transformative experience. For many reasons she knows that she will never be the same as she goes forth in her life from this trauma.

I told her that allowing us to care for her was a gift she gave to us – everyone who loves her wanted to care for her and it gave us all great satisfaction that we could do something to nurture healing for our wounded friend. It was a gift we both gave each other. I encouraged her to allow herself to be open to receiving love – hard as it was for her, it was what is true and real – we are all here to share love.

I thought about Shefa’s teachings and my friend’s emotional/spiritual challenge. We are so often boundaried by our defenses, shielding ourselves from our pain, from our fears and anxieties, and resistances. Our culture teaches us to take care of ourselves; to be self-sufficient. But our tradition teaches us to reach inwardly, through the words, melodies and experiences of prayer. It teaches us to reach outwardly by helping and loving each other. Both practices cultivate compassion. Both practices open us to receiving love – from each other and from God. When we receive love we are so much more able to freely give our love to others. What a liberating way to live.

With love – to my friend with our prayers for complete and speedy healing, and to Shefa, for teaching us to open our hearts.

Statement on Civility  (From “Towards Civility: A Community Conversation,” by the JCPA)

In American society, especially in our diverse Jewish community, we value robust and vigorous debate about pressing issues. Such debate is one of the greatest features of our democracy and one of the hallmarks of our people. We revel in our tradition of debate: A frank and civil exchange of ideas helps to inform our decisions, provoke new ways of thinking, and sometimes even change our minds.

And yet today, the expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience. Community events and public discussions are often interrupted by raised voices, personal insults, and outrageous charges. Such incivility serves no purpose but to cheapen our democracy. When differences spiral down into uncivil acrimony, the dignity of individuals and community is diminished, and our precious democracy is weakened. People holding diverse views cease to listen to each other. Lack of civility makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground.

Therefore we as a community and as individuals, must pledge to uphold the basic norms of civil discussion and debate at our public events. We do this not to stifle free expression of views, but rather to protect it.

We will discover civility in the guarding of our tongues and the rejection of false witness. We will find it wherever we show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will find it by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it.

This pursuit has deep roots in Torah and in our community’s traditions. Our Sages saw the fruit of arguments that were conducted l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven.” They fervently believed that great minds, engaged in earnest search and questioning, could find better and richer solutions to the problems they faced. They refrained from insisting on uniformity. They sought to preserve and thereby honor the views of the minority as well as the majority. They did so through their understanding of the great teaching of Eilu v’elu divrei Elokim chayim, “both these words and those are the words of the living God.”

As a community, we must commit ourselves and ask others to open their hearts and minds to healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people.

We therefore agree to treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.

We commit ourselves to this course to preserve an essential element of a community – the ability to meet and talk as brothers and sisters.

November 1, 2010

This statement was produced and distributed by the JCPA. For more information and to sign this resolution, as I did, go to:

A short video blog on the question of parent with a teen who wants a designer handbag. What should the parent do?

Every now and then my husband and I will wonder out loud questions like:” When do we finish paying the kids’ college expenses”, “When will we finish paying that tzedakah pledge?”, “How many more years on our mortgage?” etc.  We used to revel in our observations about the increasing value of our house. But that question ceased to be fun with the plunging housing market two years ago. It’s such a painful thought that it has been a while since we wanted to even wonder out loud. But this week I ventured back into the territory, and we talked about the good old days of the high point and the sobering days of the adjusted value of our house.

Fortunately, we are lucky to live in an area where the market didn’t take a terrible hit, at least relative to horror stories that we have read in the news.  But all of us who own our homes have lost money or value during this Great Recession. In many ways we are still learning lessons and shaping the new normal. The lessons have we learned and the way we respond will be the enduring legacy we will leave for our children.

Watching a segment of Sixty Minutes (CBS) the other night, we were confronted with one of the newest moral challenges of our day. The story (interviewed by Morley Safer) chronicled some homeowners who live in areas where the home values have plummeted, some to just 25% of the value just two years ago. Many people who bought homes in these communities before the market plunged are now saddled with mortgages far exceeding the value of their houses – sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The segment highlighted a growing trend – “strategic default” – whereby homeowners who can afford to make the mortgage payments have decided that it is not in their interest to continue to do so. They walk away from their houses, defaulting on their loans, and starting over again. Several were delighted with their ingenuity; they could pay rent for a couple years, wait for their credit to recover, save lots of money, and then buy their dream house all over again, for much less money. Some were reflective, appreciating the seriousness of this action. Others interviewed knew they could do this, knew their neighbors are doing it, but couldn’t justify it.

As if to emphasize that this is really a trend, just the next day, I heard an interview on WNYC on this same topic by the TARP Oversight panel chief Elizabeth Warren. She indicated that the foreclosure crisis is not going away, even as the economy recovers. In fact, it is heating up as people are walking away from mortgages, choosing to default because of the gap between the loan and the value of their houses. She predicted that this will be a problem for years to come. And the question then arises: who pays for these defaults?

So my husband and I tried to imagine ourselves in the position of the homeowners whose home values have steeply plummeted. Would we, could we walk away? Could we intentionally breach the contract we signed when we arranged our mortgage?  We certainly feel empathy for those who have lost so much, and for their lost or involuntarily downsized dreams for their future. But we all assume risk when we make an investment. We all bet on the market when we buy a house. To default on a loan as a financial decision rather than a moral one is to assume that we are all on our own in a great game of chance. Each person for themselves, each household looking out for its own interests without regard to the interests of others.

Morley Safer asked one of the couples who was quite clear that this was the right choice something like, “How do you think your neighbors will feel?” Each house that goes into foreclosure in a neighborhood brings down the value of the houses around it. And the downward spiral takes on a momentum of its own as more and more people abandon their homes. The couple seemed to have no guilt about this, acknowledging that this would affect their neighbors, but oh well, that’s the way it goes. Each of us has to look out for ourselves.

I’d prefer to a different social contract – one that assumes that we are all in it together. That we each have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to our community and our nation. A collective social contract drives people to consider the consequences of their actions beyond their own legal obligations. When we are unable, by virtue of changed financial circumstances, to fulfill our mortgage contracts, we may be forced to hand our house back to the bank. This is a tragic loss – one that millions of Americans have sadly experienced during this recession. Our social contract prompts us to want to reach and take care of those who have been felled by this loss – and in part that was a purpose for government programs meant to bring us back to our feet.

But when we assume that we are each on our own, with no responsibility for each other, we harm one another by breaking our contracts out of financial planning choices. Yes, it is tragic to lose so much when housing prices painfully disappoint us. Yet, the way our society should respond to these disorienting experiences is by learning about the value of community, the value of money and the value of living in a country that accepts and supports mutual responsibility. Don’t we want to live in a society where we care about each other?

It is not about what is legal – it seems that for some people this may be legally acceptable. It is about what is moral.  A contract is a contract. It is an obligation not only to the banks, but to all of us.

What a bittersweet few days. I had begun to despair of the possibility that healthcare reform would pass. The shrill, venomous and uncompromising voices of the opposition were such a turn-off that I felt sad for what this represented about America.

But the days and hours leading up to the vote recovered my sense of hope. Perhaps justice and compassion could actually carry the day.

My husband and I watched the deliberations, and when I found some of the speeches painful to hear, I had serious indigestion. But it was too important to ignore, and I was reminded of the adage that legislating is like making sausage: you wouldn’t want to watch either in the making. So I uncovered my ears and eyes, voiced my own responses in the privacy of my home to the speeches that riled me, and I stayed tuned. It was worth it. Watching the vote was both suspenseful and exciting, and it was humbling and uplifting to witness the history-making conclusion. We did it; America is restored as a nation. Justice and righteousness prevailed.

But not entirely. Righteousness was evident as a bit too much self-righteousness. And among those who stubbornly refused to endorse any form of healthcare reform, were some individuals who were more than sore losers. Racial epithets and gay slurs, physical violence and frightening threats have made their mark on this historic moment as well. This is a most unhappy outcome, in my opinion. This is not just a case of sore losers; it’s a contagious bitterness that is pernicious.

Life is an exercise in learning to cope and graciously lose without poisoning ourselves and our adversaries. Most of us are winners and losers in a myriad of ways throughout our lifetimes. The great challenge of life, the defining quality of character, is in how we manage disappointment, learn from it, and use positive energy to continue to be our best self going forward.

The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam/ baseless hatred. They understood that when a society has reached a tipping point wherein maliciousness spreads like a virus, it can weaken and even destroy that very society.

I pray that in celebrating the passage of this legislation, there is humility and compassion for those who wished for a different outcome. And I pray that the opponents of this reform will take a deep breath and come to find open-hearted ways to approach those on the other side of the aisle in the spirit of concern for doing the best good for all people. This would fulfill the prophetic call for righteousness, the call that has inspired generations and is our hope for the future.

The words of poet Langston Hughes have been reverberating in my mind this week. Let’s say them out loud and spread the dream:

I dream a world where man

No other man will scorn,

Where love will bless the earth

And peace its paths adorn.

I dream a world where all

Will know sweet freedom’s way,

Where greed no longer saps the soul

Nor avarice blights our day.

A world I dream where black or white,

Whatever race you be,

Will share the bounties of the earth

And every man is free,

Where wretchedness will hang its head

And joy, like a pearl,

Attends the needs of all mankind–

Of such I dream, my world!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 311.

If we sat down to list all of the major disasters of the past decade, most of us would be hard-pressed to recall all of significant earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and fires that have caused great loss and suffering to humanity. Perhaps that is because there have been so many catastrophic events that have caught headlines and touched our hearts.  We often give money and relief supplies in the time of crisis, but unless the disaster is part of our own experience, we get on with our lives and put it out of our minds once the headlines fade.

The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are the latest examples of this. Both have much to grieve and rebuild. Haiti, long a desperately poor and struggling nation, has a much more difficult road ahead. But after the initial outpouring of aid and prayer, how many of us will reach out to do more as the story recedes from view?

I was reminded of this while attending the annual convention of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in March in New Orleans. It has been four+ years since Hurricane Katrina swamped the levees, causing massive flooding and destruction. As the region slowly inches back to normalcy, many of the poorest among the Gulf Coast residents are still struggling to rebuild, lacking resources to do it on their own. As we learned together, the deep and long-standing racial divide in the area is a sad factor in this problem. But it is not all of it; issues of class and privilege run as deep undercurrents in this troubling problem. The economics and politics of the region are other complications.

My rabbinic colleagues spent a day doing rebuilding work and then devoted time to processing the experience. Many of the rabbis spoke of the moving feeling that we were actually “doing something,” and recalled the words of A.J. Heschel, who spoke of marching in the civil rights marches as “praying with his feet.” We all feel so much more engaged in helping to repair the world when we use our bodies and our senses, and our efforts are personal. These experiences are far more transformative and memorable than sending checks or coats or even offering sermons about the need to help.

Yet, we know that our efforts are not sufficiently transformative for those who need our help. We come home to our comfortable lives and they remain, in a slow-motion arc toward hopefully completing the goal. Certainly, all of the efforts of volunteers have been cumulatively very significant in advancing the recovery. To those who suffered the loss of homes without back-up resources, our hands-on help has been crucial.  One resident told an RRA team that our one day of effort on his house accomplished what he could do in one month, as he is rebuilding his home himself, with limited time and money. Stories like this make the effort feel very meaningful. But in the end, the fact that he still has so long to go, as do so many others who lost everything, tells us that we need to do more.

This is where advocacy comes in. There is a big difference between crisis intervention and advocacy for systemic change. The former is needed, but usually short-lived and limited in value. It leaves many problems still very much intact. The latter is transformative, like the repair of a fracture with structural strengthening and reinforcements. The former is relatively easy, and often makes us feel fulfilled; we “did good.”  But the latter is empowering for those who need it most, and it gets to the heart of problems that need to be fixed. While advocacy is much harder to do and to sustain, it is where our capacities are most stretched and applied, and is ultimately more satisfying for us as well.

We talked about the challenge of doing effective advocacy.  While we live in an increasingly individualist culture, social justice work is best accomplished within communities, through collaborative efforts. There are only so many letters to our government any of us will dash off sitting at our desks by ourselves. But faith communities can join hands, raising issues through education and using our voices together for common purpose. It was an inspiring conversation. We can join hands and transform the world, together.  Let’s keep trying.

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