A Model of Democracy!

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Israel keeps getting labeled with generalizations and exaggerations and falsehoods. Just sign up for CAMERA or Honest Reporting, and based on the work they do as watchdog organizations, you will see how Israel gets, at minimum a bad rap and often much worse.

But not today!

Let’s label Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, as nothing less than a model of democracy–not only compared to her neighbors but compared to any democracy.

Allow me to pause to note that the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) structure is based on that of England since it was under the British Mandate that Israel became a modern state. Unlike American democracy, it is not a two-party system, but a multi-party system. In each election, each party has a slate of candidates and depending on how many votes a party gets, that percentage of its slate is elected. But that’s not all. Rarely does a party have enough votes to get the majority of the  120 seats in the Knesset and therefore coalitions between parties must be formed.

Today, more than any time in recent memory, Israeli parties from the far right, left, and center are coming together to form a coalition government–with the support of a small Arab Islamist party, no less. So let us celebrate democracy! Let those who spout incendiary and false name-calling such as “apartheid” or “colonialist” read and absorb this headline: “Israel: A Model of Democracy”!

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Climbing the Ladder

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I spoke with someone today who shared that she has been in recovery from alcoholism for 40 years. In addition to a decades-long full career as a singer songwriter, during the lock-down of Covid she worked to became a recovery counselor for song writers and artists. Her songs were already meaningful to me and I told her that knowing what she is doing to give back to the community only deepens their meaning. What a thrill and honor it was to speak with her and my star-struck eyes only widened upon learning of her latest chapter. And yes, I even asked if she would sing for me. She did.

While we spoke and while she serenaded me, I thought of Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah since the Shabbat Morning worship community had spoken about it just days before. The Ladder is, from the lowest rung up:

  1. Giving begrudgingly and making the recipient feel disgraced or embarrassed.
  2. Giving cheerfully but giving too little.
  3. Giving cheerfully and adequately but only after being asked.
  4. Giving before being asked.
  5. Giving when you do not know who is the individual benefiting, but the recipient knows your identity.
  6. Giving when you know who is the individual benefiting, but the recipient does not know your identity.
  7. Giving when neither the donor nor the recipient is aware of the other’s identity.
  8. The Highest: Giving money, a loan, your time or whatever else it takes to enable an individual to be self-reliant.

When we aim for the top step: helping another person to become self-sufficient–whether that is through sobriety or literacy or business acumen, we have literally raised another person up. The prayer Gevurot describes God as “lifting the fallen;” when we do the same, we are shining in God’s image.

How can you use our time and invest our passions and talents to climb Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah and escort another person alongside?

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Living in the Present

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Thirteen months ago, I shared what it was like to return from the future. I had just traveled to New York as part of my sabbatical travels and was in Westchester County, the epicenter of American Covid-spread at the time. Things were closing down, restaurants were emptying, people were scared. Though I had travelled most of the distance, even my mother didn’t want me to visit.

Today (May 8) I am writing from the Kansas City, Missouri airport having just visited our daughter Aviva who moved here by herself ten months ago and whom we haven’t seen since. Ilana and Micah came as well. It was the first time we hugged our children since each left home after a 3-5 month Covid-related stay.

So much has happened during that time in the world, in our Eastern Suburbs corner of the world and in our families. Much related to Covid, much not.

Now I can write: I have been to the present. I have been on a plane, masked. I have eaten at restaurants, largely outside, masked until service. I have been to wonderful museums and spent more time outdoors on the balcony of our inn and in parks.

We may use phrases as “new normal” but I think they are not only disingenuous, they are unreflective and therefore not helpful. As Rabbi Jen Gubitz writes in ejewishphilanthropy.com: “We believe that re-emergence will be deeply challenging for many of us. We have gotten used to our isolation, with its quiet time and narrowed commitments. Our worlds have shrunk to a more manageable size. Our griefs have been private and profound. Experts suggest that every person who has died of COVID this year, leaves behind at least 9 newly bereaved loved ones. A grief pandemic is what comes next, they say. In a year that has been catastrophic, communal, profound, life changing and historic, grief abounds.”

Let us acknowledge that grief and simultaneously celebrate life. Let us hear Ecclesiastes, “A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing.” Which time are we in? Both. As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai writes, “Ecclesiastes was wrong about that. A [person] needs to love and to hate at the same moment, to laugh and cry with the same eyes.” Let us challenge ourselves to laugh and cry and hug and social distance and wear masks and reveal our innermost selves at the same moment. Let us allow ourselves to be present.

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There are Stars on the Ground

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

On Sunday, we brought our 8th-10th graders to the Keeping Tabs Holocaust Structure in Squirrel Hill. We gave them three minutes of quiet time in each of the points of the Jewish star plus a few places outside of the structure for guided contemplation and reflection. Here were the questions we asked them to respond to:

  • Why do you think the Jews didn’t react sooner and didn’t see the Holocaust coming? Why do you think the Germans went along with the Nazis and didn’t try to stop them?
  • Take a full minute to look closely in the glass boxes and take in the enormity of 6 million people. What is the impact of collecting 6 million tabs to represent 6 million Jewish lives murdered?
  • If you were creating a memorial would you have a specific focus on righteous gentiles and if so what would this look like?
  • This was a school project started by one teacher with one class that grew to involve more classes, the entire community and even the world. Why do you think the teacher and students decided to make this exhibit public?
  • What do you think Hanna (the main character upon which My Real Name is Hanna was based) would think and feel standing here right now?
  • The real person that Hanna’s character is based on is Esther Stermer. Esther says, “Long ago, people believed that spirits and ghosts lived in the ruins and caves. Now we could see that there were none here. The devils and evil spirits were on the outside, not in the grotto (caves).” What are today’s evil spirits?
  • If you could build a structure next to this structure to include the other 5 million people killed in the Holocaust, what would this look like?
  • What would you hope that a non-Jewish person of your age would experience while standing here?
  • The author Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust Survivor, wrote “The opposite of Love is not Hate, it’s indifference.” What do you think this means?

We wanted the students to explore in silence so the other teacher and I sat in the middle quietly. Prior to coming, I had thought about what I would do for that time – about a ½ hour to 40 minutes and I decided to bring a book. That may sound inappropriate. But I did not bring just any book. I brought Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.  I had already heard her speak and had read (p. 17) “Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi German. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.”

I felt it was the right book to read sitting in the exact center of a Magen David, surrounded by 6,000,000 silenced voices calling out and a minyan of students and parents experiencing silence in order to find their voices.

The final question we asked the students was: How will you remember and never forget?” My answer, in part, is: to follow Elie Wiesel’s words from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” Let us interfere.

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Personal Inoculations

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Primarily still working from home, I am not out a lot and certainly not out in crowds. Except for last Friday. That was when I returned to Squirrel Hill to get my second vaccine. Due to social distancing, the line extended down the block – ages spanning adulthood, differing physical abilities, religions, skin tones, economic status. It was a sea of Americanism edging toward the door.

When I got to the door and then entered, I was focused on the process and following the procedure carefully. Don’t put anything on this table. Use this pen. Take your form off the paper. How many hundreds of time had he said that just that day? I thanked him, expressed my wish that he stay safe, and sat in my seat, studying “patience” as that was the next middah (soul trait) I was to teach the following week. Then I was called forward. The nurse checked in with me, I said the blessing to myself, and then she administered the shot. I thanked her and expressed my wish that she stay safe. Then I was directed where to sit and walked over, book in hand, ironically anxious to get back to “patience.”

And then she said “hello.” It was my friend from the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh here in Monroeville. It was so nice to see each other; it had been so long and I had almost forgotten what I had been missing for over a year: all of the interfaith gatherings that were not only meetings. The small talk. The reminder that Ramadan was soon to start. Being welcomed into one another’s houses of worship with kindness, prayer, and traditional food. We wished each other well and I wished her a peaceful Ramadan and we each sat in our chairs and then went on our separate ways.

It took me a few days to think about how our encounter may have appeared to onlookers. Maybe it was not unusual for them or maybe it was: a traditionally-dressed Muslim woman and a kippah-clad Jewish woman so joyful to see one another.

In that room, so much had occurred: patience, gratitude, blessing, diversity, selfcare, equality, friendship. To me, it is a miracle that the vaccines have been developed, proven and administered so quickly. Can we take that idea forward and make our own miracles? If each of us would devote even a bit of our day to developing the soul traits that showed up in that room, we would each be doing our part to inoculate our world against the not-so-invisible viruses of hate, racism, inequality.

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Why Shouldn’t This Night Be Different From All Other Nights?

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I learned that the four questions are optional.  They were meant to be an if-all-else-fails to get the children’s attention, then break glass (so to speak) and use this emergency device.  Yet not one of us could imagine a Seder without the four questions.

Therefore, we must see them as a beginning not an end.  The four questions are meant to answer the simple child just as other questions are meant to respond to the other children.  Of course, no child–or adult–is “simple” (or any of the other labels) but rather at that moment that person is trying to get involved, trying to begin at step 1, trying to get engaged and has the wherewithal to bring to his/her lips “Why on this night are we only eating matzah…eating bitter herbs…dipping our foods twice…leaning?” Think of the courage it takes to ask the entry question, especially if you think everyone else knows the answer.  And we all know, that is never the case.  Never are you the only one that doesn’t know the answer!

The questions are a doorway, a way into the story, into the experience.  That is always the way with questions that are asked with respectful inquiry.  The key is how we answer.

I like this interpretation from www.myjewishlearning.com:

Perhaps the Haggadah deliberately provides caricatures of four types of children to teach us something about the care we must take when we answer questions. Each person at our Seder is coming from a different place. This one is older and more experienced. That one has never been to Seder before. That other one was sick and did not expect to make it to Seder, but is there. That one never learned to read Hebrew, and that one knows French.

By telling us the story of the four children, each with a distinct question and each with a distinct answer, the Haggadah is telling us to accept each person where they are and to begin from there. The questions that are asked must be addressed, and the questions that are not asked must be addressed.

After we open the door for Elijah and if he has not yet come, the Seder will end.  Then there will be dishes and matzah crumbs everywhere, filled Tupperware and sleepy children and still there must be lingering questions.  The rabbis taught that when Elijah comes, his job is not only to announce the Messiah but to answer unanswerable questions.  So let’s continue asking questions and seeking answers not just about the Seder but about, well, everything until he joins us at the table, sits back with his personalized cup of wine and joins in the conversation.

Happy Passover!

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Welcome Home, Kind Of

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

To: Jews by Choice
From: Israel
Subject: Welcome Home, Kind Of

On Monday, March 1, per the Times of Israel (3/1/21): the Israeli Supreme Court voted to allow for Conservative and Reform conversions to be accepted regarding the Law of Return and citizenship.  There are many question that might arise from this sentence, not the least of which is: why would this decision be before the Supreme Court? To further confuse (and upset) matters, this is what was written about Shas: “The ultra-Orthodox party vows to initiate legislation to overturn the court’s ruling, and also to support legislation that will prevent the court from intervening in such matters in the future.”  This begs the follow-up question: why would this decision be before the legislature?

It is time to pause and thank God (irony intended) that we live in a place that separates Church and State.  America’s first Amendment, though often tested, stands firm: our government cannot impose religion on us or keep us from practicing our religions (within limits).

Given the lack of separation of “church” and state in Israel, I stand with Yesh Atid’s (a political party) Yair Lapid, who notes, “A sane government will put an end to the ridiculous situation whereby Israel is the only democracy in the world without freedom of religion for Jews.”  To which I say: Amen!  Selah!

Sadly, these are the words of the Chief Sephardi and Ashkenazi Rabbis who seem to have a difficult time loving their fellow Jews as themselves, to say nothing of their feelings about Gentiles: “What the Reform and Conservative [movements] term ‘conversion’ is nothing but a falsification of Judaism and will mean including thousands of Gentiles among the people of Israel,” says Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau says: “Those who converted through Reform conversions and the like are not Jewish. No High Court decision will change that fact.”

I believe their concern is the slide down what they would see as the slippery slope: will Reform and Conservative Rabbis in Israel soon be able to perform weddings and officiate at funerals?  More so, I believe their concern is about losing power.

With this news, let us sing.  Am Yisrael, Chai! (The people Israel lives!)  While “Israel” here usually means “the Jewish people,” let it mean both Israel the modern nation and the Jewish people, for we are them and they are us.  Let us be equal to other Jews in the Jewish State.    Let us sing and dance and visit and yes, even move to Israel if we want to.

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Where Did Schmoozing Go?

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

We used to schmooze. And we were good at it. Perhaps even experts.

As much as many of us see one another via Zoom, we don’t schmooze before or after a class or service, while standing at the oneg table, during a mitzvah project or passing in the halls. When we do have time to share, we have become quieter; there is less to say. As one person noted, we can’t talk about the restaurants we tried or the activities we did. Then, suddenly, we gained our voices, but the topic narrowed: Have you gotten the vaccine? Did you have a reaction? Can you help me find a place to get the vaccine?

Where did schmoozing go?

Here are my thoughts: because of the layers of the struggles we are all facing on top of the layers of personal struggles which did not simply vanish, small talk has gone by the wayside. Talking about thoughts, feelings and issues of import require more than a schmooze. We are thinking not only about health but about mortality. We are concerned about our economic futures – our own, our loved ones’, our towns’ our country’s. We are witnesses to unfairness – for example as people get the vaccine who are not eligible leaving less doses for those in most immediate need. We want our children – not only those in our families but our nation’s children – to be able to get back to school safely and continue their education. We wonder how we can do more than shake our heads in disbelief and despair that people of color make up more of the proportion of front line workers while not having access to the vaccine and therefore are more likely to get sick and even die. We want to hug our children and grandchildren. We worry about the political present and future of our beloved country. And…and…and…

Schmoozing would take our mind off some of these big, aching questions even for a few minutes. But let us hear the message that our situation is pleading with us to hear: we must invest our time and energy in these all-important conversations. It might take planning a family meeting or contacting a governmental official or reviewing our finances. After all, we have the time if we put together the few minutes we would have schmoozed here and there.

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The Proof is in the Pudding

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Do you like pudding? And when you think of pudding, do you think more of bread pudding or of the gelatinous dessert that goes well with whipped cream or in a pie? I never ate much pudding. But when I think of pudding, I think of the small box of Jell-O pudding that, when you add milk, is magically – and artificially – transformed into pudding.

The reason I am thinking about pudding at all is because of the phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” I searched for the background and here is what I found (NPR 8/24/12): First of all, in Britain, dating back centuries, pudding meant more than a sweet dessert; pudding referred to a kind of sausage, filling the intestines of some animal with minced meat and other things. (As a vegetarian, I will swallow my comment.) Over the years, the original proverb has evolved. The original was the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It was shortened to the proof of the pudding, and then here in America, it morphed again to the proof is in the pudding.

More than the food, it is the intention that is important. Where is your proof? How do you discover truth? What is your proof of truth?

With questions of “what is truth?” inundating us, let us recognize the importance of first-hand knowledge. If that is not possible since we cannot personally witness everything, let us research the background of the sources – which must be plural! Not just one source! That way we gain some perspective, some flavoring of the truth, to continue our metaphor.

Yet truth alone without context falls short. Instead, the context should be just as it says in the Haftarah blessing about the prophets: emet v’tzedek – truth and justice/righteousness. If you make an effort to become known as someone whose words and deeds are based on the marriage of truth and justice, then you should even be allowed two desserts.

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The Rainbow (Parashat Noach 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Parashat Noach 5781

I am sorry to say, but I have a problem with the rainbow in the Noah’s Ark story. And I love rainbows. After every rain when the sky begins to clear, I go outside seeking rainbows.

I am ready with our rainbow blessing: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to [Your] covenant, and keeps [Your] promise.

At the end of the Noah’s Ark story, this is what we read (Genesis 9:9-17):

“I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come,

10 and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.

11 I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.

13 I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.

14 When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,

15 I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.

17 That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

The issue I have with the rainbow is that it shows up too late. It shows up when God brings clouds over the earth… but I, who look for rainbows know that the rainbow comes after the storm. The storm is already over.

Therefore, this sign of the covenant seems to be less about God remembering the covenant, than a reminder to us, to humanity. We need to do our part before the rains begin.

The Torah Haiku writers came to the same conclusion in what seems to be a rhetorical question:

The rainbow’s a sign
But is it to remind man
Or to remind G-d?


So the question is: what is our side of the covenant? God will not wipe out the earth and we…?
Going back to the text:

6:5 Adonai saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth,

and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.

6:11 The earth became corrupt before God;

the earth was filled with lawlessness.

To what do these words refer: wickedness, corrupt, lawlessness? Per our commentaries: lewdness and idolatry, robbery, abusing women

On this beautifully warm sunny day let us look around. We see wickedness. We see corruption. We hear untruths. We witness lawlessness. We see women being abused. And it is about to start raining.

Per Jewish belief, even if we are not perpetrators, we are responsible. Abraham Joshua Heschel said: Some are guilty, all are responsible.

We need to take action. We need to continue educating ourselves. When the listening gets hard, we need to listen harder. We need to vote. We need to mark tragedy – our own such as October 27 and our fellow Americans’ tragedies and do everything in our power to prevent them in the future. We need to work toward meriting the same description Noah had: righteous, blameless in his age and walking with God.

And then, when we look up at rainbows, we will know that the covenant was two-sided.

We will say: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,

who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to [Your] covenant, and keeps [Your] promise.

And perhaps God will respond: Blessed are you, humanity who I created, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to your covenant and keeps your promise.

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