Some poignant words of Torah from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield…
Why I Am Fasting Today
This is deeply personal, and I fear, will be often misunderstood, but here I go:
As soon as Rabbi Jeremy Markiz contacted me about his idea of fasting in observance of the conclusion of George Floyd’s Shiva — Shiva being the Jewish week-long mourning period — I knew I would observe this practice, which is saying a lot.
It’s saying a lot, not because I find it particularly difficult to fast. I don’t. It’s saying a lot because even as millions of people are responding in so many active ways — many in anger, some with violence, others with threats, some with prayers, and others still, with political posturing — I have found myself left mostly cold by most of those responses, even as I too feel pain, frustration, and anger in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s killing at the hands of a police officer.
Over the past week, the usual players, in this all-too-usual drama, take their usual spots on the national stage and assume their usual roles. You know who they are: the marchers, the burners, the taggers, the looters, the baton-wielding police officers, the law-and-order loudmouths, the consoles, and the analysts, just to name a few. They all have their job, and they all keep doing it because they know it so well. But change happens more when we realize what we don’t know, not when we confirm — in both words and deeds — what we already do.
Perhaps some, or even all, of the most common active responses we are seeing now, have a rightful place in the working out of both justice and building a better world. I don’t know, and truthfully, neither do any of the people advocating for them, even when they say that they do.
What we can all know, is that all of those responses are predicated on so many presumptions and assumptions about what the problems “really are”, and how they should be addressed and resolved — let alone the amount of displaced rage and anger that is driving both those violating the law and at least some of those upholding it — that when people choose to act, they are mostly talking to themselves and letting/forcing others to listen. And to those who would tell me, “You’re damn right, we are forcing them to listen,” I would say that while we can force others to listen, it’s virtually impossible to force someone to hear.
So as I am struggling with what it is that people can hear — not just what I want them to hear, but what is hearable, given where they are on any side of this moment — and even more so, with what it is that I need to hear better, I am fasting. Fasting is a powerful tool for cultivating better listening and better hearing, and that is why I responded so immediately to the invitation to today’s fast.
I am fasting today because when Jeremy contacted me about the idea, I was struck by something he wrote, and it was not any of the classical Jewish texts he shared, as beautiful as I find them. It was his statement that he was fasting because doing business, as usual, made no sense, and at the same time, “It’s really hard to know what to do right now.”
I understand the need to act, combined with “not knowing,” especially when it’s so tempting to think we do know, as the beginning of the wisdom we all need most right now. It’s the wisdom of Proverbs 9:10. It’s the wisdom of President Lincoln declaring that his concern was not that God was on the side of the Union army, but whether or not fighting for Union was on the side of God. It’s the wisdom which listens and learns more often than it speaks and strikes. It’s the wisdom of fasting, and it’s why I am fasting today. Lord knows I need it. I think we all do, but I gotta start with me. Don’t we all?
Memorial Day In Pandemic
In honor of the 1.3 million women and men whose lives and loss we honor this Memorial Day, and in Clal’s ongoing commitment to sharing wisdom for a better world, a healthier commons and thriving Jewish life, we are proud to share the following reflection, Memorial Day in Pandemic, with you.
We share it as a response to the present, a way to honor the past, and with our eyes on the future, always.
Brad Hirschfield, Irwin Kula,
Thinking out loud about the dead, especially in a time of so much death, is scary, even for those of us who aren’t generally fearful. In fact, I am not a fearful person, and I am especially brave when writing, probably — to be frank — because however accountable I am for my words and their impact, there’s a fair amount of distance between me and most of my audience. But as I sit here in the relative comfort of my own backyard, on a beautiful day, I am genuinely hesitant, if not fearful, of what I am about to write.
1.3 million members have given their lives in our nation’s wars, and that number continues to rise. 1.3 million dead in just short of 300 years. Our nation has already lost nearly 10% of that total to COVID-19 in just the last few months. Now here is the part I hesitate to share, not only because talking about death lessons in a time of so much death is an especially dicey topic, but because I wonder how much any of us is genuinely capable of really hearing any views which don’t largely mirror our own. That said, I want to give it a shot.
As we remember the fallen this Memorial Day, I think we can also draw lessons from how they lived and how they died — lessons which can guide our current struggle against a horrible disease, and lessons about returning to life even as that struggle continues. These lessons are there for us regardless of our opinions of any of the wars in which members of our military fell, and regardless of where we land with regard to the practices, proclamations, or policies of any particular politicians or experts. I think that like the soldiers we honor on Memorial Day, this is about honoring their sacrifices, and the lessons we can draw from them.
Soldiers train. In fact they “over-train.” They train, under the best of circumstances, for things that are likely to happen and even for many things that aren’t. They train to the point of mind-numbing and body-aching exhaustion. They train in excess to the point of outrage at those who train them. They train, and train and train, and then they train some more. And then they go to war, where despite all that training, many of them die. It is those women and men we remember on Memorial Day, and from whom I think we can learn much.
I don’t mean we can learn from the fallen about bravery, or honor, or love of country or devotion to mission, even though we can learn those things from many of them. Nor am I talking about learning from the numbers of dead, about the futility of war, which is a legitimate debate. I mean we can learn from our fallen, about taking both precautions and risks in the face of death, while hoping to stay alive, with a heavy emphasis on the ‘both’ and the ‘and.’
The lessons of over-training and the inevitability of loss, bear directly on our own fight against COVID-19, and I lift up the lessons in memory of those who paid ultimate price embodying those lessons. I lift them up for consideration knowing that we will not all agree on exactly how to balance those lessons in practice but hoping that we can all do better in the balancing act so that “in this together” is more than a slogan, and actually how we live.
To our own version of the “over-trainers” in the fight against the disease today — those who resist most any arrangements that will put people at risk as they struggle to return to their pre-Corona lives — I remind you that all of the “training,” all of the precautions we take, will never be enough to keep as many people safe as you would like. Not if we are as serious about actually re-starting our lives as those we remember today were, about going off to war.
Loss is an inevitable part of life, and losses mount even when one is fighting “the good fight” in the best possible way. That is the reality of any war, whether the enemy is a foreign nation or an invading virus. I don’t write those words lightly. Not at all. I write them as one who has buried both friends and students — all far too young to die. But if we fight, there will be death. It is that painfully simple.
And to those who so readily accept, and even celebrate, the risks and realities of loss, you who so proudly assert that all science-driven data which shows how many lives we can save by taking precautions which constitute the “over-training” of today, you who shout slogans about caution equalling socialism and carry weapons into the state capitol building with signs declaring “masks are for pussies” — I ask you if that is how you would speak over the graves of, God forbid, your own sons and daughters were they to die as a result of your approach?
Does the fact that loss is an inevitable fact of any fight harden your hearts against those whose family members paid the ultimate price for you and for me? Would you honor their memories and comfort their families with declarations about your own personal freedom being the most important thing in the world? Would you ignore that they gave up their freedom and everything else for you and me, and not offer to make much smaller sacrifices to protect others?
Armies are filled with soldiers and commanders across this ideological divide. From those for whom caution and compassion are also important tools in the armory, to the gung-ho, devil-may-care types who see virtually all risk as almost pure opportunity. And if we are all honest with one another, even though most of us will have a strong predilection for one approach or the other, effective armies need both types, to win whatever fight they are fighting.
So as we observe this Memorial Day in the midst of a pandemic, I want to honor the fallen by reminding myself, and all of us, that it is not simply that we are in this together, but that we actually need each other. We need both the strong impulse to train and plan and protect. And we also need to take some risks and live with some losses. But let us all remember that if we are ready to take risks, we have to risk our own well-being before we risk that of others.
We have to be willing, if we are relatively secure even if we can’t return to work or are lucky enough to work successfully from home, to build in some real solutions for those not in our position, even if we take some hits on absolute safety. And we have to be willing, if we are committed to “getting back out there,” to do so in ways that help protect others, even if doing so inconveniences us or even offends our political beliefs. And if you want a model for looking past your own personal rights, just remember those who gave their lives so you could be where you are today, and ask what you are willing to give up for others, which is precisely what those we remember this Memorial Day did for us.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield Speaks about Mayor de Blasio's Threat to The Jewish Community
We are moved to invite your participation in two important virtual gatherings — one battling anti-Semitism, and the other celebrating Israel’s 73 years of independence — both occurring on Israel’s Independence Day. This “coincidence” is more than just a coincidence, and why we are especially proud to invite your participation in both events.
As Jewish Americans, we are uniquely well-positioned to stand up, not only as proud Americans, but as proud Jews, and take on Anti-Semitism and the related injustices of ethnic and religious hatred. That ability has been deeply shaped by both the greatness of America at its best, and the reality of Israel at its best — by the sense of strength and pride which it’s very existence instills in many American Jews, including the sense that we can be fully at home here, part of which is because of the fact of “there”.
At it’s best, that feeling of renewed strength and pride, Inspires us to stand up both for ourselves and for others, embodying the Biblical promise that we, as a people, are both blessed by virtue of being us, and meant to be a blessing to others as well. That is how Clal has always understood the best expression of Jewish power — whether in the US or in Israel — and that is why we are so honored to share the double invitation, which together helps us all to rise to that double blessing.
One of the sources for awe in this time of pandemic is modern technology. We are connecting as never before, redefining the boundaries of community, sacred space, and relationship. For the first time in our lives, we can actually be at two places at once – at home at our dining room table and at a gathering of consequence with people from around the world.
This year, American Jews can and should be at two places at once – or at least two places during the same 24 hours.
Our Senior Fellow at CLAL, Rabbi Joshua Stanton embodies much of the need to be in both places. He is hosting the first event, devoted to combatting anti-Semitism, along with East End Temple, where he serves as Rabbi, and devotes his work at Clal to strengthening America’s religious leadership, by bringing rising leaders from Christian denominations to Israel, as Stand and See Fellows.
When asked why he was leading the event, especially with the mounting demands he faces leading a community during this pandemic, Josh responded, “Our spiritual homeland is only as strong as its most vibrant diaspora, and our diaspora is only as strong as our spiritual homeland. Even as we recreate community online and support those who are suffering amid the pandemic, we need to stand as one pluralistic people in the United States. The vibrancy of our future is at stake, and there is much that we can do to safeguard it.”
We agree, and take pride in Josh’s leadership role. As proud American Jews, we can stand tall in support of our fellow Jews in the United States, while taking great pride in the country that was rebirthed after our exile of nearly two millennia. Both are essential to a thriving future.
During a year in which we have experienced outbursts of anti-Semitism, we need to stand tall in the United States as a community that has become interwoven in the fabric of American life and deserves security and peace of mind. To that end, we invite you to join us on Tuesday evening at 6:30 pm for a program that we are co-sponsoring with Integrity First for America and East End Temple. Entitled “Taking the Violent White Supremacist Movement to Court,” it will feature reflections from some of America’s leading legal minds, who are working to bankrupt the neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville in 2017 and continue to be a menace to our communities. RSVP is required.
The following day, on April 29th at 2:00 pm, we invite you to join Clal and the Jewish Federation of North America to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Even as we understand that no two people connect with Israel in the same way, our spiritual heartland has become central to Jewish life today. Our people’s return remains a source of inspiration.
Please join us as we live into the gift of being Jewish Americans who care deeply about Israel, by participating in these two events.
Brad and Irwin
At the Water’s Edge: Poetry and the Holocaust
For my father, Julius Kirchheimer z”l, and my mother, Margot Strauss Kirchheimer
How I Knew and When
Age 8 – My father hangs upside down on a pipe that was part of a fence
that separated our street from the next. All of his change
falls from his pockets. He looks so young.
Age 15 – “There were one hundred and four girls
in the Israelitisch Meisjes Weeshuis orphanage in Amsterdam.
Four survived,” my mother says.
“I remember Juffrouw Frank, the headmistress. She made us
drink cod-liver oil each morning. She said it was healthy for us.”
Age 17 – My father tells me his father and sister Ruth got out
of Germany and went to Rotterdam. They were supposed to
leave on May 11, 1940, for America. The Germans invaded on May 10.
Age 21 – My mother tells me Tante Amalia told her
that on the Queen Elizabeth to America in 1947, after she
and Onkel David were released from an internment camp
on the Isle of Man, she was so hungry she ate twelve rolls
every day at breakfast. She said it was the best time she ever had.
Age 24 – My father tells me, “Otto Reis got out of Germany
in 1941. He took a train to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian railroad to
Vladivostok, a boat to Shanghai, a boat to Yokohama, a boat to
San Francisco, and a bus to Philadelphia, his wife and three sons
staying behind. Carola Stein signed affidavits for them, but
the government said she didn’t make enough money.”
Age 31 – My mother’s cousin refuses to accept money a rich
woman left him. Says the money has too much blood on it.
My mother tells me that in 1939 her cousin had asked this woman
to sign affidavits for his wife and two daughters. She said no.
Age 33 – My father asks me to dial the number. His hands shake.
He asks my cousin if she wants to send her three children out
of Israel during the Gulf War. She says she can’t let them go.
Age 42 – A waiter in a Jerusalem hotel tells my father
he should come to live in Israel, because it’s home.
My father tells him, “Home is anywhere they let you in.”
Read the FULL Chapter, At the Water’s Edge by Janet R. Kirchheimer.
Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship Applications Are Now Open!
To enter this exciting network of rabbis, directed by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, we invite you to apply to be an RWB Fellow, with teachers and mentors from the CLAL Faculty. Each year we accept a diverse group of twenty rabbis to form a cohort group.