Honorable Mensch-ion



Twenty faith organizations gathered in the Main Sanctuary this past Tuesday to come together in prayer. Children across Los Angeles sang songs of peace as we concluded the evening with the words of “Lean On Me.”

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Never Forget

Before we begin celebrating Purim this coming week, we pause to remember. This Shabbat is called Zachor. We will take out a second Torah scroll and read how the tribe of Amalek attacked the Israelite people from behind. Rashi attempts to reconcile the mitzvah of blotting out the name of Amalek with the mitzvah of remembering who they were. This week in Kohn Chapel, we will celebrate a bar mitzvah, the great-grandson of Holocaust survivors. He will read his Torah portion from that second scroll, but not just any scroll.

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We Must Not Be Afraid

Each year, thousands of Jews gather in Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashana. Uman is a city in the Ukraine, the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. One of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings has become a popular song in Jewish schools and camps. Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod: The entire world is a narrow bridge. V’haikar lo lfached klal: “What is essential is to not be afraid.” When I hear this prayer, I am reminded of my rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Reuven Stamov. Reuven was born in the Crimean region of the Ukraine in a secular Jewish family where practicing Judaism was forbidden. In the 1990s, while other families were leaving, Rabbi Stamov stayed in the Ukraine and became involved in Jewish and Zionist activities, including the Ramah-Yachad Camp for Jewish Children in Ukraine. I will never forget sitting next to Reuven in Talmud class while we studied together in Jerusalem. Our paths were completely different. I was a Rabbi’s son who grew up surrounded by a loving Jewish community who would return to the United States and build upon an already thriving Jewish world. Reuven knew what he wanted. He was going to start the Conservative Jewish community in Ukraine after finishing his studies in Israel. I have watched from afar the work of Reuven and his family. Yet, this week, I have watched up close as Jewish monuments and Jewish communities were dispersed and destroyed in an instant.

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You Count

As Jews, we count numbers. I will never forget the first time I counted for a minyan after my bar mitzvah. While nothing changed besides one day on the calendar, everything changed. As our good friend Rabbi Jason Fruithandler would often say to our b’nai mitzvah, “You will now be an adult in the eyes of God, not in the eyes of your parents.” The daily minyan is a place where numbers count most. During the last few months, as the minyan has returned to our sacred Kohn Chapel, we have struggled to get the required 10 people to say the prayers of the barchu, kedusha, and the blessings of the Torah. This morning, we reached the number 10. As one of our daily minyan attendees looked at me and said, “Rabbi, we always make it!” This optimistic approach does not happen by itself—it is a partnership between us and God. In an ironic twist, Jewish tradition sees human beings as being too sacred to be counted like sheep. We count dollars and cents, we count a flock, but we do not count human beings. So when do we count? We count when we are present, we count when we show up, we count when we add the quality to our families and communities.

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A UCLA sociology student interviewed me recently about the sustainability of synagogue life. She asked how our community lives out the Jewish values of sustainability. My answer came from this week’s parsha, Terumah: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” The Torah does not tell us that God will dwell within the actual sanctuary. Rather, God will dwell among us. God does not need a sanctuary; we need one. Jewish sustainability begins when we create a sanctuary for our community to dwell within. I explained to this college student that we are obligated to pray within a community, and only then do we create a sanctuary of souls.

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We Remember

On my three trips to Poland in the early 2000s, I walked through the gates of Auschwitz for a historical tour. It was difficult to fathom the amount of hate that was in the world to consciously build a place like that.

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Ambiguous Loss

Pauline Boss, in her book “Ambiguous Loss” explains healing requires some measure of clarity. “Only when things are made right again can people put their losses to rest.” How could it be that last Shabbat, I attended a beautiful Bat Mitzvah, celebrated with a family at their moment of utmost joy, and just minutes later, glued to the news for the next ten hours, praying for the safety of the hostages in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas? Questions flowed through our minds; could it have been us? Our worship spaces are intended for our safety and our refuge, not…

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The Song of The Sea tells us “This is my God and I will enshrine God.” Onkelos, who translates the Torah into Aramaic, elaborates on the idea of enshrining God in our lives. We must build places for God to dwell in, but we also must bring God’s splendor to the inhabitants of the world. What an appropriate lesson as we also celebrate Tu Bishvat this coming week, the New Year of the trees. So many of our most formidable moments of Jewish prayer and spirituality take place in nature, under God’s canopy of trees. Ask a child to name a favorite place they have celebrated Shabbat, and most will say, “I love being at camp.” It is in the natural beauty of the world where God is enshrined, and we our tasked to grasp hold of that splendor to bring inside our homes, our communities, and our hearts.

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