The Kipah Belongs to Germany – Bechukoti 5779

I have worn a kippah for most of my teenage and adult life.  I started at the end of my sophomore year in public high school and, except for a few interludes, I have worn it ever since. Whenever I speak to non-Jewish groups about Judaism, someone inevitably asks about it.  I respond with a standard spiel.  It goes like this:

I stand five feet, five and a half inches tall.  Most of the time, however, I go about my daily business acting as if I am the center of the universe.  This is true for most of us.  We tend to be pretty self-centered. By wearing a kipah, I remind myself that my existence ends at exactly five feet, five and a half inches from the ground.  In fact, there is an entire universe above and around me, and a Creator of that universe Who places demands upon me.  A kipah should remind me to act accordingly, with humility.

In addition, wearing a kipah in public identifies me very clearly as a Jew.  That means that my actions in the world do not just reflect on me.  They reflect on the Jewish people, Judaism, the Torah, and God.  If I am paying proper attention, that awareness should affect my behavior. If I do something positive in public, it reflects positively on Judaism.  On the other hand, if I do something improper, it reflects negatively on the Jewish people.  Wearing a kipah raises the stakes on my actions and helps me to be a better person.

The word kipah means a “domed cover.”  A human head is roughly dome-shaped.  Anything that covers it, therefore, qualifies as a kipah.  The word yarmulke, by the way, is Yiddish.  The best explanation that I have heard about its meaning is that it is a contraction of the Armaic words Yirei Malka, which means “Those who fear the King.”

That is my spiel.

I have always felt safe wearing a kippah in San Jose.  Never once has anyone said anything inappropriate about it to me, which is reassuring.  

The kipah has been in the news this past week because of a recent comment by the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, Dr. Felix Klein.  It is a new position, having been created by the Bundestag last year over concerns of growing anti-semitism in Germany. In an interview published last Friday, Dr. Klein, who is not Jewish, said, “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany.”  He added that he had “changed his mind (on the subject) compared to previously.”  He went on to describe the need to educate police officers, teachers, and officials about the nature of antisemitism and its dangers.

What happened next is what seems to happen a lot these days.  Everybody went nuts and took his comment out of context. The Jerusalem Posts’s headline was German Antisemitism Officer: Don’t Wear Kippot in Public.

That’s not what he actually said.  He pointed out that there are some places in Germany where it is not safe to be visibly identifiable as Jewish.  We already know this.  When I was traveling in Europe a few years ago, I did not wear my kippah for the same reason.

The fact that Dr. Klein’s government position exists is proof that the German government recognizes the rise in anti-semitism in Europe, and specifically in Germany, and is trying to take it seriously.

Parashat Bechukotai features one of two great tokhehkhot, rebukes, in the Torah.  They are presented as blessings and curses which are conditional to our faithfulness to the God’s mitzvot.

But more than just a carrot and stick, these blessings and curses tell a story of rising, falling, and rising again.  We start with blessings.  All the good stuff an ancient Israelites would want.  Rain in the right amounts at the right time, strength, peace, abundance.  The curses are the inverse of the blessings, although they are presented in much more grisly detail.

The story continues.  The land itself kicks us out and we are sent into exile, where those of us who manage to survive continue to suffer persecution under the oppression of our enemies.  We look back with nostalgia and regret for what we have lost, and the mistakes we have made.

But God does not forget, and the covenant remains in effect.  There will come a time when God will remember and restore us.

Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. 

Leviticus 26:44

Already in the days of the Talmud, our Sages recognized the rising and falling cycle of Jewish history.  A baraitta interprets this verse as referring to God sending messengers to save the Jewish people from their under various oppressive regimes: Babylonia, Greece, Persia, and the Romans.

Our collective fate will continue to rise and fall.  But there is hope for the future.  Looking ahead, “I am the Lord your God,” predicts a time when no nation will be able to subjugate us.

We are a stubborn people.  For all of the mistakes and imperfections, we have remained faithful to our history and our covenant for thousands of years.  God is as stubborn as we are.  In the meantime, history continues in cyclical fashion.  We are now witnessing rising levels of antisemitism.  And it makes no sense.

Right wing antisemites attack Jews for being too liberal, allowing foreigners to infiltrate the country.  Left wing antisemites attack Jews for being racsists and declare Zionism to be white supremacy.  In Germany, the neo-Nazi party called The Right, endorses BDS, which is typically associated with the far left. The one thing that unites antisemites is that, whatever they think is wrong with the world, they all agree that it’s our (the Jews’) fault.

Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, issued this statement: “We acknowledge and appreciate the moral position of the German government, and its commitment to the Jewish community that lives there, but fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admission that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil.” 

Unfortunately, he is correct.  Anti-semitism is rising in Germany.  In 2018, there were 1,646 anti-Semitic crimes in Germany, which represented an increase of 10% over the previous year.  90% of those were classified as coming from neo-Nazi groups.  Anti-semitic crimes committed by Muslims in Germany are also rising.

Where will things go from here?  For better or worse, Dr. Klein’s provocative comment last week has created dialogue.  A few days later, he walked back his statement and issued this declaration:  “I call on all citizens in Berlin and everywhere in Germany to wear the kippa on Saturday, when people will agitate unbearably against Israel and against Jews on Al-Quds Day”

Al-Quds Day, was established by the Iranian government to coincide with the end of Ramadan.  Al-Quds is the Arabic word for Jerusalem.  It generally features parades with lots of Hezbollah flags and speakers demanding the destruction of Israel.  This year, German politicians are calling for large counter protests to oppose the hate-filled antisemitic demonstrations.

The Bild, Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, put a make-your-own kippah on its front cover on Monday and published a front page commentary titled, The Kippah belongs to Germany.  Thanks to Miriam Leiseroff for translating the article from German, which I’d like to read in full.

Actually, we must be eternally grateful that Jewish life flourishes in Germany again.  We must resolutely defend what may be considered a historical miracle and gift to our country.

But the reality looks different and is expressed in the appalling (and unfortunately correct) warning of the Antisemitism Commissioner, who discouraged Jews from wearing a kippah all over the country.

Anyone who is a Jew still must hide this fact after seven decades since the Holocaust in order to be safe anywhere in Germany.

To this we have only one answer:  No, this cannot be!  If it is so and if it stays so, we fail before our own history.

Therefore the newspaper BILD is printing a kippah to cut out.  Assemble, dear reader, this Kippah.  Wear it so your friends and neighbors can see it.  Explain to your children what a Kippah is.  Post a photo with a Kippah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Go out on to the street with your Kippah.

If only one person in our country cannot wear a Kippah without endangering himself, the answer can only be for all of us to wear a Kippah.

The Kippah belongs to Germany!  Die Kippa gehört zu Deutschland!

https://www.bild.de/politik/kolumnen/kolumne/kommentar-die-kippa-gehoert-zu-deutschland-62202206.bild.html

Actually, the kippah belongs to us.  But we can certainly appreciate the sentiment, and the support.  I cut out one of the kippot and made one for myself, which I am proud to wear.

We are blessed to live in safety, in a place where Judaism thrives openly.  May it continue to be so.  And may our brothers and sisters in Germany and around the world experience a day, soon, when it is possible to openly and proudly wear a kippah anywhere and everywhere.

Coming Face to Face with Poverty – Vayechi 5774

In the last few weeks, I have been approached on two separate occasions by people, both Christians, about our community getting involved in charitable causes.

The first was for limited involvement in Santa Clara county’s Faith-Based Reentry Collaborative.  For a criminal who has served his or her time, getting back into society can be extremely difficult.  There is a high rate of recidivism, of people not being able to get their lives back together and winding up back in prison.  People often don’t have the social resources to become self-sufficient.  Perhaps they have burned their bridges with family members who could take them in.  Or maybe their criminal record makes it difficult to find work.  They fall back in to unhealthy social circles.

As a society, we do a terrible job of helping people reintegrate into society in a healthy and productive way.  The county has recently begun to establish partnerships with local houses of worship that will welcome former prisoners into their communities and provide them with mentorship and support.  So far, three local churches have opened up reentry centers, and the county is still trying to figure out ways for other faith communities to help.

I was approached about getting the Sinai community involved in a limited way.  A newly released prisoner often has nobody to come and pick him or her up.  Furthermore, the prison does not issue clothing, so they wear what they came in with, which may not be sufficient.

Members of our community could help out in that critical first 24 hours by picking up a released prisoner at midnight, bringing a set of warm clothes, dropping him or her off at a motel which we paid for, and providing them with a meal.  There would not be any further obligations.  Just that one night.

The second program about which I was approached is called Refugee Foster Care.  It is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.  It would involve a far more substantial commitment.  A family or individual would become foster parents for a child who has no parents, either because they were killed, or because they gave them up.  The kids are between 12 and 17 years of age and come from war-torn places around the world.

These two solicitations for our community’s involvement got me thinking.  Would Sinai members be interested in taking on causes like these – causes which bring us face to face former criminals, with children who have experience suffering most of us cannot even imagine?

Why is it that many Christian communities seem to be so motivated to get involved with human suffering in this way?  Why are we not involved in projects like these?  Projects of bringing people into our cars, or our homes.  Causes that demand us to give of ourselves?  Aren’t these essential Jewish values?

Our ancestors make the transition from a family into a people in this morning’s Parshah, Vayechi.  Jacob dies, and his sons carry out their promise to return his body to the land of Canaan to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  After the mourning period ends, the brothers are terrified that Joseph has only been behaving civilly to them out of respect for their father.  Now that he is gone, they worry that Joseph is going to take revenge for what they had done to him so many years before.  They send word to Joseph that their father had wished for him to forgive his brothers.

Joseph’s reaction surprises them.  He cries.  So they appear before him themselves, offering to become his slaves.  Joseph reassurs them that it was all part of God’s plan.  He has no intention whatsosever of taking revenge.  Not only that, he offers to help.  “And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children…” he says.

Joseph has introduced the idea that will be elaborated extensively throughout the Torah – that a Jew who is in the position to do so has an obligation to provide for other Jews who need help.

It is significant, perhaps, that the transformation into a people and Joseph’s commitment to care for them occurs outside of the Promised Land, in the Diaspora.  For millenia, Jewish communities in far-flung locations around the world found themselves in situations of having to take care of their own.

Until the last century, most Jewish communities were poor.  They also tended to be tightly knit.  Most people knew each other.  The community had to take on the responsibility of caring for its own poor – because there was nobody else to do so.

This was done in a variety of formal and informal ways.  There was a communal tzedakah fund called the kupah, with elected collectors and distributors.  It served as a kind of tax to cover communal expenses and provide a safety net for the poorest members of the community.

In addition, there was the tamchui, which was kind of an ad hoc soup kitchen.  The official collector might show up at your doorstep to collect a meal on behalf of another individual or family in the community who needed it.

At celebrations, the needy would be welcomed to attend.  They did not need an invitation.  People would go out of their way to invite poor people to their Shabbat and holiday tables.

Consider the passage that we recite at the beginning of the Passover seder.  We open the door and announce “Let all who are hungry come and eat…”  I don’t think it used to be a metaphorical statement, as it is for most of us today.  I think there were times, until very recently, when those who could afford it would invite those who could not to their dinner tables, including those who might have been homeless.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), the collection of ethical teachings that was compiled nearly 2,000 years ago, Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem teaches “Let your home be wide open, and make the poor into members of your household.”

Just think about all of the folktales from our tradition, covering all periods of history except the modern era, in which poor Jews are welcomed into the homes of other Jews.  I assume that those stories exist because things like that used to actually happen on a regular basis.

Synagogues used to function kind of like homeless shelters, especially on Shabbat.  Travelers, poor students, and people who did not have anywhere to stay would sleep on the benches of the shul.  The community would often provide them with a meal.

As Jews, we used to come face to face with poverty regularly.  Thankfully, Jewish communities today are wealthier than ever before.  It’s not to say that there are not plenty of Jews who struggle financially.  There are.  It is undeniable, however, that the global Jewish community has thrived in contemporary times.

Our empasis on tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (act of lovingkindness) remains important, but the way that we express those values has shifted along with economic and social realities.  Jews continue to give a lot to charity, but instead of a mandatory tax on the members of our community, everything is voluntary.

With the almost total acceptance of Jews into American society, the proportion of funds donated to Jewish non-profit organizations has fallen dramatically, especially among younger generations.  Our giving is directed to causes that we care about.  But rarely is money or assistance given face to face to needy members of our own community.

Like in most synagogues, a minuscule portion of Sinai’s annual budget goes towards charitable activities and social action.

Sinai has had some great Tikkun Olam activities over the past couple of years.  But for the most part, our efforts have not put us into direct contact with poverty.  We have served several meals at local soup kitchens, but even then the contact with the homeless is limited.

We have not invited the homeless into our synagogue.  We have not sponsored programs that would assign members of our community to be mentors to people who could really benefit from that kind of guidance, whether former prisoners, kids who cannot read, or refugees.

How would we respond if someone who was obviously homeless walked into the synagogue during Shabbat services?  Would we welcome that person with open arms?  Would we be worried about safety?  Would we ask him to leave?

In the Bar Area, there are churches, and even some synagogues, that house rotating homeless shelters.  Why not us?

There are other religious traditions that seem to place a much greater theological emphasis on direct service to the poor.  For example, there is a story in the New Testament of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples’ feet.  The new Pope, Francis, recently made news when he washed the feet of 12 juvenile prisoners.  Back when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would frequently wash the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.  It is about humbling oneself in service to other human beings.  For Christian communities who are trying to literally follow Jesus’ example, having that direct contact with the poor makes sense, theologically.

For most of Jewish history, our communities could not afford to direct so much of our charitable activities beyond our own communities.  Facing so much discrimination, Jews had to take care of their own – and they did a phenomenal job of it.  But now that the direct need is either not as great, or just more hidden, what should we be doing?

My goal this morning is to raise questions.  Should we be devoting considerable resources to directly serve those who need it most?  Should we open up our synagogue, or even our homes, to people who would otherwise never enter our lives?  Should we give substantively of ourselves to non-Jews?

The answer is not easy.  Jewish communities around America are struggling to retain and attract sufficient members and funds to remain viable.  Can we afford to send our limited resources outside our community?

When asked, American Jews seem to recognize the importanec of serving humanity.  A 2001 study asked American Jews about involvement in this kind of work.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

  • “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”
  • “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”
  • “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

The difficulty is, it is possible to feel just as strongly about working on behalf of the underserved without attributing those motivations to Judaism.  I do not need to be Jewish to help the poor.  What is it from our own tradition that would compel us to give so much of ourselves to non-Jews?

It is an open question.  The invitations stand  As a Jewish community, do we want to help human beings who have made some wrong decisions in life get back on track after they have been released from jail?  Do we want to encourage and support Jews in our community who are willing to foster a teen-ager whose life has been torn apart by war?

I would like to hear from you – either today during kiddush, or some other time.  What should we be doing as a kehillah kedoshah, as a holy Jewish community?

When Joseph makes the commitment to his brothers, “fear not, I will sustain you and your children,” he is committing to serve his own siblings.

In the 21st century, who are our brothers and sisters?

Do Jewish And Love It – Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773

This morning, we read the double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei. It describes the building of the Tabernacle. We hear a lot about the chief craftsman – Betzalel. There is even a major university in Jerusalem named after him, The Bezalel School of Art and Design.

But we don’t hear so much about his number two guy – Aholiav. He is mentioned only five times in the Torah, once at the beginning of last week’s Parshah, and four times in this week’s double portion.

Here is what we know about him: Aholiav was the chief assistant to Betzalel. His father’s name was Ahisamach, from the tribe of Dan. He was an expert carver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.*1* That is pretty much it in the Torah. And the Rabbis don’t have much more to add.

The Talmud*2* cites a midrash about one of Aholiav’s descendants. When King Solomon was building the Temple in Jerusalem nearly four hundred years later, he recruited a lot of top talent. One of the artisans mentioned is named Hiram from Tyre. This is a different Hiram than the well-known King Hiram from Lebanon. Hiram of Tyre is described in the Book of Chronicles*3* as being “skilled at working in gold, silver, bronze, iron, precious stones, and wood; in purple, blue, and crimson yarn and in fine linen…” His mother is from the tribe of Dan, and his father is a Tyrian.

The midrash notes that Hiram’s mother and Aholiav both come from the same tribe, Dan. And, they both share common skills in artistry. The lesson is then drawn that a child should never abandon his or her parent’s trade.

Elsewhere in the Talmud*4*, we are taught: “Happy is a person who sees one’s parents in an exalted trade. Woe to a person who sees one’s parents in an inferior trade.”

The Torah Temimah, Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s turn of the twentieth century commentary that weaves together the Torah and the oral tradition, ties these two midrashim together:

“When [a peson’s] parents seize on to a nice trade, s/he too will seize on it. And so to when [a person’s parents] seize on to an inferior trade, s/he too will seize it. Therefore, happy is one who sees his/her parents in an exalted trade, because s/he will consequently seize upon something similar.”*5*

The Torah Temimah is not saying that children have to follow their parents into business. No, the burden is not on the child to follow his or her parents’ examples. The burden is on the parents to be the example for their children. And the result, according to the midrash, is “ashrei,” happiness.

So much of our path in life is set into motion by our upbringing. Our parents are our moral, intellectual, and emotional role models. Whether we embrace their example, or reject it, we will always be responding to what we experienced growing up.

A son who sees his mother making ethical decisions in business is much likelier to make decisions ethically himself. Similarly, if a person’s father lied and cheated, his daughter is far more likely to behave similarly.

This is also true when it comes to transmitting our Jewish tradition. The big question everyone in the Jewish world wrestles with today is continuity. How do we ensure that the next generation is going to continue to identify Jewishly and affiliate with the Jewish community?

And so, the money pours in. Lately, the trend is towards trans or post-denominationalism. The big bucks have gone towards Jewish day schools, summer camps, and free trips to Israel for young adults. Spend the vast amount of resources on creating Jewish experiences for young people, the thinking goes, and they will continue to affiliate when they start to have families of their own. Maybe it will work.

At the local level, although we don’t quite have the big bucks, we are also concerned with the questions of Jewish continuity. When I speak with parents before their children’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, this is by far the number one goal that they express for their kids.

For decades, synagogues have invested their energy in children’s programming: religious school, youth groups, Shabbat youth programs. And these things are important. We have to provide engaging religious and educational opportunities for kids in our synagogue.

But that, in and of itself, is not going to achieve the desired outcome. Pouring all of our religious commitment into our kids is not going to make them better Jews. It is not likely to produce a deep and lasting faith, or a life-long commitment to Judaism.

The model cannot be totally kid-centered. When it is, the message it sends is that as soon as you have your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or for some, graduate high school, then you are done.

When we pour all of our efforts into kids, it means that there is nothing left for adults except to repeat the pattern with their own kids.

The solution for Jewish continuity is not to create more and more programs and educational opportunities for children. These things are certainly important, but are ultimately hollow if we don’t do something else.

The solution lies with all of us: We have to do Jewish things, and we have to love it.

This has been my driving goal for our Purim celebration. Growing up, Purim was always a kid-centered holiday. It was great fun dressing up, eating lots of junk, running around, and making a lot of noise. But when you outgrow that, what is left? My goal for Sinai has been to take back Purim from the kids. The adults have to have fun. Because you know what, if we are having fun, the kids are going to have fun too. And they are going to expect to have fun when they grow up.

The same is true for Pesach, in just over two weeks. When there are a lot of kids around a seder table, there is pressure to cater to them. To skip the adult-level conversations and hurry up to the meal. But when we do that, we are not doing the kids any favors. Children need to see adults engaging in the seder at an adult level. And they need to be welcomed to participate at that adult level when they express an interest. That leaves a powerful impression, a more powerful impression, I suspect, than a seder that is only about games and exclusively kid-oriented activities.

It is also true with regard to the daily practice of Judaism. When Jewish ritual is normative in a household, and embraced positively, that leaves an impression.

To a parent who asks “what can I do so that my kids will be Jewish when they grow up?” my answer is “Have Shabbat dinner at home every week, and make sure that you enjoy it.”

When children see the adults in their lives embracing Jewish life in meaningful ways, that becomes a model for themselves.

Imagine a child complains “why do I have to go to Hebrew school? It’s so boring.”

If the answer is “I know it’s boring, but you’re going because I had to go when I was your age,” what do you think that child is going to take from the experience?

Think about how different the lesson would be if the answer is: “because learning is a really important part of Judaism, and religious school is where you go to learn. I am learning by reading such and such a book, or taking such and such a class.”

So many Jewish adults today ended their formal Jewish education right after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. So many parents never had a chance to engage formally as adults with our rich tradition.

If we want our kids to embrace Jewish life as adults, the answer is not forcing them to do it as a necessary rite of passage. We have to embrace Jewish life ourselves, and then we can invite our kids to join us.

If the midrash connecting Aholiav and Hiram is true, I would imagine that the children of the tribe of Dan saw their parents engaging in fine craftsmanship from a young age. They saw adults having meaningful conversations about metalwork and embroidery. They saw uncles and aunts, neighbors, and elders showing and admiring one another’s work.

The young Danites attended formal and informal classes where they learned the basics of artistry, and then entered into apprenticeships as teen-agers, before finally opening up shops of their own as master craftsmen.

By creating such a culture, the great great great great great grandson or nephew of the number two artisan in the construction of the Tabernacle was privileged to serve as one of the primary architects of King Solomon’s Temple.

 

*1*Exodus 38:23

*2*BT Arachin 16b

*3*II Chronicles 2:13

*4*BT Kiddushin 82b

*5*Torah Temimah on Exodus 31:6