Friday, November 10, 2017

What Does it Mean to be a Congregation?

Once the fall holidays come to a close, I find myself pondering: What is it that makes Beth Shalom a congregation?  Sure, we all came out to observe the High Holy Days together. Many of us remained beyond Yom Kippur to celebrate in the Sukkah (on our beautiful new patio garden), and even to dance together on Simchat Torah. We experienced a wonderful sense of ruach and camaraderie during that sacred time. Nevertheless, I wonder, what keeps us linked together as a congregation the rest of the year? 

Elie Wiesel once asked:  “What does it mean to be a congregation? It means to care about each other.  Pray? We can pray at home. We come together as a congregation in order to share in each other’s lives and in order to share in the life of the Jewish people — past, present and future.”

Once the Gerer Rebbe, decided to question one of his disciples: ‘How is Moshe Yaakov doing?’ The disciple didn’t know. ‘What!’ shouted the Rebbe, ‘You don’t know? You pray under the same roof’? You study the same book? You serve the same God? — yet you tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?’

Here lies the essence of our way of life: every person must share in every other person’s life, and not leave anyone to themselves. Not in sorrow and not in joy.

Wiesel was right.  But in our consumer-driven society, we increasingly look to the rabbi or other synagogue professionals to provide that kind of concern, instead of seeing it as a responsibility that we all share for one another.

When I visit someone in the hospital, I often learn that besides the family, I was the only one to have visited them during their illness.  This should not be. Maybe it is because many people find it difficult to get intertwined with someone else’s tzuris, or we just don’t know the right words to say, but I usually find that just being there is the greatest help of all. As the rabbis teach us, when you visit someone who is ill, you take away 1/60th of their illness.

In reality, it is the duty of all Jews to perform such mitzvot.  This isn’t just a “service” that we join a synagogue in order to receive, rather it should be a natural expression of being a part of a caring community and sharing concern for one another.  No one person can adequately fulfill this task alone, but as a congregation we can work to make sure that nobody is ignored in their time of need.

My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein wrote: “Ancient Greek democracy created the ‘citizen.’ Renaissance Europe invented the ‘gentleman’. Colonial America produced the ‘frontiersman’. Each human civilization, it seems, fashions its own unique character type. And ours is no exception. Contemporary America has spawned the ‘consumer’.

The consumer is a character type unique in human history. The Greek citizen saw himself as an inseparable part of an organic community. The European gentleman conceived of himself in terms of a code of obligations – chivalry and noblesse oblige – that bound him to others… By contrast, the consumer seeks absolute independence. He is sovereign, complete unto himself, and in need of no one. No unfulfilled existential need motivates him. The consumer engages the world only as a source of stimulation and satisfaction.

Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel - where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving on. So, too, the consumer joins, but never belongs. Never will he allow the obligations that come with relationships, values or community to compromise his sovereignty. He has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability partnerships. In a moment of crisis, he’ll call for Emergency Roadside Judaism. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.”

In our religious life, we need Jews who are more than just a consumer of services. Beth Shalom is no different.  And while we need people to help us build and maintain our community, we only thrive when we have real commitment and concern for one another as well. If we only pay our dues, drop off our kids, and occasionally visit, we can’t expect to be part of a genuine congregation.  Yet it is precisely that sense of kehillah, or community connectedness that we all strive for and yearn to create.

God willing, with your involvement, your concern for one another, and your support, together we can make CBS into just that kind of congregation. Amen.

Rabbi Mark

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What Do We Have to Kvetch About?

In our cycle of Torah readings this time of year, we read how for forty years our ancestors trekked through the wilderness, far from cities and civilization.  They trudged along without the luxury of interstates, service plazas, or travel agents. So it should come as no surprise that throughout their journey there were also endless complaints, arguments, and rebellions.

How different travel is today!  I recently returned from leading a synagogue trip to Eastern Europe. We took planes, trains, a motor coach and even an old turbo-prop. (I was a bit nervous about that last part.) But it all went off without a hitch, traveling thousands of miles and an ocean away with ease. Such are the miracles of modern life.

Compare that to the short hike our ancestors took from Egypt to Israel. That was a journey of even less than 300 miles, and it took them 40 years to complete! You could make that flight today in under an hour. And yet, we are so spoiled by the conveniences of modern travel that we kvetch even when our plane is delayed just for a couple hours, or when we are stuck taxiing on a runway waiting for a gate to open up. 

But we should never lose sight of how lucky we are to even experience the marvels of modern travel, or the myriad of other blessings we usually take for granted.

Traveling to Eastern Europe this summer was an eye-opening experience in so many ways.  It underscored for me how fortunate we are just to be among those Jews who survived the horrors that befell our people during the last century. We traveled through countries and towns that were once filled with bustling Jewish communities.  In many of them, all that is left now are synagogues turned into museums, memorials emblazoned with the names of families who perished, or a few remaining inhabitants struggling to keep their shul and communities alive. Sure, there are some places in Europe experiencing a resurgence of Jewish life (ironically, like Berlin), but they are only shadows of their former glory. And for every one of those communities, there are hundreds of decimated cities and villages throughout Europe where Jewish life once thrived, but remains no longer.

You feel that most deeply when you visit Auschwitz. One can never find the right words to describe what Auschwitz is, or what the horror of that place represents. As we walked into the one remaining gas chamber, and then casually walked out -- you are haunted by the stark realization that right where you stand, so many of our fellow Jews had their lives brutally snuffed out.

And yet in the midst of that terrible darkness, some stories of bravery, heroism, and perseverance managed to emerge. A few attempted to fight back. Others somehow managed to survive the terror and hopelessness of the shoah.  And a few of these survivors even decided to return to the very communities from which they were driven out -- though it is difficult to fathom the how or why.
One such community we visited was Bratislava.  Only a mostly empty shul remains where a few elderly Jews struggle to hold Shabbat services each and every week. And while remaining there would probably not have been my choice, I can understand the painful decision the returnees faced. Move somewhere else and allow another Jewish community to perish?  Leave and watch another shul close down and be turned into a museum?  Or stay and struggle to keep Judaism alive in your hometown, even if only for a while longer.

Then you realize how fortunate and blessed we are.  We take our shuls and even our Jewish community for granted. We feel self-assured, believing that if we don’t support our synagogues, someone else will step in and do so. But of course that isn’t the case at all. By maintaining and supporting our shuls and other important institutions, we work to ensure that Jewish life will continue here for generations to come.

This is the time of year when we think about where we will be for the upcoming holidays, which synagogue we will attend, and whether we will continue to be a supportive part of our shul community. If Bratislava has taught me anything, it is that we should never take our shuls or our community for granted. By supporting them, we are not just enriching our own lives; we are giving back to our community by showing gratitude for the myriad of blessings that we -- as the survivors of Jewish history -- have been so fortunate to receive.  May we never lose sight of that privilege and sacred obligation.  Amen. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Embracing the Stranger and One Another

You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...

In synagogues around the world we are now reading from the section of the Torah which tells of our people's exodus from Egypt - perhaps the most defining moment in Jewish history. In fact, one of our core Jewish values emanates from this verse, connected to our collective experience of having been liberated from Egyptian bondage. We are reminded time and time again to love the stranger, to care about the stranger, for we have been there ourselves.  And as it turns out, this wouldn't be the last time in Jewish history that we would be cast in the role of the stranger. We would go on to find ourselves in that unwelcome role many times throughout our history.

Events of this past week have shined a new light on how we respond to the plight of the stranger, just as they have highlighted the political tensions in our land.  And beyond refugees, we increasingly view anyone with whom we disagree as a stranger, which only serves to pull our country and our people apart from one another.

In today's highly polarized world, rabbis often find themselves pulled in multiple directions at once. Our social media heightens these tensions, making it very easy today for people to vent their righteous indignation upon anyone holding a viewpoint in opposition to their own. This is particularly true in the realm of politics.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg's well-known adage about Jewish religious movements can easily be applied to political ideologies.  He famously said: "It doesn't matter which Jewish movement you are affiliated with, as long as you're ashamed of it".  And so we could probably all benefit from being a little more introspective when it comes to the bitter political discourse in our country.

We can and should vigorously debate issues, but we should not let our families, our friendships, or our congregations be torn apart by those who would pounce on anyone who dares to deviate from their own political orthodoxies. We all need to be vigilant to ensure that our internal divisions don't consume us, which is why rabbis usually seek to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

And yet, rabbis should feel empowered to address the universal values rooted in our Torah that bind us together as Jews.

One of our most deeply-held Jewish values concerns caring for the stranger.  The Torah reminds us repeatedly (especially in the Exodus story) that we are to "Love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".  The principle of welcoming the stranger is ultimately repeated 35 times in the Torah -- more than any other commandment.

The Jewish people can be rightfully proud of such eternal values that have guided and sustained us throughout the millennia. And it is praiseworthy that we continue to be strong advocates for those principles which are so near and dear to us. We should love the stranger, pursue justice and care for the poor, as it is these values which have shaped us as a people. Yet even while we agree on the goals, sometimes we will remain divided on how best to achieve them -- but that's all part of the process.  Nobody would suggest, for example, that all our country's borders should be torn down; yet neither do we accept that an innocent refugee should be neglected in their hour of need.

As Jews, we are particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees. We know from painful, historical experience what it is like to flee oppression and to find no welcoming door. This is why we can be proud that the various arms of the Conservative Movement came together to issue a resolution in response to President Trump's executive order barring refugees and immigrants from entering the United States. You can find the text of that resolution here:

In fact, in a rare show of unity, both orthodox and liberal denominations came together to voice their concerns regarding the ban:

We may not always agree on a whole host of issues, or be uncertain about how best to advance those principles which are sacred to us.  Nevertheless, we must work to put away the daggers that threaten to tear us apart, and work to sow the seeds of respect and tolerance among ourselves and among all the peoples of our great country.

May we strive to uphold our cherished Jewish values; moving from divisiveness to healing, from despair to hope, and from fear to faith.  And in doing so let us help build a world that is true to the principle of Tikkun Olam, repairing our fragmented and often polarized world.

Rabbi Mark


Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Congregation Beth Shalom
Atlanta, Georgia  (770) 399-5300    

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When Prayers Go Unanswered

I had an interesting encounter at the barber shop last week. Just as I walked in, I was greeted with a “hi rabbi” by one of the stylists who knows me, and then proceeded to get my regular haircut. A gentleman with a pronounced southern accent was getting his hair cut in the chair next to me. He was just finishing up and paying his bill. He then said in a slightly raised voice: “I hear that man over there is a rabbi. Well I need all the prayers I can get, so let me pay for his haircut as well. Here’s a $50 bill to cover the both of us.”

Well, I’ve been a rabbi for 27 years, and that’s never happened to me before. I was taken by surprise and not quite sure how to react. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful by declining his kindness, so I thanked him and wished him all the best.

But I had an uneasy feeling about the whole encounter. I wondered if perhaps he thought that rabbis take a vow of poverty (like Catholic priests do) and could use the charity. Or perhaps he thought that by helping out a rabbi, God would show him special favor and answer his prayers. It sounded to me more like the latter. I also got the impression that he was one of the many devout Christians who takes the verse in Genesis 12:3 literally. That’s the verse where God promises Abraham (and by extension the Jewish people) that "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse." And as you may know, many Christians take that verse to mean that they have a religious obligation to demonstrate their kindness to the Jewish people by supporting the State of Israel.

But if that was the motivation for the gentleman’s kindness, I felt guilty about it. Perhaps that’s a knee-jerk Jewish reaction. But according to my religious calculus, I felt this man was getting cheated, since I don’t believe God works that way at all.

Nothing offends my theological sensitivities like seeing the way some people project onto God all kinds of things about their own lives. They get angry at God when misfortune strikes, and when spared from tragedy they are convinced that God took particular interest in their individual situation. It’s the ultimate question of: “Is God running the show down here on earth or are we?”

My personal belief is that God gives us absolute freedom of will; and vulnerability is the price we pay for that freedom. God doesn’t alter all the outcomes, but God gives us the wisdom, the strength and the ability to follow our conscience, and through mitzvot the ability to make the world the best that it can be.

It is a scene that gets played out repeatedly on the evening news. A tragic fire or devastating natural disaster destroys a residential area. One family manages to make it through unscathed and everyone they love is ok. Meanwhile, other families nearby are not so fortunate. Yet the person whose family has been spared gushes forth with praises to God for the divine intervention and mercy that miraculously spared their lives.

When I watch such an interview, my thoughts always turn to the direction of the family that was not spared. What is that family - the ones who just suffered such a tremendous loss - supposed to think at this moment? Does God somehow love them less? Did they not pray hard enough? Or did they simply not deserve to be saved? I hardly think so.

But if it’s the case that God directs all the outcomes in our lives, then should we not also blame God for every earthquake, plane crash and disease outbreak? I don’t believe that either. I believe that these tragedies are random, amoral events that simply happen. And God gives us the strength to heal the wounds and spread a little Divine favor around wherever we can in order to bring about tikkun olam; to help repair our often fractured world.

I don’t claim to have all the answers as to why things turn out the way they sometimes do. If we knew the answer to such questions we would have the mind of God, the Infinite. And those who claim to have all the answers, typically have none of the answers; at least none that are satisfying. As intelligent people, we know that our lives are often determined by factors over which we have little or no control. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that things don’t always turn out the way they ought to. If they did, there would be no need for us to fight for just causes, give tzedakah, or strive to repair the world.

The disciples of Rabbi Moshe Leib once asked their teacher: “Why are there atheists in the world? Why does God even permit atheism to exist?” The rabbi answered: “God has a need for atheism, one that is ultimately for our own good. If someone seeks your aid, you must act as if there is no God to help. In that way, even atheism can be exalted. Even atheists can be blessed.”

When our prayers are answered, let us show humility and remember that others are not always so fortunate. And when we are confronted with the opportunity to ease the burden of others whose lives have been scarred, let us respond in the same way we would hope that God would deal with us.

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Monday, December 16, 2013

Keeping Our Jewish Spark Alive

In the aftermath of the now famous Pew Report, our community leaders are in a tizzy trying to figure out how to re-energize the American Jewish community.  The report confirms many of our fears and some things we already knew about Jewish life here. There are less Jews marrying Jews. There are less Jewish children. There are less Jews who affiliate with our  community institutions. At the core, we seem to be a less inspired and engaged community than we used to be.

Yet, there are certainly bright spots as well. One such bright spot is the many young adults who have gone on Birthright Israel trips and have come back much more passionate about Israel and inspired about their Judaism.

We can and still do prosper here in America, and we Jews are certainly survivors. We have always managed to find new, innovative ways to overcome whatever challenges we must face. And there are still millions of American Jews who want to be Jewish and want their children to be raised with a strong Jewish identity. Many of them still come to our synagogues each and every week.

But one thing I know for sure is that it we should never give up on any Jewish soul, no matter how disconnected they may be, and it is never too late for someone to re-discover and reclaim their Judaism.

 “Testament of a Jew in Saragossa” is the title of the story in which Wiesel recounts an experience he had during his visit to Spain years ago. He went to a city called Saragossa. At one time, before 1942, of course, it was a thriving Jewish community, but there had not been a Jew there in 500 years until the new visits started happening.  

When Wiesel was at the cathedral in Saragossa, a man approached him and started speaking to him in French, offering to be his guide for no fee. He was proud of his town and wanted to show Wiesel around. They started talking and the man asked Wiesel some personal questions. Finally, it came out that he was Jewish and that he knew Hebrew. “There have been no Jews here for almost 500 years, I've been waiting to meet one so I could ask you for some help. There’s something I want to show you at my home.”

The two of them walked off to the small apartment on the third floor. The man took out a fragment of a yellowed parchment and he asked, “Is it in Hebrew?” Wiesel took this document, this yellowed document, and he started trembling as he started reading it, because it was clear to him that these were not only Hebrew letters, but also that they had existed for 500 years. He started to read and translate for the man. These are the words that he translated: “I, Moses, the son of Abraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, its head high under the sun without fear and without remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written at Saragossa, this 9th day of the month of Av, in the year of punishment and exile.”

This man then explained to Wiesel that this yellowed document was cherished by his family and was passed from one generation to the next. It was considered as an amulet – and that if you lost it or destroyed it, a curse would come to your family. So here this man had finally completed a circle that was 500 years in making. He found out, after five centuries, from a message of Moses, the son of Abraham, that he in some distant way was a Jew.  

“Read it again,” the man demanded of Wiesel. “I want to hear it again. I want to hear the words again.”  So Wiesel translated it over and over and over again." They went to the cathedral and they sat. The man said, “I want to know more. Who are these people, these Jews? What has happened? Why were there Jews in Saragossa 500 years ago but none today?”  

Wiesel began explaining. He took hours, in fact the whole day, to explain who we were, where we had been. He withheld nothing. He talked about Jewish history in Spain. He talked about Queen Isabella and Torquemada and how they had set up stakes, had hung and killed our people until they were decimated, how we were thrown out of Spain on the 9th of Av in 1492. The guide couldn't believe it.

Years later, Elie Wiesel traveled to Israel. He was accosted on the streets of Jerusalem by a man who said, “Hello, don’t you remember me? Saragossa. Saragossa.” There he was on the streets of Jerusalem, this same man, but he was speaking Hebrew, not French. He said to Wiesel, “I have something to show you.” He took Wiesel, who was trembling again, to his apartment. They walked up the three flights and there was that yellowed parchment in a picture frame on the wall. But this time he read it to Wiesel in Hebrew and he translated it. From Moses, the son of Abraham, 500 years, to him. He had come to Israel. He had learned Hebrew. He had learned who he was and he had redeemed his Jewish tradition.  

Wiesel said to him, “You know, I’m ashamed I didn't recognize you.” As Wiesel was about to leave, he said, “You forgot to ask me my name. I want you to know my name. My name is Moshe ben Avraham, Moses son of Abraham.  He is alive after 500 years.”

The lesson is clear.  If this man from Saragossa could reclaim the forgotten Jewish heritage that lay dormant in his family for so many generations, then we too can certainly do the same.  We have the capacity to reinvigorate our own Jewish lives, and in so doing re-energize our Jewish communities as well. All it take is a Jewish heart coupled with the spirit and desire to keep that Jewish spark alive.

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Next Year in Jerusalem

At the conclusion of our Yom Kippur services we will gather together, blow the shofar, and enthusiastically sing aloud: “L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yerushalayim”, hoping that perhaps next year we will be privileged to celebrate the holidays in Jerusalem.  This powerful moment (which also takes place at the end of our Passover Seder) underscores our connection to Israel, and the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.

Today we simply take for granted just how easy it is to realize that dream. You buy a plane ticket, pack your bags, and a few hours later -- you’re there! A trip that was unimaginably difficult just a few generations ago, today is no big deal to transform into reality. And not only is the trip itself fairly simple, but when you arrive, you can enjoy magnificent beaches, stay in deluxe 5 star hotels, explore impressive archaeology, and sip coffee in delightful outdoor cafes.

Those of us who have visited Israel understand this quite well.  But it’s amazing how many folks I still come across who equate a trip to Israel to taking a perilous journey through Taliban controlled Afghanistan while having your tallit and tefillin on.

A few days before our most recent trip to Israel this past summer, I paid a visit to my barber to get my regular haircut. When I told him that I was flying to Israel the next day, the color left his face and he exhorted me to be careful and come back safe. Apparently good customers like myself are just so difficult to find today!

But who can blame people for not knowing any better. With all the media hype anytime something bad happens in Israel, it’s only natural that people get the wrong impression. Virtually any Palestinian attack or ensuing Israeli response -- no matter how small -- makes it to the front page of all the newspapers; while truly horrific attacks elsewhere in the Middle East often escape notice altogether, or are deemed worthy of only a passing mention.

Ironically, many people overseas get a similarly distorted impression of life here in the United States, since world media often focuses on the bank robberies, tornadoes, or tragedies like Sandy Hook.

Nevertheless, Israel is not without profound challenges, even though you may never encounter anything alarming during a casual visit or on an organized group tour.  Israel still faces significant threats, both from external enemies who lust after her destruction, and from internal struggles which sometimes plague Israeli society from within. The internal threats can sometimes be the most challenging. But for the external threats, thankfully we have a strong and capable army; something that Jewish history hasn’t seen for quite some time. And had such an army existed during the holocaust, there would certainly be a great many more of us around today.

For the connected and engaged among us, love for Israel and concern for her well-being remain uppermost in our thoughts.  We roil at the propaganda issued by Israel’s enemies and relentless critics despite all the good that Israel has brought to every field of human endeavor.  And the continuing BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) efforts to delegitimize Israel and isolate her from the rest of the world, leave us bewildered and outraged.

But what Hizbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran fail to understand is that Israel is not about to simply go away and vanish.  Am Yisrael Chai, despite all the challenges and adversity, the Jewish people live, and will continue to do whatever it must to ensure Israel’s continued survival.  

In the Talmud, our Rabbis taught (Ta’anit 11a): “When Israel is in trouble and one of them separates himself from them, then the two ministering angels who accompany every man come and place their hands upon his head and say, ‘So-and-so who separated himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community’. Another Baraita [Tannaitic source from 200 C.E.] taught: When the community is in trouble let not a man say ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me’…But rather one should share in the distress of the community.”

While teaching this text, Rabbi David Golinkin explained: “The message of this passage is clear: when Jews or the State of Israel are in trouble, other Jews must share in their distress by giving tzedakah, taking an active part in rallies and solidarity missions, etc. And while the cynical may say such efforts are a waste of time; they are not. They give encouragement to the Jews of Israel who are constantly criticized by the United Nations and many countries, and they strengthen the Jewish identity of the participants. This is at it should be. Jews must share in the distress of the community and our fellow Jews everywhere.”

Let us hope and pray that in the coming new year of 5774 peace will indeed arrive to Israel and the rest of this troubled world. May we all see that day bimhayrah biyamaynu – speedily in our day. Amen.

L’Shanah Tova,
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jewish Experience? We all Make Our Own...

Recently, I came across an excellent piece in the Jewish Forward on how we are all ultimately responsible for creating our own Jewish experiences and community. 


The main point that Joanne Seiff makes is that what each of us do as individuals -- in our own Jewish communities -- is what ultimately determines the character of that community.

Truer words were never spoken.

As a rabbi, I am incredible fortunate to be serving a synagogue Congregation Beth Shalom - Atlanta, GA that really understands and lives that idea every day. We have learned as Seiff writes that: "Finding a Jewish community and home does not happen on occasional high holidays, or when you have emergency kaddish minyan needs."

We who serve the community have always known that real Jewish communal life is what occurs day in and day out, and from one Shabbat to the next.  It's how all of us -- not just rabbis or staff -- care for each other in times of distress, and how we celebrate with one another during our simchas.  It's how we make the community a priority in our own lives, and part of the regular rhythm of our existence.

Our shuls, and in fact our entire Jewish community, will only "feel like home" when we make the effort to fully engage and immerse ourselves in its structure and dealings.

As Seiff wrote: "Put long-term effort into it and maybe you’ll be amazed by the results."