The Scout Dilemma - the rabbi’s kid will NOT sell Christmas trees!

Last week our son Jude came to us to make a serious argument about joining Cub Scouts.

The Scouts have activities that he really wanted to participate in - camping, archery, canoeing, shooting b-b guns, and this was before he found out about the overnight trip to the Atlanta Aquarium, which he has been longing to go to for months. 

More importantly, Jude assured both of his parents, separately, that he embraced the values that we taught in our home, and that we should trust him to keep to those values outside our home, that he would, in his words, “Always be his mensch-y self.”

We use the term “mensch”, Yiddish for a person of morals and integrity, to describe good behavior in our home - everything from table manners to sharing and respect and fairness and justice.

So, in very short order, I went from protesting about Jude participating in an organization that still resisted one of our essential human values - namely the full welcome and inclusion of LGBT people, and equal rights for all, which I advocate for publicly on a regular basis - to escorting Jude to the “Scout Store” to purchase all the paraphernalia needed for his first pack meeting which took place yesterday.

Ginny and I very much want Jude to see that his well-reasoned opinions have an effect on us, and we will support his path, even when it isn’t ours.

Jude had a pretty good time, and I found nothing objectionable about grade school boys playing bingo, eating pizza, and running around creating mayhem in a playground. The Scout ethos is OK, a little bit more of a lean towards “group think” than I would prefer, but I must admit that I am particularly sensitive to such things.

On the topic of LGBT rights, it seems like the Boy Scouts may be shifting, and we hope to participate positively in that shift. (See this piece on a similar dilemma for other people).

When it comes to fundraising on behalf of the Cub Scout troop I will happily support going around our neighborhood and selling popcorn. However, I draw the line at the Christmas Tree sales for the den. This rabbi’s kid will NOT sell Christmas Trees!

And there is no argument that Jude can make to sway me on this matter.

[For a great take on the December Dilemma and being a Jew in a majority Christian society, check out Lemony Snicket's book below]

From The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming, by Lemony Snicket

From The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming, by Lemony Snicket

A little local activism on Jewish holidays and school

For those of you who live in Charlotte, please help to make Rosh Hashanah a teacher workday on September 5, 2013. It will make a huge difference to our hundreds and hundreds of Beth El students who want to attend synagogue on the High Holy Days. For just this week, until January 14th, CMS is polling parents, students and general community members for input. Calendar Option A observes Thursday, September 5, 2013 (the first day of Rosh Hashanah) as a Teacher Workday. After the polling period ends, Superintendent Heath Morrison will review the results and evaluate comments to decide whether to recommend a revised calendar to the Board of Education.

Regardless of your personal connection to CMS schools, all community members are encouraged to vote and support our Jewish students and families at CMS. To see the calendars and then vote go to: http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/mediaroom/calendars/Pages/2013-2014CommunityCalendarPoll.aspx

Home for the holidays

Our society seems transfixed with the idea of spending money on vacation and travel as the goal - we know we've succeeded when we travel and are away from home on an adventure during the holidays.

I got to spend these last holidays with my favorite people - Ginny and Jude, spouse and child. As the New Calendar Year is upon us, here are some beautiful words from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (link to the latest coolest edition below), which I also got to re-read, in addition to going to see the movie this December.

Enjoy the poem, and the book, for the first or umpteenth time:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Wrestling With Discomfort - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5773

“Wrestling With Discomfort”
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773 – September 16, 2012
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Four years ago during the High Holy Day season my father lay on his deathbed. Ginny and Jude, then an infant, and I crossed the country from Tahoe to Charlotte to be with him in Salisbury. It was this time of year so I had a lot on my mind – repentance, apologies, sermons, being a new father and losing my own.

In addition to all of that, I arranged for my mother to travel from New York to Salisbury, and figured out how to get her a moment with my father. My parents had been divorced for decades, and both had remarried. There had been many rocky times between them and their families. Years after the worst of the drama, my mother says she talked to my father once a week, maintaining a friendship that began in their teens.

Visiting my father for the last time was difficult enough, why did I have to make it even more complicated by arranging this awkward reunion? Bringing my mother into my stepmother’s home at a private time, a time when I had plenty to deal with on my own. Still, it seemed like a good idea for me to get out of the way. Allowing my parents – long divorced, but friends for all of their adult lives – to say goodbye before my father’s death offered them something. My mother would always have regretted not seeing my father before he died, and maybe it brought my father some comfort. It wasn’t the path of least resistance, but it made sense to me.

Families and our tensions – while many other things bring us here at this time of year, we are often seeking repentance, making amends, and hoping for forgiveness from loved ones most of all. Our families, close and extended, can be our bedrock. Because we are so close, our families can be our greatest source of difficulty too. And that’s OK – after all, even though we are close, we may still want different things at different times.

On Rosh Hashanah we aim to set a good course for the New Year. If we were to craft a healthy method for solving any problem between people, even family members, it might look like this.
- Conflict happens – however we define it
- We acknowledge the conflict. We grapple with it internally.
- This allows us to work towards reconciliation – we take the steps with the people involved to solve the original conflict and move on to more opportunities to do better.

Seems simple – conflict, struggle, resolution – if only getting it right were so easy.

Every year we reread the Torah and it recalls our history of coping and not coping with conflict. Sometimes the stories show us how well it works out, sometimes they remind us of our persistent human failings. Often we find helpful models, and perhaps just as often we find paths to avoid. Depending on our changing points of view over time, we may find both teachings, and more, in the same story. We may find different ways into our scriptures, and different lessons from them, continuing to see new meaning in each rereading.
We come back to the same text year after year – when we change, what the it offers us may be different too. Now we look back at an old story with different eyes, seeking new meanings within it.

One of the highest points of crisis on these holy days can be found in the Binding of Isaac, which we read tomorrow morning. While we often read this as the climax of a story about Abraham and God, let us look at a more personal reading. Let us imagine that the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, is the last straw in the conflict between Abraham and Sarah.

This story is about a complicated family. Abraham and Sarah married. Along the way, Sarah worried that Abraham would have no children, so she gave him Hagar, her handmaiden, as a concubine. Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael. Later on, Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac. All through their lives God helped them out. A complicated family that we may recognize – there’s a couple, a child, a second wife, a half-brother, and in the role of a helpful grandparent, God.

We don’t have to look too deeply to find conflict in this set-up.

A short summary of the difficult incidents includes:
- Abraham uprooted and moved the family constantly.
- Abraham and Sarah played at being siblings and, with God’s help, used this ruse to swindle local kings by getting them to try and marry Sarah.
- Sarah, despite suggesting that Abraham have a son with another woman, grew to hate both the woman and the other woman’s child. With God’s help, Sarah convinced Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael.

When we imagine ourselves in this family’s shoes – five people and upheaval – we can see they have issues.

Abraham and Sarah seldom spoke directly to each other. Abraham moved them when God said. Abraham decided on his own to have Sarah act as his sister when they ventured into dangerous situations. Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham with no discussion. Sarah commanded Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out, and God convinced him to do it when he felt uneasy about Sarah’s command. They all conferred with God, who comforted them, helped them with little interventions, and never turned them back in constructive ways to work it out with each other.

Tension and difficulty dominated this family. They barked orders at each other, threw the others into webs of conflict that grew more intractable as the years went by and never, ever, did they stop and say to themselves or each other, “Something’s wrong here – we have to work it out.” They did have God though, who frequently helped. I think we all know though, when we rely on someone outside of the situation to solve our problems, we’re not really solving them at all.

Finally, we get to the Binding of Isaac – God tested Abraham. Abraham left with Sarah’s only son early in the morning to offer him up as a sacrifice. What made Abraham think this would be OK to do? Abraham argued for justice for the sinners in Sodom, how could Abraham accept this command to kill his son without question?

We often say that this was a test of faith. God wanted Abraham to show God absolute devotion. Here’s a different reading, one that may make us uncomfortable.
We can read this as a test of Abraham’s devotion to God’s promise to help his family – that God’s blessings would continue through Sarah’s son.

God may have wanted to see if Abraham cared about Isaac as much as he cared about Ishmael.
Maybe Abraham could contemplate killing Isaac because he wanted to take Sarah’s son from her the way she had taken Ishmael from him.

Abraham’s difficulties with Sarah allowed him to see their child as a pawn in their struggle. Only someone totally overwhelmed with other issues could see slaying their child as an option. It says in the text that Abraham rose early in the morning – perhaps he snuck away so that Sarah wouldn’t interfere. Again, Abraham got himself into a situation and only God’s intervention saved the day, in this case Isaac’s life and the future of God’s blessings. This was also the end for Sarah and Abraham, since Sarah died before Abraham and Isaac returned.

This is a difficult reading of this story. It challenges me too. Like all of us, and all of our ancestors who read this before us, I want Abraham to be a hero. And maybe he still is, since in the end, he stayed his hand. At that last moment, with some flash of insight, and a helping hand from God, Abraham realized that sacrificing Isaac was not an option.

As a model for resolving conflict, this story serves as a cautionary tale, not a solution. We must check in with each other sooner, we must not allow ourselves to fight fire with fire, we must step back from the brink, and do the hard work of talking to each other. None of us wants to end up on Mount Moriah, with our children, or our friends, or our spouse, on the altar.

How about a better story?

Abraham and Sarah had descendants who better navigated conflicts, struggled with their unease after difficulties, and eventually worked towards realistic reconciliations.

A successful story emerged from the first. Abraham had grandsons, twins, Esau and Jacob.

Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his firstborn birthright and fled when Esau plotted to murder him. Jacob caused a major conflict, and ran away from it.

After many years Jacob came back to the land of his fathers, and encountered his brother Esau. Jacob’s scouts warned him of Esau’s strength – 400 men. Jacob realized that he must truly return to the emotional scene of his crimes, and do real tshuvah, real repentance. He knew that he must face Esau.

Worried about the fate of his family, Jacob delayed their reunion. He showed Esau great respect, sent him gifts by way of groveling emissaries. Jacob imagined how wronged his brother might still have felt, and so he went the extra mile to make amends. Having exhausted his options, Jacob tried to sleep on it, waiting until morning to meet his brother these many years later.

Jacob didn’t sleep. Instead he wrestled with a mysterious figure all through the night. Having survived the struggle, Jacob earned a new name, Israel, “God wrestler”. Jacob prepared to confront the brother he wronged by transforming himself – he was no longer the deceiver that fled his crimes decades earlier.

Upon finally reaching Esau, Jacob learned that his brother prospered over the years. Esau was eager and thrilled to reconnect with his brother, as the text reads:
Gen. 33:4 Esau ran to meet him, he embraced him, flung himself upon his neck, and kissed him. And they wept.

Throughout this incident Jacob was really worried. He feared that Esau’s men would swoop down upon his family and wipe them out in vengeance for his prior sins. Unlike his grandparents, Jacob worked to solve his conflict with Esau – the problem was between them, so Jacob had to struggle to overcome his fear of seeing Esau again. He faced the consequences of his bad actions, and traveled towards the reconciliation between them. Jacob did the hard work, wrestled with an angel, and returned to make amends.

We want to emulate this Jacob. Like Jacob, we may cause conflict. We are all human, so we may also, at first, flee the scene of the crime and fear to return to it. Jacob confronted his greatest fear – maybe Esau still wanted to kill him. This time of year reminds us that we should try to make that return too. Jacob who became Israel teaches us to grapple with ourselves – to atone we must find some internal transformation because when we do, and then go apologize, we may have become the person that will not make the same mistakes again.

All of us are children and many of us are parents. Most of us have some complications in our families. Abraham and Sarah led lives that mostly revolved around founding a people – they needed a place to live, and resources, and descendants. They had little time for attending to the family they worked so hard to build.

My parents grew together and then apart. They had kids, then got divorced, then had new spouses and new kids. We are a very modern family – that is we are families. Not unlike Sarah and Abraham, my parents had a lot on their plates. One family takes up a lot of time, but two families plus careers – I can barely imagine how they coped. I remember helping in small ways.

I also participated in making it worse.

In part, I helped as an easy go-between – I remember times when they couldn’t talk to each other except through me. I would be on the phone with one of them, and in the room with the other. I also remember how we comforted each other – my mother and I would complain about my father together. My father and I would complain about my mother together. We formed little duos of convenience – seeming to draw closer, but perhaps in hindsight amplifying each other’s pain.

I have no doubt that my parents needed to be apart – their marriage needed to end. Their divorce was not the issue – how we behaved afterwards was. We had our confrontations but we never addressed the real issues – we allowed other priorities to get in the way of taking care of the tensions between us, and even with professional assistance we allowed those issues to be conversations with everyone except the person we had the problem with. We all sacrificed each other in small ways.

As a teen, when I served as ambassador my parents allowed me to do it – it made things easier. I felt important too – if I sacrificed a little of me so that I could help them, then I was doing something good, right?

And when I brought them together to say goodbye before my father died I stepped right back into that old role – I allowed my own needs to be sacrificed for theirs. My mother lost her friend. I lost my father.

When Isaac stared at his father over him with the knife he knew that he mattered less than something else. Who knows what scars he bore with him from that moment?

We may end up in any of these roles.

I hope that I brought my parents some comfort in a small way. I hope that their conflict, wrestled with for a long time, led to some peace. My mother and I continue to build love and peace between us.

Loving people means loving all of them, even their complexities.

Our stories are complicated. We dive into them, face the hazards in our depths, time and time again, hoping to emerge with new insights, and perhaps some healing. For all of my families, we always try to get better at doing this together. We strive to be brave, to face what we need to do as individuals, to bring the problem to each other, and to positively move forward.

My wrestling continues. I try to learn from my own experiences, as well as those who went before me, both in my family and in the Torah.

Judaism and our High Holy Days ask us to walk in the shoes of all who we’ve wronged, and all these characters who went before us. We must struggle with when they wrestled and when they didn’t. Entering their stories allows us to enter our own and find new paths for ourselves.

I want to avoid Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice others.

I want to follow Jacob. I want to wrestle and confront difficulties within myself, and then make amends with the people involved.

We explore these stories and make them our own.

We put down the knife. We wrestle with our inner angels and demons. We struggle to enter the New Year better than we ended the last.

I wish all of us meaningful struggles that lead to greater wholeness and peace – may we find blessings in our own stories for the New Year.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to us all.

An open apology to my extended family - everyone

To everyone,
I am sorry if I wronged you in any way this year.
I am really sorry if I did so and didn't apologize for it - I can be insensitive and hope that if I missed the mark with you that you will forgive me anyway.
Please don't hesitate to come to me with my mistakes.
I will do my best to make amends.
In turning, I will also do my best to be forgiving to everyone.
Wishing everyone a year of blessings, including fewer reasons to apologize, a sweet and good new year to all,
Jonathan

Parenting in Judaism

Quoted by Rabbi Noam Raucher...

A thought about Jewish parenting By Edward Feinstein (As if it needed to be said!)

How central is child-rearing to the heart of Jewish spirituality? There is no word for “parenting” in Hebrew. “Parents,” in Hebrew, are horim. The noun abstract would have to be “Torah.” Torah, the very name of the sacred tradition itself, is the best semantic equivalent of “parenting.” This has profound implications. It means, first, that the Jewish tradition could not separate a discrete set of skills and techniques that make for successful parenting. For all its attention to children and education, there is no tractate of Talmud, no section of the Shulhan Arukh, devoted to solely to parenting skills or strategies. The entire spiritual tradition is about parenting. The way to successful parenting is to absorb the full wisdom of the tradition. Second, it means that no activity is more sacred, more revered, than parenting. To parent a child is to do Torah. Parenting brings God into the world.

DIY Passover

As we celebrate Passover this month, we come to the amazing challenge and opportunity of crafting a seder experience for our families.

What’s the seder supposed to be like, and can we do it for ourselves?

All of us grew up with a different seder – some were fun (I hope!), some were long and boring, some were entirely adult events where the kids were only brought in to seek out the afikomen near the end. The seder offers us a unique time to build our own Judaism in our homes.

The rabbis of the ancient world transferred authority for Passover from a central place, the Temple in Jerusalem, to a local place – everyone’s home. Every leader of every household, became the ritual guide for one night.

And all of us are qualified to do this!

Find a Haggadah that suits your tastes, or make one yourself – turn to any of your local rabbis for the Levine-Sklut Library for assistance if you need it. Make sure to cover all of the symbolic foods, ask lots of questions (at least four!), and help our families have a Passover that we will all remember fondly and use as a springboard to create our own Jewish rituals in the future!

And of course, don't miss the Temple Tots DIY Seder event this Saturday, March 31, 9:15am at Temple Beth El - activities for kids as adults learn how easy it is to put together our own seders.

A Happy Passover to all of you!

Keeping Our Homes Safe

Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Friday, October 14, 2011 - Shabbat Sukkot

The Sukkah is a home for our community made of ideals, not bricks or mortar. The temporary structure, built to remind us of our difficult times moving between Egypt and the Promised Land, brings to mind that our community’s fabric comes from strong ethics, not stalwart buildings.

Sukkot offers us the opportunity to look at a simpler dwelling, a home with no hidden areas. Its flaws and its beauty are revealed easily, the Sukkah reminds us of a simpler existence.

With such a simple home as an example, we can turn our consciousness to the difficulties that may lie hidden in our own homes. In the midst of Domestic Violence Awareness month, we can use Sukkot to open ourselves up to the difficulties that lay hidden amongst us.

One in four homes is affected by Domestic Abuse - even Jewish homes. Homes built by all types of people. Moving the community to an awareness of our homes and their structures, moving them outside and into the Sukkah, may also mean moving ourselves to a greater awareness of these difficulties all around us.

Just as the Sukkah is a simplification of the home, and so a symbol, these problems in real homes should not be simplified. The abusive relationship too often blames the victim, on the one hand, and our solutions to abuse may dehumanize the abuser as well. A persistent abusive home leaves everyone damaged and in jeopardy, and requires all of our energies to unravel and make whole again.

Wholeness, another translation of Shalom, is our goal - we aim for a Sukkat Shalom, a Sukkah of peaceful wholeness, in the same way that we aim for Sh’lom Bayit - peaceful wholeness in the home. Creating such wholeness requires awareness, deliberation, and thoughtful action. We must see the issues, figure out helpful paths to solve them, and then go out and make it happen.

At Temple Beth El we have already led the way with a Resolution of Domestic Abuse:

WHEREAS Judaism affirms the sanctity of life and the inherent right of each person to a life of dignity and respect, and to a home that embodies such values, and

WHEREAS a Jewish House of Worship should be a safe haven for anyone who is suffering from any form of domestic abuse, and
WHEREAS domestic abuse, especially the battering of women, is a problem that has too often been minimized, ignored, or denied in the Jewish community, and
WHEREAS certain misconceptions exist regarding battered women and men that dismiss, deny, and blame the victim rather than the perpetrator,
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that Temple Beth El and its members acknowledge the presence of domestic abuse in our Temple family and the Jewish community.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Temple Beth El and its leadership will offer guidance about domestic abuse and make it known to our congregants that victims may come to us for help and that we will educate our congregants in order to recognize and help prevent domestic abuse.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Temple Beth El will take the steps that are necessary and appropriate to become a safe and welcoming place for anyone in our Temple family who is in a domestic abuse situation.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Temple Beth El leadership will offer educational and ethical action programs about domestic abuse, and that we will institute appropriate forums in our congregation and community regarding the issue of domestic abuse.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Temple Beth El will call upon and work with other religious and secular organizations throughout our community to educate and engage in a campaign of outreach and awareness regarding domestic abuse.


We must work to embody the other symbol of Sukkot the lulav and etrog. These four items are often depicted as four aspects of ourselves:
- The myrtle leaves shaped like our eyes, the eyes with which we see into the dark places in our lives that need attention.
- The etrog shaped like our heart, the heart with which we feel with sympathy another’s plight, and that beats with justice to improve it.
- The willow leaves shaped like our mouths which must speak out about these issues with courage.
- And the palm branch, stalwart like our spines, which must stand strong and act for the sake of ourselves and others who need our actions that will bring repair to lives and the world.

We remember that while we pray to God for the resources to bring such repair, the responsibility for the doing of  it is our responsibility, and so we declare our responsibility for bringing about the better world that we seek. Let us be the change needed to make our homes safe.

3,000 Years of the Warmest Welcome

Temple Beth El, Charlotte, NC, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5772 - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Le-Shanah Tovah!

A good year to all of us!

Thank you all for so warmly welcoming me and my family into the Temple Beth El family.     Even my first encounter with Temple Beth El, the very intense interview, left Ginny and me with a profound sense of connection to many of you. Through madly writing sample sermons, trying to convey when I would or wouldn’t eat a cheeseburger, and explaining that I don’t have any weird ideas about God, I felt engaged, not interrogated.

At Beth El, you have shown me, and Ginny, my wife, and Jude, our son, just how a warm welcome can transform a house into a home.

This summer I was working with a Bat Mitzvah student when her mother stopped and with emotion remarked, “When I married my husband, a non-Jew, I never dreamed that I would be sitting here today working on our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. My husband’s unwavering support made this all possible. I can’t thank him enough.”

Beth El is a beautiful home, just look at it.

Still, what makes Beth El truly amazing is the people who are in it:

  • Non-Jews married to Jews who help build Jewish homes, like the father of this past summer’s Bat Mitzvah;
  • Jews by Choice, converts, who learn and live our shared Torah to its fullest;
  • Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, and Jews by birth who continue to find and share deeper meanings in our family’s traditions.

A warm Beth El welcome embraces the non-Jewish partner who is married to a Jew.

Moira Quinn Klein, our Beth El President, was once that non-Jew who participated fully in congregational life at Beth El - learning about Judaism and living it at home, singing in the choir, actively volunteering, and parenting sons that became B’nei Mitzvah. One day she turned to Rabbi Bennett and said, “I am ready to convert”. Rabbi Bennett looked at her in astonishment and said, “You’re not Jewish?”. He couldn’t believe that she wasn’t already Jewish. She had been such an active Jewish learner and doer for so many years.

It wasn’t a long course of study before Rabbi Bennett called two other rabbis in the community, formed a Beit Din, a Jewish court confirming her readiness, and made Moira’s conversion final.

A more recent story: a brand new family moved to Charlotte. With the Jewish holy days just around the corner, the Jewish husband asked his non-Jewish wife to find a synagogue to join so they had a place to go for the High Holy Days, and to make sure that the kids were enrolled in religious school. She was so warmly welcomed to Temple Beth El that in a short time she made a happy home here for herself and her family.

At Temple Beth El our warm welcome of non-Jews creates a Jewish future. So many of you are responsible for the Jewish identity of our families.

Our Reform approach at Beth El is nothing new and should not be seen as radical.

The Jewish family has always included non-Jews.

Do you realize that every one of our patriarchs intermarried?

Moses, our greatest prophet, married a non-Jew too.

While many of us today intermarry and risk family criticism if lucky, and condemnation and rejection, if less lucky, the history of Judaism shows us that intermarriage has been with us from the very start. Non-Jews have always been an essential part of Jewish communities.

A core Jewish ethic is written in Exodus: Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20) or in our terms: warmly welcome the non-Jew, the foreigner, even the Jew from another place, for you were once that person.

Abraham expanded his tent, our tent, by having the flaps of his home open on all four sides so that he could see any passerby and warmly welcome every stranger into his midst.

Moses likewise embraced all. He ran and greeted his non-Jewish father-in-law Jethro into the Jewish camp and treated him like a dignitary. In return, Jethro taught him how to lead, how to delegate, how to set up the court system that even today serves as the foundation of judicial systems across the globe.

It is this warm welcome of the non-Jew, not only here but everywhere in our Reform Movement that led Rabbi Janet Marder, six years ago, to invite all the non-Jews of her congregation to the bimah on Yom Kippur for a special blessing. To all the non-Jews in our midst, I offer you some of her words:

“You are the moms and dads who drive the Hebrew school carpool.
You help explain to your kids why it’s important to get up early and stay late to learn to be a Jew. You take classes and read Jewish books to deepen your own understanding, so you can help to make a Jewish home.
You learn to make kugel and latkes; you try to like gefilte fish; you learn to put on a Seder; you learn to put up a Sukkah.
You join your spouse at the Shabbat table – maybe you even set that Shabbat table and make it beautiful. You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You stand on the bimah and pass the Torah to your children on the day of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and tell them how proud you are and how much you love them, and how glad you are to see them grow into young Jewish men and women.

"I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, bring you joy.”

Thank you.

Just as we embrace the non-Jew, we welcome and celebrate our Jews by choice.

Thousands of years ago Ruth joined the Jewish people when she said, quite simply to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi: “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you dwell there I will live. Your people will be my people, your God my God. Wherever you die, there I will be buried.” Naomi welcomed her immediately. We tell the story of Ruth in part to remind us that a convert turned out to be an ancestor of King David, no small Jew.

Hillel, one of the highest authorities of the Talmud, welcomed converts with open arms. In the most famous story about his embrace of the stranger, a man wanting to become Jewish first went to Shammai, Hillel’s rival, and said: “Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah on one foot”. Shammai responded by chasing the convert off with the ancient equivalent of a two-by-four.

This man asked Hillel the same question: “Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah on one foot”. Hillel gave this famous response: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary, now go and study.”

Imagine going to any rabbi today and receiving a response to any question which could so easily fit in a fortune cookie, or a single tweet. Hillel gave a concise answer, and converted the man on the spot. Hillel’s conversion was conditional upon continued study. When we look more closely at this terse text, we see that Hillel’s brief response was also a warm welcome. Later, Hillel’s converts came together and concluded: “Shammai’s great impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

We at Beth El, like Hillel, strive to warmly welcome those seeking to learn about Judaism and those aiming to become Jewish.

Jews falling in love with non-Jews and non-Jews falling in love with Jews, this is not a new reality – it happened even in the Talmud.

A famous Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Chiyya, had a very religious student, let’s call him Shmuely. Shmuely heard about a particularly beautiful woman, let’s call her Lilah. Upon seeing Lilah, Shmuely fell in love. Yet being bound by Jewish traditions, the Talmudic student Shmuely, told Lilah he could not pursue their relationship for they weren’t married and she was not Jewish. He went on his way.

Lilah was so impressed by Shmuely’s affection for her and loyalty to his faith that she quit her job, sold all of her things, gave most of her wealth to the poor, and took what was left with her to seek out this student.

Lilah found Shmuely’s academy and approached his esteemed teacher. “Rabbi Chiyya,” she pleaded, “Instruct me that I may convert.”

When Rabbi Chiyya heard of her intention and about the student with whom she had fallen in love because of his devotion to tradition, Rabbi Chiyya converted her and sent her to marry Shmuely. Rabbi Chiyya understood the power of love as a way of bringing people together, and then bringing them into the Jewish community with a warm welcome. We are committed to do the same.

In recent decades, Jews have been understandably suspicious of outsiders. Terrible tragedies have befallen us. Even in this Golden Age of Judaism, with the reawakening of our dreams of Israel combined with what might be the strongest diaspora Jewish community in history; the memories of the terrible tragedies that led up to this time are still fresh in our minds.

With this odd mix of traumatic memories and unprecedented Jewish success, we struggle to overcome our skepticism surrounding outsiders and our questioning of any non-Jew wanting to join our community.

Some of you have met my wife Ginny. Ginny is a proud Jewish convert. After our wedding, we spent two years in Israel as students. During that time, Israelis often asked her: “Why would you want to convert?” They wondered why would anyone want to take on the burden and the danger of being Jewish. Ginny’s answer was always the same: “I’m Jewish. I don’t really have a choice.” Let us celebrate those who have joined their fate with ours, becoming members of our family.

A warm welcome extends hospitality to everyone, even Jews by birth. Believe it or not at Beth El many of us feel like outsiders. Newer Jews feel disconnected. Old time members recognize fewer people than they’d like. The solution is simple. We can get rid of our outsider neurosis and each and every one of us take responsibility for the warmest welcome.

My grandmother Connie Freirich, may her memory be a blessing, went to her local synagogue on Long Island in the 1950s to join and enroll her four kids in religious school. She spoke directly with the rabbi, who was obviously thrilled to engage a new member family with all of these potential students for their religious school. The rabbi eventually got around to asking my grandmother what her husband did for a living. My grandfather ran the family business which packaged corned beef and pastrami. The rabbi asked: “Is the business kosher?” It was not. The rabbi told my grandmother that in order for her family to join his congregation, her husband would need to change his business. My grandmother walked out of that synagogue, and didn’t enter another one until she absolutely had to, many years later at my Bar Mitzvah.

That rabbi didn’t understand what we get in our kishkes, in our gut, here at Temple Beth El. We know that every new person we meet may be a new member of our community and a valued participant in our extended family here in Charlotte.

Every time someone comes to speak to me, I have the opportunity to open the door to Judaism for them. I work to welcome everyone through that door. Any discussion any of us have may be their first step into our community, or, God forbid, as it was with my grandmother, their last step away from our community and all of Judaism.

The latest cover of Reform Judaism magazine captures this notion asking: “What Does Your Oneg Say About You?” With only the clergy welcoming, we have not created a congregation of warmth. Each of you needs to see Beth El as your home and warmly welcome others into it. To the one you think you do not know, simply reach out your hand, and say, “I’m Jonathan Freirich, I’ve been a member here since 2011, what’s your name?”

We have a new and renovated Beth El - a beautiful and impressive building. This new structure may make all of us, new members and old, Jews by choice and Jews by birth, Jew and non-Jew alike, feel like newcomers. I came to Charlotte not for the building but for the people who are in it. You are a warm and welcoming community.

Here at Temple Beth El, you work to open the door every day.

Together we work to live up to the welcome of strangers taught by Abraham. We follow the model of Moses by embracing non-Jews and including our mixed families in all aspects of Jewish communal life. We learn from Hillel’s school the value of conversion as a confirmation of people’s sincere embrace of Jewish identity. We constantly strive to be worthy heirs to 3,000 years of giving the warmest welcome.

We even do our best to welcome those of us born to Jewish families.

We work towards a Jewish home, a Temple Beth El home that welcomes all of us who want to belong to our family of families. We continue to build the supportive and caring community that makes being here at Temple Beth El comforting, meaningful, and celebratory.

This building is a sacred home, a place filled with God, because we fill it with welcome. With that welcome we live up to the words over our ark: “Behold! There is God in this place!”

Welcome home for our holy days. Thank you for the kind welcome you have given Ginny, Jude and me, and I am thrilled to be a part of continuing to create a welcoming home for all of us.

L’shanah tovah!

Minority Reports

Last week Ginny and I passed our fifteenth wedding anniversary (we will celebrate after settling into our new home in Charlotte following our cross-country move). The week's parasha, Shelach Lecha, when Moses and the Israelites send out spies to scope out the Land of Israel happened to be the same as the week of the year we got married.

The spies come back with dire news - ten of the twelve do not believe that the Israelites stand a chance against the intimidating inhabitants of the Land, while two of the spies exhibit faith in the Israelites' capacity to prevail. Needless to say, the faith of the two holds as the Israelites eventually establish a Kingdom in the land promised them.

Ginny and I also started out facing much skepticism. We started seeing each other and immediately began planning our lives together, and even we were taken aback by our initial audacity. Ginny helped me decide to apply to rabbinical school before she became Jewish, and we became engaged to be married before her conversion was complete as well.

In the four and a half years between the beginning of our relationship and our wedding we often seemed to be the only two people with faith in us. One of the first of my family advocates to get behind us as a couple was my grandfather, Iggy (z'l). Grandpa Iggy and I corresponded a lot then, back when we wrote letters, and he was convinced that Ginny and I shared many of the strengths that he and my grandmother had had together.

Making a minority report come true takes more than faith in each other and love and good thoughts. The Israelites fought long and hard for their promise, and Ginny and I have had both great fortune in each other, and even greater determination to work on our lives together.

So last week seems like a good moment to celebrate and revel in the successes often found in bucking conventional wisdom.

Happy anniversary Ginny!

Inclusion for Same-Sex Couples

[This is an old piece of mine - from August 26, 2005, in the Tahoe Daily Tribune]

American culture seems focused on the nature of the family, and, for the last few years, one of the most important aspects of this discussion has been the struggle over how, or how not, to include same-sex couples into a notion of family. Many of the most strongly religious leaders of our nation have also identified themselves as heartily against such a broadening of the definition of family, and often their argument finds support in biblical passages, namely one in Leviticus.

Here is the passage in question, from the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 20:13, from a translation that closely expresses the intent of the original Hebrew: "A man who lies with a male as one lies with a woman - abomination have the two of them done, they are to be put-to-death, yes death, their bloodguilt is upon them!" At first glance this seems relatively definitive upon the issue of same-sex relationships between men, although not between women. However, there are at least two questions I wish to raise about this text.

First, what does the text mean by a "man who lies with a male as one lies with a woman?" Some studies of ancient culture have discovered that some peoples living around the times of the ancient Israelites may have practiced a ritual in which male priests dress up like women and perform intimate acts with male worshippers. This would definitely fall into the "abomination" category as early Israelites wrote laws to help them distinguish themselves quite clearly from their neighbors.

One can easily imagine that our modern notion, which many of us hold, and to which there is plenty of supporting evidence, that two men or women could live together and build a healthy family was unknown to our ancient ancestors, and that therefore what is being prohibited here is something else entirely.

Second, no matter how serious a religious person one is, none of us live by the letter of the biblical law. We are not offering up sacrifices, nor are we stoning rebellious children (which of us would have survived?) or those who don't follow our rules about the Sabbath. Judaism follows an interpretive tradition, one that has always frowned upon death penalties that contradict our teachings about compassion and community-building, for example.

So the question here needs to be what are our values, and how do we best teach and promote them?

I, for one, am very committed to the notion of a healthy family as the building block of society. I want to help people find life-partners, if they wish to, so that they can live the most fulfilling lives possible.

If someone cannot have a fulfilling relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but can have a fulfilling relationship with someone of the same sex, then we ought to facilitate that healthy relationship, welcoming them and enabling them to commit to each other.

Our traditions teach compassion and caring - let us turn that compassion and caring to all who wish to build families, and help them do it even when it may seem uncomfortable to us.

Why this American rabbi has a Christmas problem

So, in response to my last piece, my cousin Emily Skaftun asks, quite reasonably:

“What about thinking of x-mas as a secular holiday, akin to Independence Day or Halloween? I know I do. I celebrate x-mas, to some degree, without being a Christian. Christians are always complaining that we've taken Jesus out of x-mas, but perhaps you could use that to your advantage!”

That’s the funny thing about my background and Christmas - I am totally fine with the secular nature of Christmas outside of my home, but the line in the sand starts around my physical dwelling.

As a Jew from New York, Christmas was entirely an external cultural event. My Jewish parents’ anniversary was Christmas Eve, so they often went out for Midnight Mass, not as a religious event, but for a cultural concert with good music. Once they even ran into the rabbi who married them at Midnight Mass! Our family custom was to go to the ballet to see The Nutcracker in December. I love Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, and bawl like a baby every time I watch It’s a Wonderful Life. That is to say that I have an emotional attachment to the secular celebration of the spirit of Christmas - family, community, caring, kindness.

None of this touched or influenced the practice that took place inside our home - we did Chanukah, and Christmas stuff wasn’t for us, even if we watched Christmas specials on TV. A defining understanding of Jewish culture has always been “no Christmas” - the inclusion of a tree into one’s house in December was historically viewed as the end of strong Jewish identity. This isn’t felt in the same way today, but such an instinct still resides deeply in my personal cultural fabric.

Jews in general seem to have no problem embracing other big American secular celebrations that have non-Jewish origins - Thanksgiving and Halloween are widely and enthusiastically observed by Jews of many denominations and identities without raising the specter of assimilation.

Despite the inherently secular nature of contemporary Christmas, I feel at its heart, and in my “kishkes”, that Christmas is “not-Jewish”. Even though none of its symbols originate in Christianity, and its observance has little Christian content for most Americans, the incorporation of Christmas into a Jewish home has always been a sign of surrender - the last straw of Jewish identity being tossed out the window so that we could “pass” as members of the majority culture.

The celebration of Christmas in my home would be capitulating to majority culture. I revel in the non-normal status of being an American Jew - doing the different thing that very few others do. Difference is cool after all, and Christmas seems like the ultimate surrender to a mass idea. Assimilation, the evil against which minority cultures strive, looms at our doors tempting us to look and act like everyone else. It’s been said before, and I have to agree, that the America that I love is the mixed salad, lots of different flavors independently enhancing each other, not the melting pot, dissolving differences into one flavorless mush.

A Rabbi Family's December Dilemma

“Some Jews have Christmas and some Jews don’t. We don’t but I want one of those round things you hang on the door.”

So says the rabbi’s kid!

What happens when the rabbi’s family is the only one without Christmas?

Our small remote resort town Jewish community is amazing - almost all of our families hail from multiple traditions and we still maintain a great sense of Jewish identity for us and our kids. With many of us having non-Jewish spouses and family members, almost all of us have Chanukah and Christmas and still maintain a strong sense of Jewish family - this is a success story.

And yet, the rabbi will not have a wreath (or a tree or Santa)!

My American Jewish kishkes (gut) says quite clearly that Jewish homes, especially emblematic Jewish homes of rabbis, don’t have Christmas.

I love the compromises that our community’s families have managed, such as: “we do Christmas for Mommy (or Daddy) even though it isn’t our holiday” or “Christmas is time for a family get-together and Chanukah is our holiday”. I have a lot of sympathy with these solutions.

Up until now, in addition to providing Jude with a rich Jewish home and social life, our idea on Christmas was to travel and spend it with Ginny’s family. Ironically, due to seasonal illness, we haven’t done this in the last few years, so Jude has never joined us for his grandmother’s Christmas. Perhaps, if he had a history of knowing this, we wouldn’t have the issues with him over Christmas this year.

Since we can’t lock ourselves in our home for one month every year, our solution this year is:

We are NOT putting a wreath on our front door, or on the grill of our car.

We will celebrate Christmas at Jude’s non-Jewish grandmother’s home, and Santa will deliver there.

When he encountered Santa in a public place, we let Jude sit on his lap (and took a photo), hoping that Santa would be a smelly repellent person, which unfortunately wasn’t the case.

We say “Christmas isn’t a Jewish thing,” instead of “Jews don’t do Christmas”.

We attempt to let Jude explore Christmas without making it a taboo.

I truly believe that we get to learn from and have a richer life when we experience lots of cultures and traditions. I know Jude will choose his own Jewish path, and I am relatively confident that letting him explore his Santa issues now will enrich that path in the future.

We’ll see what we have to come up with next year!

Our December Dilemmas Started "In Days Long Ago"

    As we move into December, our winter holidays and stories come to mind, this year even earlier than most as Chanukah begins on the night of December 1.
    Our ideas about our identities - Jewish, American, human - connect deeply with our historical relationship with Chanukah. The story of Chanukah raised questions for our ancestors in ways that our own families’ stories of figuring out Chanukah and that other big American December holiday raise interesting questions for us today.
    The earliest rabbis found the Maccabees’ story of revolt and triumph over foreign invaders - the Hellenized Assyrians - very problematic. Here’s a short list of the questions that the rabbis may have raised about that whole episode in Jewish history:

  • The Maccabees fight against the Assyrians was also a fight against the Jewish establishment that had brought the Assyrians into Israel - in addition to the repelling of invaders there was also a civil war component between the hard-line religious people, the Maccabees, and the more urban assimilated Israelites.
  • The rabbis of the Second Century CE experienced a terrible backlash against the Jews under the Romans following a failed military uprising, so that generation of rabbis and those that followed had problems with the celebration and support of armed resistance.
  • The Maccabees established the Hasmonean Dynasty and created the first Israelite structure that combined both the powers of the monarchy and the priesthood, abolishing one of the essential balances of power within historic Israelite kingdoms and leading to significant corruption.
  • The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually did that which it was founded to combat - namely invite in a foreign power to foster greater security, eventually leading to the Roman domination of the whole region.

    Some of our own opportunities as Jews today parallel those of the Maccabees and the rabbis who saw problems with their history afterwards:

  • Creating a thriving, open Judaism that relates to and stands up to the other cultures around us;
  • Bringing meaningful discussions to our families that include all of our families’ diverse cultures;
  • And still feeling like we maintain and authentic link to the Judaism of our ancestors.

    So what do we do?
    We aim to create a customized, unique, working, interesting and fun Judaism for each of us and our families and our community. Celebrate the great things about Judaism - at this time of year that means making Chanukah much more significant, or at least much more fun, that it has been traditionally. Parties, singing, telling of the story, gift giving, celebrating with each other and sharing that celebration with our non-Jewish family members, friends and neighbors - all of these foster a sense of the inherent value of our Judaism, and its worth as something to do with our time that competes well with the alternatives out there.
    When we make Judaism ours, finding ways for each of us and our families to make use of our traditions in vibrant ways, that Judaism sustains us and contributes to our lives in new and amazing ways.
    I am available to help everyone try and figure out how to do this in ways that fit our lives - don’t hesitate to contact me with questions.
    A happy winter festival season to us all!

The Importance of a Non-Jewish Spouse - Moses and Tzipporah

Early in the Book of Exodus, Moses encounters the divine at the burning bush. In that exchange, God identifies the divine self to Moses four times as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – an elaborate use of repetition in a text known for being terse.

The first of these claims of divine identity to Moses is different from the other three – it says “God of your father”, singular, instead of “God of your fathers”, plural. Our sages throughout the ages come up with many explanations for this.

Nachmanides, a 14th century scholar from Spain, points to the idea that Moses plays a role most similar to that of Abraham, so that the first part of this central revelation to Moses emphasizes that connection. The connection that Nachmanides focuses on identifies the similarities as that of two prophets confronting populations with different perspectives on the divine. Abraham goes forth as the first to be in relationship with the divine as the leader of a people, and Moses must accomplish something similar in bringing the Hebrews back into relationship with a divinity that has been absent from their lives for some time.

I would highlight a different aspect of the parallels between Abraham and Moses – namely their relationship to circumcision, the distinguishing mark of the Hebrew male. Abraham heeds the divine command to circumcise himself and his household’s males in his 90’s, not an easy thing to do at even half that age. Moses’ circumcision goes unmentioned, but we read a hint of it around an incident with Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, which leaves us with the possible reading that Tzipporah may have in fact done Moses’ circumcision herself, his age being around 80 at the time.

This leads to the possibility that God said, “I am the God of your father”, singular, followed, but “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”, to emphasize that like Abraham, Moses needed to circumcise himself. Moses never got around to it though, (we may understand why he hesitated), and it was Tzipporah instead who upheld this tradition for Moses and their sons.

This provides us with a beautiful understanding of the historical importance of the non-Jewish spouse in Jewish families. Often the most central of ideas of Jewish identity can slip the mind of the one thought most responsible for them. Then the partner who has learned about Judaism as an adult, making it their own out of a desire for the richness of Jewish heritage, might step in and remind us of something central that we forgot.

As a rabbi married to someone who became Jewish, I often find that Ginny will remember regular Jewish observances for our family far better than I do. Even more than that, Ginny will more likely safeguard the Jewish identity of our family than I will.