I pause from my weekly Torah commentary, compelled to speak about pressing matters, locally and nationally.
Locally, here at our beloved Kehillat Lev Shalem, we learned this week that our executive director Karen Tashman will be leaving us after 9 years. Karen’s mother Harriet, who lives in Florida, is aging, and Karen has decided to move to Florida to be near her and to assist her.
This decision, which I know is terribly wrenching for Karen, is a reflection of Karen’s deep integrity and rock-solid values. Over the years that I have known her, I have watched Karen fulfill the mitzvah of honoring her mother and father – as well as her husband Jeff’s parents – with tireless devotion. Karen’s loving commitment to her family’s well being is boundless; her desire to do well and do right by them inspires me and teaches me. Over these years, in addition to our countless discussions about the synagogue, planning and evaluating and strategizing, Karen and I have also shared personally with one another about the struggles, joys and lessons of parenting, married life, and supporting aging parents. Karen is wise. I will miss her as a gifted colleague, but also as someone who welcomed me into her office to listen to me wrestle or sort out or kvell about my own family’s journey. I know she is now making the choice that feels truly right to her, despite the disruption this move creates in her and her family’s life.
We hired Karen as we moved into our new building. The Board spearheaded a strategic planning process for the congregation, and one of the clear directions that emerged from that process was that, as we moved into this much larger space, we needed to upgrade our administrative and management systems. Fortunately for us, Karen and her family were looking for a move to the country from Atlanta, and Karen was ready to leave her position as executive director of a large synagogue there and take over our “mom-and-pop” operation. Karen’s devotion to her family is only matched by her devotion to Judaism and the Jewish People. Because of this, Karen is much more than an administrator. She is a superb Jewish educator and a caring pastoral presence. Karen brought all manner of Jewish and organizational expertise into our midst.
I will miss her for all of these reasons. But as I reflect on Karen’s imminent departure, beyond all her skills, my mind circles back to her character, her desire to be the best person she can be, and her commitment to always wrestle with ethical dilemmas, to figure out which path will be the highest, and to take that path.
Thank you, Karen. When you head to Florida this August, our love and our prayers go with you.
I also feel compelled to speak during the week when 49 people enjoying an evening at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which serves the gay and lesbian community, were gunned down by Omar Mateen, an automatic rifle-toting, hate-filled man. Today is also the one-year anniversary of the cold-blooded murder of 9 people during a prayer service at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylan Roof, who claimed after he was captured that he wanted to ignite a race war.
Both of these killers were American-born U.S. citizens. Both appear to have histories of anti-social, violent behavior. One was of Moslem origin, the other Christian, neither apparently particularly observant. Each seems to have latched on to the most hateful ideologies of their respective heritages, the “radical Islamist” death cult of ISIS, and the Christian white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate groups that lurk on the margins of American society. These murder sprees are aided, as we all know, by the easily availability of automatic weapons; maybe this time sensible laws can be put into place that will limit the number of rounds a murderer can shoot per second. These murderers are also abetted by the increasing presence of hateful rhetoric in the public sphere. As Judaism teaches, and as history and common sense attest, human nature is a dangerously mixed bag. For humans to successfully live together and thrive, we need social norms that encourage mutual tolerance and that marginalize hateful behavior. And we need leadership to model and enforce those norms. When public leaders legitimate hateful and violent behavior, the resulting increase of hateful violence can be predicted. As the Rabbis put it, “When the Destroyer is let loose in the land, guilty and innocent suffer alike.”
So, here we are: a narcissistic, bigoted, demagogic bully has won the Republican nomination for President of the United States. He feeds on stereotyping and intolerance. He speaks to our lowest nature, our yetzer hara. He is both a product of and a generator of this terrifying geopolitical moment. I find myself transfixed, even obsessed, as I watch the current election drama unfold. I have never seen the likes of it in my lifetime, but as a Jew I hear the faint echoes of Adolf Hitler running for chancellor in 1933, at a time when many simply considered him a goose-stepping buffoon. We have seen this movie before, in nation after nation: self-serving demagogues and tyrants managing to hide their aspirations for wealth and domination under a civilized veneer until they have grasped the reins of power. Politics is a corrupting business, I know. But it is necessary, too, and I refuse to be so cynical as to not participate, particularly in this election cycle. I will be doing what I can as a citizen of this nation to prevent the purveyors of hatred from winning elective office this coming November.
As a religious leader, I know I am constrained by law against endorsing specific political parties or candidates. But in the name of the victims in Orlando and in Charleston, and every other victim of hateful ideologies, I encourage each of you to listen to your own conscience, and do what seems right to you to ensure that our nation lives up to its highest ideals rather than succumbs to its worst impulses.
Finally, amidst the constant noise and fury, I want to remind you about the weekly oasis of Shabbat. I invite you to join us anytime in our sanctuary, so that you can refresh your spirit and restore a sense of balance. May we strengthen and support one another during these difficult times.
Love and Shabbat Shalom,