Thursday, June 20, 2019

Reflections on the Rabbinate

I have made an effort to engage in increased self-awareness. One of the several benefits of this exercise has been to pay attention to the position I occupy as the Rabbi at Etz Chaim Synagogue and be more conscious of the reason I chose this path in life as a career. The more I reflected I came to realize that it is a great privilege for me to be the Rabbi of such a wonderful shul and community. I also paid attention to some of the values that drive me in this position.
1. Leader of All People -When Moshe was informed that he would not be leading the people into the Promised Land, he prayed that G-d designate an appropriate successor. Interestingly, Moshe refers to G-d as the “G-d of all spirits.” Rashi famously writes, “that Moshe prayed for a leader who will be able to tolerate and understand all people according to their individual character.” The message here is that a leader should respect differences, as the conductor of an orchestra should work to integrate them, ensuring that many different instruments play their part in harmony with everyone. A leader does not seek to impose a top-down message of uniformity but rather respects diversity. This should not be confused as a weakness but rather a strength as the leader attempts to listen and understand every single individual for who they are and relate to them in this personal and individualized manner. I think this message is timeless and universal, but it especially resonates with me in this shul and community. We have a healthy diversity in our congregational body. There are so many individuals from varied backgrounds, ethnic groups, and levels of observance. My goal has always been that everyone should feel that Etz Chaim is their home and a vital resource in their spiritual journey in life. From the learned scholar to someone that can’t distinguish between an Aleph and Beis, there is nourishment provided for the Jewish soul that seeks a connection.
2. The Art of Listening- The Gaon of Vilna writes that there are three levels of listening: listening, understanding, and accepting. The third level means that the leader must accept the other opinion as to their correct position even if it is something that you ultimately disagree. In the public and congregational arena, many people have various thoughts and ideas. It is a goal of mine that everyone feels that their voice is heard in the marketplace of ideas and validated. Obviously, this does not mean that all opinions are to be implemented or adopted as policy, but rather, the courtesy of listening allows a person to feel valued.
3. Lead by Example - It is essential for the leader to be modeling good and appropriate behavior. There is far more value in a leader walking the walk than just delivering empty rhetoric. It makes quite an impact for people to view the leader as someone who respectful and kind of others than to preach these values. In Orthodox Jewish life, there is a myriad of laws and traditions that need to be observed on a daily and weekly basis. It can be overwhelming for a Rabbi to remind people of their errors and mistakes regularly. Coupled with ongoing education, I have attempted to be leading by example.
4. Avoid Burnout- This is something that led me to request a mini-sabbatical from my rabbinic responsibilities. After nine years of investing all of my energy to help the shul and community, I feel that my emotional, spiritual, and physical tank is running on low. This investment in communal and rabbinic life has also come at the cost of not spending enough time with my family or for personal time for study. It is precisely these two areas that I intend to prioritize over the next two months in our homeland of Israel.
I look forward to returning in a short time with renewed vigor for the challenges that lie ahead. I thank the Board and entire membership for your understanding and continued support.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

To the Graduating Class of 2019

The Class of 2019 is onto the big stage and eagerly anticipates its next step in life. After many years of investing energy and effort into their studies, they have earned their right to don the cap and gown and walk across the stage to receive their Diploma. One of the hallmark staples of the graduation ceremony has been the commencement address delivered to the students by some celebrity, scholar, or philanthropist. Some of these remarks have been uplifting and meaningful, and some have been cringe-worthy. Some have been magnanimous and yet some missing the mark. I have never been asked to deliver a commencement address, but if I had to offer some thoughts to the grads, I would probably share these ideas with the Class of 2019.

Responsibilities vs. Rights: In our society, we tend to focus on what our rights are. The notion of every human being having equal rights is a lofty ideal and something that this nation is built on as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. From the noble vision of Equal Rights for all people, the proliferation of rights to many different sub-categories in society has been incredible. From the bill of rights for airplane passengers to consumers purchasing auto insurance and everything in between including the animal bill of rights, we are on our way to becoming a rights-obsessed society. An alternative approach would be to focus on one's responsibility to others. If an individual focused on his responsibility to treat every human being with the dignity and respect they deserve as created in the image of G-d, our society would be far better off.  The advantage of a responsibility centered society vs. a rights-centered society is the difference between the former focused on being a contributor and giver, whereas the latter one is focused on being a recipient.

Live with Gratitude: Never take anything for granted. Every day is a gift that we have to appreciate G-d and all the wonderful people in our lives. It's imperative that we open our eyes to acknowledge and enjoy all the goodness that we are fortunate to have. Internalizing this vital character trait will not only make you a better person but a much happier one as you will be focused on the many blessings you have as opposed to the unfortunate circumstances that may come your way.

So, my dear graduates, this is your time and to paraphrase the words that G-d communicated to Adam, "Go forth and conquer the world"!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Greatest Sacrifice

“Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

These were the words that General Dwight Eisenhower imprinted on the hearts and minds of the courageous Allied Soldiers before D- Day, on June 6, 1944. This was arguably the most critical date in the history of the world as the Allied Forces led by the United States stormed the beaches of Normandy to rescue the world from the tyranny of the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine, but in the early 1940’s it seemed that the Nazis might actually win the war. A victory by the Nazis would have meant a world in which have been Judenrein or Free of Jews as the Nazis desired. They made no bones about it. They wanted to kill every Jew in the world and not just in Europe. The only things standing in the way of this evil scheme were the Allied Forces who stood up to the Nazis and defeated them. The chances of the Allied Forces surviving this harrowing invasion were remote. Using new studies, for the first time, we can forensically analyze the chances of survival. As 2,000 paratroopers faced 345,000 bullets, across an area of sky covering 9 squares miles, the chances of survival were 1 in 4. There were about 10,000 men that gave up their lives that day. They knowingly went to near-certain death to liberate a people they did not know and whose language they could not speak.
I reflected on this today, which is the 75th anniversary of D-day. From all the persecuted people that were liberated by the Allied Forces, it is the Jewish People that owe a significant debt of gratitude to these heroes for giving up their lives so that we could live to see another day. As of today, in the Normandy American Cemetery in France, 9,388 heroes are laid at rest. Interestingly, 149 are marked as Jewish graves. Instead of crosses, these burial sites bear marble Stars of David. Regardless of which religious symbol occupies this sacred space in Normandy, we must remember the enormous sacrifice that the heroes of the greatest generation made. We must never forget them. Yehi Zichrom Baruch. May their memory always be for a blessing!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Judaism is a Verb

It seems one of the most significant attributes a company can have is for it to be a verb. Google reached this milestone a few years ago of becoming a verb as people are now googling, or a person can google anything under or above the sun. Sometime later, it seems that Facebook reached the plateau of becoming a verb as some can facebook you. Who remembers when Xerox joined this elite class with folks saying ”Just xerox it”!
A more recent member of the group has been Uber with people now just ubering to work. This represents far more than a different function as a part of speech. It reflects a certain dynamism and vitality in society as people don’t associate the entity as something in a glass case but rather as something that is brimming with energy and on the move.

I believe that there is a profound message in this weeks Parsha that reflects the idea that the Torah is actually a verb. This week the parsha begins with a statement of “ אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ or If you will go with my commandments.”  Rashi interprets this text as one should toil or study the Torah with intensity. One may wonder if the point of this biblical text is that some should internalize the Torah, why is it expressed in the manner of going or walking? I believe that this is precisely the message. The Torah is not something to be stored literally or figuratively in a glass case. It is an entity that is full of dynamism, vitality, and relevance for contemporary life as it was thousands of years ago. The more we are engaged with Torah study and Torah values, it invigorates our soul and contributes to having a life filled with meaning and purpose. In other words, not only is Judaism a verb, but the Torah is a verb.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Reflections from the AIPAC Conference

It was with great excitement and trepidation that I traveled to Washington D.C. this week for the AIPAC Policy Conference. I had the honor of leading our shul delegation of what was my sixth consecutive year participating in this significant conference. We had the opportunity to hear first hand from the highest ranking officials in the country about the importance of the United States Israel alliance. It was refreshing that in an era of increasing of hyper-partisanship, the support for Israel remains a bipartisan concern overwhelmingly. That reminded us in these remarks delivered by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer:

I've traveled with over 150 of my fellow Democratic members of Congress to meet with those that live under the constant threat of terror. And yes, we've met with the bipartisan Republican delegation in Israel to let them know that it is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it is an American issue.

This August I will lead what I expect to be the largest delegation ever, probably more than 30 Democratic members of Congress including many freshmen. By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats -- you hear me? Sixty-two, not three.
Yes, we stand with Israel because we stand for America's security.

Yes, we stand with Israel because we stand for freedom.

Yes, we stand with Israel because we reject bigotry and prejudice.

Yes, we stand with Israel because we abhor the violence directed throughout the millennia at our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Yes, we stand with Israel because we respect their courage, their resilience, their refusal to be forced out of the land of their ancestors.

Yes, we stand with Israel because we are loyal Americans -- patriots who believe it is an American interest that Israel remains a strong free and supported place of refuge from the haters of the world.

Yes, we stand with Israel.
It was invigorating to hear these remarks especially at a time when necessary support of Israel is being reexamined in the halls of Congress. However, it was also chilling to listen to the words of Joan Ryan a British MP who just resigned from the Labor Party over increasing anti zionism and anti-Semitism. She made it clear about why she traveled across the pond to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. “I am here to remind you how quickly things can change. To remind you that we must stay on guard and to remind you we must stand our ground.
“We must condemn antisemitism and anti-Zionism unequivocally wherever we find it, whenever we find it.”
Ryan noted that she and several other colleagues who walked away from the Labour Party would “never have believed three years ago how the organization was now riddled with antisemitism.”
It was a stark reminder of despite the strong support that Israel enjoys both in the White House and Congress, things can change rather quickly. Let us always remain vigilant for this cause. The next AIPAC Policy Conference is March 1-3, 2020. Please circle your calendars now. I would love for you to join me next year.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Smile Because It Happened

Purim 2019 at Etz Chaim Synagogue. Put it in the books. What a fantastic day it was! As I look back fondly at what our amazing community and shul accomplished over this great day, I am humbled and honored to be the Rabbi of such an amazing kehilla. The four mitzvos of the day were performed in such a compelling way by one and all.

Megila reading This year we were privileged to host SEVEN MEGILA READINGS. In addition to the two readings in the evening, we had two minyanim on Purim morning for the first time. There were two readings in the afternoon as well. We were honored to host the Torah Academy Megila Reading for children and families. Special thanks to Rabbi Cohen, Rabbi Kaiser, and Rabbi Rabinowitz for reading the Megila to the community.

Mishloach Manos- Our local NCSY chapter led by its director Joey Hamaoui organized over 200 beautiful Moshloach Manos packages to be delivered around the community. Sixteen different volunteers delivered the mishloach manos on 18 different routes. This program was a fundraiser for our local youth group, and as we heard from Joey, this directly funds all the amazing outreach efforts that NCSY and JSU do locally. This coming year, our JSU will have regular programs in six prominent local public and private schools. All of the funding of these and other teen outreach such as sending kids to NCSY summer programs to Israel come for our Purim fundraiser. This year our campaign B’H raised $16,000! Yasher Koach to Joey Hamaoui and his entire team for a job well done!!

Matanaos L’evyonim- This year our community stepped up to assist those families in dire need of funds for the most necessities such as food, rent, and utilities. I collected over $2400 over Purim for this cause. It’s hard to describe the look in the eyes of the people that I distributed the funds. They were so appreciative of everyone's generosity and extending a warm had to them.

Purim Seuda- Over 200 people attended our annual Purim Seuda. The annual gathering was an event to remember as Beth Beyer, and her crew volunteered their time to cook a delicious meal for the community. Our amazing youth director, Gitty Cohen, organized an excellent set of activities for kids of all ages to enjoy. Rabbi Hauptman and Benjay Kempner kept going on the stage for hours, and everyone enjoyed their music. Special thanks to the hard work of the dedicated Etz Chaim Staff including Jesus, Terri and of course Rabbi Feigenbaum for all their dedication. As Purim fades into my memory bank, I can't help but think of something I learned from the wise Dr. Seuss, “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.”

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Visit to the Citadel of Torah

It was with great excitement this week that I led our first ever Etz Chaim Synagogue trip to the largest yeshiva in the United States. We made the pilgrimage up to Lakewood, New Jersey to visit the famed Beth Midrash Govoha. While Lakewood may not be considered a large metropolitan area, in terms of Torah study and scholarship its the citadel that punches far above its weight. There are several thousand students that occupy the Beis Midrash that span several locations and devote themselves to serious Torah study. Our group was privileged to study in Beis Midrash that had over seven hundred students. The sound of the Torah being analyzed in that room was electric, and the energy was palpable. The members of our group got to be partnered with faculty members of the yeshiva and began to pore over the Talmudic and Halachic texts for two days. We studied the laws of interest and its wide variety of modern-day applications in the workplace. As part of our two-day experience, we got to meet some of the leadership of the yeshiva including two of the Roshei Yeshiva who took time out of their busy schedules to meet us.

Our Rabbis have taught that while there a wide variety of Mitzvos that allows one to connect with G-d in this world, there is one medium that is unmatched in terms of its ability to connect with G-d in this world. That medium is the study of Torah. That is what it means when we recite in our morning prayers” the Study of Torah is equivalent to all the Mitzvos.” With all the busyness in life, we don’t get to spend enough time with this precious gift of Torah study. For two days, I was privileged to lead a group of men that wanted to connect to this unmatched spiritual energy in the arena of this citadel of Torah. It was an experience that left us with our hearts and souls filled with inner satisfaction and a sense of purpose. I sincerely hope that more people from Jacksonville will have an opportunity to have that experience next year.

Reflections on the Rabbinate

I have made an effort to engage in increased self-awareness. One of the several benefits of this exercise has been to pay attention to the p...