Friday, June 9, 2017

A mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi walk into a ... (Graduation 2017)

My precious students*: Earlier this week, I was reading my notes from your first day of school at JCHS when I encouraged you to avoid the kinds of intellectual blindness and emotional deafness that reflect a fixed way of experiencing the world. 

Also, I encouraged you to seek out classmates who are profoundly different than you are -- so you might learn from and be inspired by those differences. And to discover that one other person at JCHS who has exactly what you are lacking and to discover that one other person at JCHS who needs exactly what only you can share. As we heard from your classmates this afternoon, you have actively embraced each of these. 

In a moment I will share my gift for your graduation -- a mash-up mixed from one mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi. But just a few more thoughts about your first day of high school. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hold Your Head Up: Winners or Losers (Bamidbar 5777)

Hold Your Head Up 1972 hit by rock band Argent
When I was in law school an apocryphal story was going around about winners and losers. The story was about a murder trial: A man was charged with murdering his neighbor. 

But it was a very circumstantial case. There were no witnesses to a killing. They found no body. There was just an apartment building filled with tenants who overheard two of their neighbors constantly fighting. One night, after a really loud argument, one of the quarreling neighbors disappeared. The victim just disappeared; never heard from again. Everyone assumed the worst.

The surviving neighbor was tried for murder. At trial, his attorney focused on showing reasonable doubt. She argued he could not be convicted on such flimsy evidence. In her closing argument, the defendant's lawyer looked up at the jury

Friday, May 19, 2017

Its a Hammer of Justice, Its a Bell of Freedom (American Jewish Heritage Month 2017; Behar-Bechukotai 5777)

Cesar Chavez (right) receives replica Liberty Bell from UAW,1970
Fifty years ago this summer, Cesar Chavez, as leader of the United Farm Workers, launched a nationwide boycott of California table grapes in support of farm-worker rights. His boycott brought attention to the plight of farm workers and his life's work liberated thousands of workers from inhumane wages and working conditions.  

One of the most potent symbols of liberty in the United States is the Liberty Bell. When the bell was cast about 250 years ago, words from this week's Torah portion were put on the bell, "Proclaim

Friday, May 12, 2017

Season of Senioritis: Don't Let the Light Go Out (Emor 5777)

Toward the end of each school year, there are moments when the excitement, energy, and (even) inspiration with which the year started seems to fade. Every grade has its own version of senioritis. At those moments it is important to remember that we each are responsible for the daily inspiration needed to keep being motivated. No single event or moment from August is sufficient to keep us motivated through an entire year.

Eldridge Stree Synagogue, New York
This week’s Torah portion, which includes a feature of every Jewish sanctuary, the ner tamid (a so-called “eternal light”), teaches a powerful lesson about continually encouraging motivation.

And so does an Ethiopian folktale about an elderly king worried about which of this three children would succeed him. Each child had unique traits. The oldest was strong. The middle child was clever. The youngest had insight. The king loved them all equally and tremendously.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Four Questions of Freedom (Tzav and Pesach 5777)

Circa 1950 Flyer Against Jewish Support for Civil Rights

One of the most prominent features of Pesach - our annual rehearsal of ancient liberation - are the Four Questions. As we seem to have become obsessed with strangers in our midst - those who look or act or think different from us - I propose four additional questions.

These additional Four Questions are inspired by an attack on Jews nearly 60 years ago. It is not the attack itself that inspires me. Rather it was the reaction of 'strangers.' 

The attack occurred nearly 60 years ago when an Atlanta synagogue was firebombed. Fifty sticks of dynamite causing nearly $1.5 million in damage (in today's dollars) just a few hours before the building was filled with students.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Time For Taking Off Masks (Purim and Ki Tissa 5777)

Between Mardi Gras (or Shrove Tuesday) and Purim, this is a season for masks. Wearing masks is associated with these days as a way of bringing history to life, temporarily adopting a new personality, hiding, or, even, subverting reality.

We often wear masks to make fun of ourselves or others. And not just by wearing them. For instance, “Why does Batman wear a mask but Superman doesn’t?” “Because the citizens of Gotham City are much smarter than those in Metropolis.”

But this is really a season for profound messages about masks. Even the Torah portion this week, which coincides with Purim, ends with Moses putting on and

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The ‘Other’: A Framework for Learning, Questioning, and Acting

Two fathers (one Muslim, one Jewish) and their children protesting
immigration and refugee executive order in Chicago
on Jan 30, 2017 (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

Here is the message I shared today with the Jewish Community High School of the Bay (JCHS) : 

The diversity of the JCHS school community is powerful. We come from different parts of the world and grew up in different types of families. We represent a broad range of economic circumstances and hold different perspectives about politics, society, and even Judaism.

For example, nearly 40% of JCHS student homes include an adult born outside of the United States. In Jewish terms, some of us identify most with Mizrachi heritage and others with Ashkenazi culture. Some with Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Reform, and others with secular expressions of Jewish life.

One thread that links all these differences is the Jewish core idea of being different, being the other. Torah refers to the first Jew, Abraham, as ha’ivri --

Friday, January 27, 2017

Freedom's Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose: #Wrong (Va'eira 5777)

By HogArtDesign Available on Etsy
Last week marked the 74th anniversary of the birth of Janis Joplin. Though her career lasted barely a decade (she died of a drug overdose at age 27) Joplin still made Rolling Stones lists for “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” and “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” One of Joplin’s last hits was Me and Bobby McGee, with lyrics: "Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin' for a train, I was feelin' nearly faded as my jeans. . . . Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose."

Joplin's lyric (written by Kris Kristofferson) is soulful but it's wrong. Freedom is not nothing left to lose. It is everything to gain.

Freedom is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion as we read about the plagues that fall on Egypt when Moses tries to convince Pharaoh to release ancient Israel from slavery. Freedom comes not when one has nothing left to lose; but when a community confronts those who are close-minded and hard-hearted.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Face Off: As in There Are Times I Want To Tear Your . . . (Shemot 5777)

Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman Face Off (Photo: Sam Morris)
This weekend comes at a momentous time. It comes during a week when we begin reading in Torah about our people’s exodus from slavery to liberty, when we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and when we inaugurate a new president. For me, this signals a need to deepen our personal commitment to creating an inclusive school community in which every member can thrive as a learner and leader. 

Creating an inclusive school community goes beyond simply asking each person to be tolerant or even kind. It depends on each person valuing others for who the other is - on developing a sense of belonging. This requires active, mutual respect. As Martin Luther King Jr wrote from a Birmingham jail in 1963"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

Friday, January 13, 2017

Elwin Wilson: My Daddy Always Said Only A Fool Doesn't Change His Mind (Martin Luther King Jr Day 2017; Vayechi 5777)

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, left, with Elwin Wilson (Andy Burris/AP Photo/The Herald)
Elwin Wilson did something few of us have ever done. He publicly and sincerely apologized and asked forgiveness. It took nearly 50 years. Nearly a half-century after Elwin Wilson (then a young member of the Ku Klux Klan) beat and kicked U.S. Congressman John Lewis (then a young Black minister) at a South Carolina bus station because of the color of Lewis’ skin, Wilson asked Lewis to forgive him. Reflecting on his change over time, Wilson reported, “My daddy always said only a fool doesn’t change his mind.” Some learning is a very long time in coming.