Rosh Hashanah 2016 Day 1

 

Wrestling with our Restlessness

There is a joke about a child who was sitting next to her father one day in church. The preacher droned on and on without end. Finally the child leaned over to her father and whispered: ‘Daddy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?”

Because exchange of money is often prohibited at the times of our services, that joke cannot be totally applied to the synagogue. However, the theme of restlessness so directly conveyed in the joke does apply to us. In the next several minutes I will speak on the theme of restlessness; but hopefully without your becoming too yourselves!

 

The name Esra’a Al Shafei is unfamiliar to us.. Al Shafei is a Bahraini civil rights activist and digital entrepreneur, who blogs on themes of freedom and change. As a child she witnessed the inhumane treatment of immigrant workers. Her sense of outrage and injustice were only furthered by false stereotypes spread by the media about Middle Eastern youth. She could not respond to those stereotypes due to state censorship and suppression of free speech. So Al Shafei turned to the Internet in order to satisfy her restlessness with present conditions. She blogs about the region’s rich ethnic religious and cultural diversity.   Through social media she educates people about the many opinions, ideals and ideologies espoused by Middle East youth. She amassed a following: Muslims and Jews, Christians, Bahai and Sunni; Turks and Kurds. She made it possible for the world to hear and appreciate thoughtful, moderate and idealistic voices. She has brought humanity to an unstable area. In 2006, when she was just 19, Al Shafei founded an online forum to give young people a voice in the Middle East and North Africa. Her organization built web and mobile applications so that under represented voices could be heard.. She created a web site which reports on protests and social justice movements in places the traditional media cannot access. She runs an online forum for the LGBT community in the Arab world, where young people can discuss issues on identity in countries where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death.

 

One caution however: If you go online to learn about her work, you will not see her photo. Her talk is only recorded in audio. No videos of her face are made and no pictures are taken. Because of her work and the threats she inevitably receives, Al Shafei takes extreme precaution about revealing her face. Unlike other Middle East and African leaders deposed as result of the Arab spring, the Bahraini king retained his powers; making Al Shafei a marked woman. Al Shafei, however was not discouraged. She found other means of reaching a needy audience and she labors to remove barriers for talented but suppressed women. .Al Shafei is only 30 years old, but has already breathed new life into a despairing population.

 

Al Shafei became increasingly restless with the discriminations and the suppressions which characterized her Middle East. She was fed up with lack of progress and –despite being a marked woman, become proactive. Rather than succumbing to dire conditions she acted upon her idealism; and channeled her restlessness and impatience into a sacred and bold course of action.

 

Al Shafei’s courage and inspiration suggest that restlessness about alarming political or social conditions can lead even the youngest among us to tikkun olam; making the world a little more sacred.

 

The signs and expressions of political and social restlessness are all pervasive in our society; and nowhere more evident than in our unprecedented national election campaign. An iconoclastic and provocative entrepreneur secures the Republican nomination; and a previously marginalized Democratic Senator captured the imagination of American youth. Whether our choices reflect wisdom or irrationality, the phenomenon of Trump and Sanders (even in defeat) reflects an escalating restlessness and frustration about our government’s ability to honestly and effectively serve the nation. People are fed up with empty promises and vain platitudes; with cookie cutter speeches and gratuitous statements about improving our lives. Consequently, Americans gravitated toward the unconventional anti-candidates, individuals dismissive of political correctness and unabashed in their candor. At the very least, this election has motivated us to passionately engage in a new dialogue about the direction of our individual and collective lives. We may quarrel about specifics, but the conversation is long overdue.

 

The very public and expressive signs of restlessness are evidenced in cities from Ferguson to Baton Rouge to Dallas, where excessive force against people of color-and then retaliation against the police-highlight an insidious racism which we must not cavalierly dismiss. The actions of a football player in dropping to one knee during playing of the National Anthem, has provoked national anxiety yet precipitated renewed dialogue about race issues in America (although I remind people how 50 years ago, due to an unpopular war, protests against the flag and anthem were often the norm rather than the exception).

Restlessness within our society is more a fact than a fad…

 

I gained some insight about our nation’s collective restlessness while attending a conference this past June in Washington DC. Our small assembly in the Capitol building addressed the subjects of American and global anti-Semitism. The conference was convened by our outgoing Congressman Steve Israel; who spoke about the collective political and social restlessness which hovers over America. From baseball (due to steroids) to Wall Street (due to greed), many of our institutions are under siege; integrity and honor are supplanted by hubris and narcissism. An endless string of tragedies-Orlando the latest example-intensify our restlessness about living in a society where we feel insecure and unprotected. We are anxious about the future; the phenomenon of our election campaign and the vocal protests in our city streets are manifestations of our anxiety and our anger.

 

Perhaps the best illustration of our national restlessness was expressed by Congress itself; on the floor of the House of Representatives. In response to the Orlando tragedy (which claimed the lives of 49 people in a gay nightclub), forty Representatives staged an all night sit-in. For 25 hours, Representatives voiced alarming concern for the inability of the national government to produce gun legislation to better protect the public. What will eventually emerge from such a demonstrative and ironic display of national restlessness is unclear. Yet, when Congressional leaders so demonstrably express their own frustration about government inaction, we can trust that national dialogue will persist until more viable solutions emerge.

 

Our all-pervasive restlessness highlights the ongoing flaws in American society, but it can lead us to renewed conversation; to our being open and receptive to the pain experienced by those whose suffer from a racism or discrimination many of us barely appreciate or acknowledge. A New Year suggests a new opportunity to begin repairing the breeches in our national community; to initiate new conversations about respecting our differences- and to hope that in the immediate future, we can make right what has long been unjust. Despite living in anxious times, our restlessness suggests an exciting time to build that more ideal and compassionate society which (in one form or another) we all envision.

 

 

We, in the Jewish community are addressing our particular brand of

political and social restlessness. In the past year, the Israeli Knesset authorized a Western Wall project which would secure a permanent location for non-Orthodox, egalitarian prayer. One day last June, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, organized an Orthodox prayer service at that Egalitarian site. He did so as an act of provocation; violating the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Wall in their own makom kaddosh (sacred space). In response, Conservative and Reform women and men organized a morning service in back of the Orthodox plaza at the Wall (in violation of no law or practice). During the service, self proclaimed Orthodox Jews harassed the worshippers; shouting vulgar epithets and condemning the worshippers as faithless heretics. The participants maintained their ground; because for too long Jews in Israel and the Diaspora have endured the tyranny of an intransigent minority which has hijacked Judaism and has threatened anyone who challenges their authority. That egalitarian service at the Kotel reflects years of restlessness and frustration over the indignities of being marginalized, insulted, suppressed, assaulted (verbally and physically) and denied access to a form of Jewish worship embraced by Jews throughout the globe. Despite the epithets and the harassment, the spirited expressions of restlessness emanating from the non-Orthodox world are a hopeful sign that a new public policy will soon emerge; a policy which will enhance the spiritual dimension of Israeli life and will bring honor to Diaspora Jewry. By virtue of our spiritual restlessness; the Western Wall will again be restored to the entire Jewish people. It is also reassuring to know that on issues such as breaking the Israel Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage ceremonies, the Israeli public welcomes partnership with American Conservative and Reform leaders. Together we will hopefully act upon our restlessness by transforming Israel into a truly egalitarian society.

 

More locally however: We in the Jewish community are enduring an ever-escalating spiritual restlessness which jeopardizes the future of American Jewry. Rather than engaging the American Jewish leadership in a critical (yet candid) dialogue about the direction of contemporary Judaism; our spiritual restlessness translates into unqualified abandonment of Am Yisrael. The path of abandonment is central to today’s Torah reading. After giving birth to Isaac, the true heir (as opposed to Ishmael, the imposter); Sarah’s restlessness and impatience takes center stage. In defense of their Israelite future, Sarah and Abraham collaborate in banishing Hagar and Ishmael from their home. Rather than confronting Sarah Abraham takes the draconian step of banishing his son. Conventional wisdom and traditional commentaries suggest that Abraham’s decision was both painful and traumatic. I disagree. Banishing Ishmael was the easy way out; even if it meant paving an obstruction-free road for Isaac to become the undisputed successor. As a parent, Abraham owed Ishmael a candid conversation about the clan’s facts of life. He owed that conversation no matter how intense and vitriolic the dialogue (just as today whether in the secular realm or spiritual realm we owe each other the opportunity for dialogue no matter how brutal the exchange). I imagine that under different circumstances, Ishmael could have been offered a reduced role in future family history; a role perhaps underwhelming but a better alternative to total exile. Abandoning Ishmael was ultimately the easy and timid way out; the scenario as we read this morning does not constitute Israel-or Abraham’s finest hour. Abandoning Ishmael was Abraham’s response to a restless and impatient Sarah. I believe that her restlessness merited a more progressive response.

 

Likewise, our spiritual restlessness as disenchanted Jews merits a more progressive and constructive response than abandoning Am Yisrael. I understand much of the prevailing restlessness when it comes to rejecting the traditional/institutional religion. Reality suggests that our innate sense of affiliation is long gone; as are our commitment to Jewish ritual and formal observance. Our still unpredictable economy leads us to withdraw synagogue affiliation as an unnecessary expense. Sadly, we do not channel our spiritual restlessness into a passionate commitment to create new Jewish paradigms. Our younger generations raised in a post-Holocaust America regard identification with Am Yisrael as discretionary rather than obligatory. Instead, we select the easier path of abandonment. In tragic contrast with our past, we are raising American Jewish families with little sense of spiritual loyalties other than what satisfies short-term and personal needs . As an illustration, Jewish families are opting for private-and more convenient Jewish instruction; thereby evading institutional impositions; be they financial or ritual. Consequently, synagogues are marginalized; we channel our passion and energy into the public schools and the academic, cultural, social or athletic programs which (in large measure) enhance our college academic resume but ignore the spiritual resume, which can accompany us throughout a lifetime. As a result, our students enter college as high achievers but have no clue about confronting BDS or any of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel fervor on the campus (more on this subject tomorrow). The synagogue and the organized Jewish communities are not faultless by any means. The restlessness expressed by many disenchanted American Jews suggests that the various Jewish leaderships need a serious wake-up call: To begin making Judaism more inclusive-and more spiritually, ritually, culturally and financially accessible. Our spiritual restlessness can be a positive force for Jewish change, but only if all of us are engaged together.

 

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer wrote an article for Shma magazine called SOURCES OF JEWISH RESTLESSNESS. Rabbi Odenheimer is a remarkable Orthodox rabbi, who founded Tevel b’Tzedek (The Earth, in Justice); an organization which addresses poverty in foreign countries but also seeks out Jews and Israelis living there, to help reconnect them to Judaism. One of his long time targets has been Nepal, where many wandering Jews and Israelis travel; seeking spiritual answers to their restlessness about personal identity and reason for living. Commenting on these eager pursuers of spiritual light, Rabbi Odenheimer posed thoughtful questions:

 

What is the source of Jewish seeking and restlessness? Is it, as some have asserted, a symptom of the breakdown of an organized Jewish community and culture that for so long held its members close? Or have challenges to a religious belief and practice- the temptations of modern life, the welcoming doors of host societies, or the availability of scientific and historical knowledge-contributed to the breakdown?

                                                                                                   

He quotes the Baal Shem Tov who said: Sometimes we must experience new and divergent aspects of reality in order to create unifications. Odenheimer suggests maybe Judaism has been too detached from the general world; that it demanded separation rather than unification. For Judaism to matter, people must perceive that the Judaism of today blends seamlessly into their general human experience. Our mission is to guide people to unite these different aspects of their lives; while still insuring Judaism’s unique character.

 

Perhaps, then, as we take stock of the declining Jewish community, we can channel our restlessness into a new type of Jewish path; a path for which Judaism provides not a division or separation, but an organic connection to the rest of our lives. We need to forge such a path, just as we have done when connecting with our social clubs, our condo associations, our PTAs and our sports programs. The benefit of a Jewish path lies in its lifelong permanence and stability. As we get older the dynamics of our lives inevitably change-as do the central people in our lives. Our sense of belonging changes as well. And though we are zealous when it comes to our kids pursuing dance, sports or school cultural programs, those activities have a limited shelf life. What exists beyond? Even as we push our children to the limits in pursuit of a top college, what exists beyond the awards and the resume? What will provide the lifelong spiritual connection which enables us to cope with the constant volatility of life?

 

Our younger generations embrace (as did we) a contemporary form of music. I suggest that any viable ritual service of the future will reflect the music and poetry of our generation. As we fight on behalf of global tolerance and equality, I suggest that we apply our idealism to a Jewish context; where there are still inclusion battles to be fought over enfranchising alienated or forgotten Jews. As we encourage community service and social action (for our children and for ourselves), I submit that we focus interest on the Jewish communities in America, Israel and elsewhere; where poverty, old age, Jewish illiteracy and disappearing Jewish communities all threaten Jewish continuity. Throughout our history, each generation has forged a path in which the values and the conditions of its indigenous culture are incorporated into daily Jewish living. I hope we can embark on such a path; acting upon our spiritual restlessness to begin re-energizing the Jewish community.

 

One of my long time heroes was Pete Seeger; an activist renowned for channeling his restlessness into a blueprint for social change. He used his music not only as a means of unifying a world but to promote social justice and activism. Music was his vehicle to address his sense of restlessness about a world desperately in need of repair. In his later years, Seeger’s cause was the Hudson River. Together with his wife Toshi, Seeger built his own 19th-century wooden sloop, the Clearwater, and as he sailed the river, he began asking commercial fishermen to work with him to bring the river back. In his own words: He used his guitar and his voice and his joyful manner to summon people. Seeger walked the banks of the river, talking to locals and trying to persuade them that it would one day be possible to swim in the Hudson again. Seeger’s restlessness about failures of our democracy to limit the power of large corporations drove him to connect the Hudson with all people as the rightful owners. With advancing age, Seeger continued to act upon his restlessness; never abandoning or withdrawing from life.

 

Seeger used his provocative music to mobilize a movement:

…As Esra’a Al Shafei uses her youthful voice and her computer to mobilize the persecuted and the voiceless.

 

…As people throughout American are using their voices and their passions to address serious issues of racism and tolerance.

 

…As Jewish activists are using their voices and their spirits to help bring a spirit of inclusion and equality to Jewish living…

 

They all inspire us to transform our restlessness into a blueprint for living a more purposeful life. My hope is that in 5777, we as a Jewish community will channel our restlessness into a blueprint for a Jewish life of engagement; a life where individually and collectively we will channel our restlessness into a plan for a new manner of affiliation and identification with the Jewish people. From whatever direction we come and to whatever direction we go, I hope we find a point of convergence; where each us of incorporates the many facets of our lives into a Jewish experience which elevates us to the highest levels of sanctity and spirit.

 

: Wrestling with our Restlessness

There is a joke about a child who was sitting next to her father one day in church. The preacher droned on and on without end. Finally the child leaned over to her father and whispered: ‘Daddy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?”

Because exchange of money is often prohibited at the times of our services, that joke cannot be totally applied to the synagogue. However, the theme of restlessness so directly conveyed in the joke does apply to us. In the next several minutes I will speak on the theme of restlessness; but hopefully without your becoming too yourselves!

 

The name Esra’a Al Shafei is unfamiliar to us.. Al Shafei is a Bahraini civil rights activist and digital entrepreneur, who blogs on themes of freedom and change. As a child she witnessed the inhumane treatment of immigrant workers. Her sense of outrage and injustice were only furthered by false stereotypes spread by the media about Middle Eastern youth. She could not respond to those stereotypes due to state censorship and suppression of free speech. So Al Shafei turned to the Internet in order to satisfy her restlessness with present conditions. She blogs about the region’s rich ethnic religious and cultural diversity.   Through social media she educates people about the many opinions, ideals and ideologies espoused by Middle East youth. She amassed a following: Muslims and Jews, Christians, Bahai and Sunni; Turks and Kurds. She made it possible for the world to hear and appreciate thoughtful, moderate and idealistic voices. She has brought humanity to an unstable area. In 2006, when she was just 19, Al Shafei founded an online forum to give young people a voice in the Middle East and North Africa. Her organization built web and mobile applications so that under represented voices could be heard.. She created a web site which reports on protests and social justice movements in places the traditional media cannot access. She runs an online forum for the LGBT community in the Arab world, where young people can discuss issues on identity in countries where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death.

 

One caution however: If you go online to learn about her work, you will not see her photo. Her talk is only recorded in audio. No videos of her face are made and no pictures are taken. Because of her work and the threats she inevitably receives, Al Shafei takes extreme precaution about revealing her face. Unlike other Middle East and African leaders deposed as result of the Arab spring, the Bahraini king retained his powers; making Al Shafei a marked woman. Al Shafei, however was not discouraged. She found other means of reaching a needy audience and she labors to remove barriers for talented but suppressed women. .Al Shafei is only 30 years old, but has already breathed new life into a despairing population.

 

Al Shafei became increasingly restless with the discriminations and the suppressions which characterized her Middle East. She was fed up with lack of progress and –despite being a marked woman, become proactive. Rather than succumbing to dire conditions she acted upon her idealism; and channeled her restlessness and impatience into a sacred and bold course of action.

 

Al Shafei’s courage and inspiration suggest that restlessness about alarming political or social conditions can lead even the youngest among us to tikkun olam; making the world a little more sacred.

 

The signs and expressions of political and social restlessness are all pervasive in our society; and nowhere more evident than in our unprecedented national election campaign. An iconoclastic and provocative entrepreneur secures the Republican nomination; and a previously marginalized Democratic Senator captured the imagination of American youth. Whether our choices reflect wisdom or irrationality, the phenomenon of Trump and Sanders (even in defeat) reflects an escalating restlessness and frustration about our government’s ability to honestly and effectively serve the nation. People are fed up with empty promises and vain platitudes; with cookie cutter speeches and gratuitous statements about improving our lives. Consequently, Americans gravitated toward the unconventional anti-candidates, individuals dismissive of political correctness and unabashed in their candor. At the very least, this election has motivated us to passionately engage in a new dialogue about the direction of our individual and collective lives. We may quarrel about specifics, but the conversation is long overdue.

 

The very public and expressive signs of restlessness are evidenced in cities from Ferguson to Baton Rouge to Dallas, where excessive force against people of color-and then retaliation against the police-highlight an insidious racism which we must not cavalierly dismiss. The actions of a football player in dropping to one knee during playing of the National Anthem, has provoked national anxiety yet precipitated renewed dialogue about race issues in America (although I remind people how 50 years ago, due to an unpopular war, protests against the flag and anthem were often the norm rather than the exception).

Restlessness within our society is more a fact than a fad…

 

I gained some insight about our nation’s collective restlessness while attending a conference this past June in Washington DC. Our small assembly in the Capitol building addressed the subjects of American and global anti-Semitism. The conference was convened by our outgoing Congressman Steve Israel; who spoke about the collective political and social restlessness which hovers over America. From baseball (due to steroids) to Wall Street (due to greed), many of our institutions are under siege; integrity and honor are supplanted by hubris and narcissism. An endless string of tragedies-Orlando the latest example-intensify our restlessness about living in a society where we feel insecure and unprotected. We are anxious about the future; the phenomenon of our election campaign and the vocal protests in our city streets are manifestations of our anxiety and our anger.

 

Perhaps the best illustration of our national restlessness was expressed by Congress itself; on the floor of the House of Representatives. In response to the Orlando tragedy (which claimed the lives of 49 people in a gay nightclub), forty Representatives staged an all night sit-in. For 25 hours, Representatives voiced alarming concern for the inability of the national government to produce gun legislation to better protect the public. What will eventually emerge from such a demonstrative and ironic display of national restlessness is unclear. Yet, when Congressional leaders so demonstrably express their own frustration about government inaction, we can trust that national dialogue will persist until more viable solutions emerge.

 

Our all-pervasive restlessness highlights the ongoing flaws in American society, but it can lead us to renewed conversation; to our being open and receptive to the pain experienced by those whose suffer from a racism or discrimination many of us barely appreciate or acknowledge. A New Year suggests a new opportunity to begin repairing the breeches in our national community; to initiate new conversations about respecting our differences- and to hope that in the immediate future, we can make right what has long been unjust. Despite living in anxious times, our restlessness suggests an exciting time to build that more ideal and compassionate society which (in one form or another) we all envision.

 

 

We, in the Jewish community are addressing our particular brand of

political and social restlessness. In the past year, the Israeli Knesset authorized a Western Wall project which would secure a permanent location for non-Orthodox, egalitarian prayer. One day last June, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, organized an Orthodox prayer service at that Egalitarian site. He did so as an act of provocation; violating the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Wall in their own makom kaddosh (sacred space). In response, Conservative and Reform women and men organized a morning service in back of the Orthodox plaza at the Wall (in violation of no law or practice). During the service, self proclaimed Orthodox Jews harassed the worshippers; shouting vulgar epithets and condemning the worshippers as faithless heretics. The participants maintained their ground; because for too long Jews in Israel and the Diaspora have endured the tyranny of an intransigent minority which has hijacked Judaism and has threatened anyone who challenges their authority. That egalitarian service at the Kotel reflects years of restlessness and frustration over the indignities of being marginalized, insulted, suppressed, assaulted (verbally and physically) and denied access to a form of Jewish worship embraced by Jews throughout the globe. Despite the epithets and the harassment, the spirited expressions of restlessness emanating from the non-Orthodox world are a hopeful sign that a new public policy will soon emerge; a policy which will enhance the spiritual dimension of Israeli life and will bring honor to Diaspora Jewry. By virtue of our spiritual restlessness; the Western Wall will again be restored to the entire Jewish people. It is also reassuring to know that on issues such as breaking the Israel Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage ceremonies, the Israeli public welcomes partnership with American Conservative and Reform leaders. Together we will hopefully act upon our restlessness by transforming Israel into a truly egalitarian society.

 

More locally however: We in the Jewish community are enduring an ever-escalating spiritual restlessness which jeopardizes the future of American Jewry. Rather than engaging the American Jewish leadership in a critical (yet candid) dialogue about the direction of contemporary Judaism; our spiritual restlessness translates into unqualified abandonment of Am Yisrael. The path of abandonment is central to today’s Torah reading. After giving birth to Isaac, the true heir (as opposed to Ishmael, the imposter); Sarah’s restlessness and impatience takes center stage. In defense of their Israelite future, Sarah and Abraham collaborate in banishing Hagar and Ishmael from their home. Rather than confronting Sarah Abraham takes the draconian step of banishing his son. Conventional wisdom and traditional commentaries suggest that Abraham’s decision was both painful and traumatic. I disagree. Banishing Ishmael was the easy way out; even if it meant paving an obstruction-free road for Isaac to become the undisputed successor. As a parent, Abraham owed Ishmael a candid conversation about the clan’s facts of life. He owed that conversation no matter how intense and vitriolic the dialogue (just as today whether in the secular realm or spiritual realm we owe each other the opportunity for dialogue no matter how brutal the exchange). I imagine that under different circumstances, Ishmael could have been offered a reduced role in future family history; a role perhaps underwhelming but a better alternative to total exile. Abandoning Ishmael was ultimately the easy and timid way out; the scenario as we read this morning does not constitute Israel-or Abraham’s finest hour. Abandoning Ishmael was Abraham’s response to a restless and impatient Sarah. I believe that her restlessness merited a more progressive response.

 

Likewise, our spiritual restlessness as disenchanted Jews merits a more progressive and constructive response than abandoning Am Yisrael. I understand much of the prevailing restlessness when it comes to rejecting the traditional/institutional religion. Reality suggests that our innate sense of affiliation is long gone; as are our commitment to Jewish ritual and formal observance. Our still unpredictable economy leads us to withdraw synagogue affiliation as an unnecessary expense. Sadly, we do not channel our spiritual restlessness into a passionate commitment to create new Jewish paradigms. Our younger generations raised in a post-Holocaust America regard identification with Am Yisrael as discretionary rather than obligatory. Instead, we select the easier path of abandonment. In tragic contrast with our past, we are raising American Jewish families with little sense of spiritual loyalties other than what satisfies short-term and personal needs . As an illustration, Jewish families are opting for private-and more convenient Jewish instruction; thereby evading institutional impositions; be they financial or ritual. Consequently, synagogues are marginalized; we channel our passion and energy into the public schools and the academic, cultural, social or athletic programs which (in large measure) enhance our college academic resume but ignore the spiritual resume, which can accompany us throughout a lifetime. As a result, our students enter college as high achievers but have no clue about confronting BDS or any of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel fervor on the campus (more on this subject tomorrow). The synagogue and the organized Jewish communities are not faultless by any means. The restlessness expressed by many disenchanted American Jews suggests that the various Jewish leaderships need a serious wake-up call: To begin making Judaism more inclusive-and more spiritually, ritually, culturally and financially accessible. Our spiritual restlessness can be a positive force for Jewish change, but only if all of us are engaged together.

 

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer wrote an article for Shma magazine called SOURCES OF JEWISH RESTLESSNESS. Rabbi Odenheimer is a remarkable Orthodox rabbi, who founded Tevel b’Tzedek (The Earth, in Justice); an organization which addresses poverty in foreign countries but also seeks out Jews and Israelis living there, to help reconnect them to Judaism. One of his long time targets has been Nepal, where many wandering Jews and Israelis travel; seeking spiritual answers to their restlessness about personal identity and reason for living. Commenting on these eager pursuers of spiritual light, Rabbi Odenheimer posed thoughtful questions:

 

What is the source of Jewish seeking and restlessness? Is it, as some have asserted, a symptom of the breakdown of an organized Jewish community and culture that for so long held its members close? Or have challenges to a religious belief and practice- the temptations of modern life, the welcoming doors of host societies, or the availability of scientific and historical knowledge-contributed to the breakdown?

                                                                                                   

He quotes the Baal Shem Tov who said: Sometimes we must experience new and divergent aspects of reality in order to create unifications. Odenheimer suggests maybe Judaism has been too detached from the general world; that it demanded separation rather than unification. For Judaism to matter, people must perceive that the Judaism of today blends seamlessly into their general human experience. Our mission is to guide people to unite these different aspects of their lives; while still insuring Judaism’s unique character.

 

Perhaps, then, as we take stock of the declining Jewish community, we can channel our restlessness into a new type of Jewish path; a path for which Judaism provides not a division or separation, but an organic connection to the rest of our lives. We need to forge such a path, just as we have done when connecting with our social clubs, our condo associations, our PTAs and our sports programs. The benefit of a Jewish path lies in its lifelong permanence and stability. As we get older the dynamics of our lives inevitably change-as do the central people in our lives. Our sense of belonging changes as well. And though we are zealous when it comes to our kids pursuing dance, sports or school cultural programs, those activities have a limited shelf life. What exists beyond? Even as we push our children to the limits in pursuit of a top college, what exists beyond the awards and the resume? What will provide the lifelong spiritual connection which enables us to cope with the constant volatility of life?

 

Our younger generations embrace (as did we) a contemporary form of music. I suggest that any viable ritual service of the future will reflect the music and poetry of our generation. As we fight on behalf of global tolerance and equality, I suggest that we apply our idealism to a Jewish context; where there are still inclusion battles to be fought over enfranchising alienated or forgotten Jews. As we encourage community service and social action (for our children and for ourselves), I submit that we focus interest on the Jewish communities in America, Israel and elsewhere; where poverty, old age, Jewish illiteracy and disappearing Jewish communities all threaten Jewish continuity. Throughout our history, each generation has forged a path in which the values and the conditions of its indigenous culture are incorporated into daily Jewish living. I hope we can embark on such a path; acting upon our spiritual restlessness to begin re-energizing the Jewish community.

 

One of my long time heroes was Pete Seeger; an activist renowned for channeling his restlessness into a blueprint for social change. He used his music not only as a means of unifying a world but to promote social justice and activism. Music was his vehicle to address his sense of restlessness about a world desperately in need of repair. In his later years, Seeger’s cause was the Hudson River. Together with his wife Toshi, Seeger built his own 19th-century wooden sloop, the Clearwater, and as he sailed the river, he began asking commercial fishermen to work with him to bring the river back. In his own words: He used his guitar and his voice and his joyful manner to summon people. Seeger walked the banks of the river, talking to locals and trying to persuade them that it would one day be possible to swim in the Hudson again. Seeger’s restlessness about failures of our democracy to limit the power of large corporations drove him to connect the Hudson with all people as the rightful owners. With advancing age, Seeger continued to act upon his restlessness; never abandoning or withdrawing from life.

 

Seeger used his provocative music to mobilize a movement:

…As Esra’a Al Shafei uses her youthful voice and her computer to mobilize the persecuted and the voiceless.

 

…As people throughout American are using their voices and their passions to address serious issues of racism and tolerance.

 

…As Jewish activists are using their voices and their spirits to help bring a spirit of inclusion and equality to Jewish living…

 

They all inspire us to transform our restlessness into a blueprint for living a more purposeful life. My hope is that in 5777, we as a Jewish community will channel our restlessness into a blueprint for a Jewish life of engagement; a life where individually and collectively we will channel our restlessness into a plan for a new manner of affiliation and identification with the Jewish people. From whatever direction we come and to whatever direction we go, I hope we find a point of convergence; where each us of incorporates the many facets of our lives into a Jewish experience which elevates us to the highest levels of sanctity and spirit.