Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where Are The Jewish Susan Boyles?

On April 11th, a star was born.

On that day, a frumpy looking 47 year old woman named Susan Boyle, (who was single and unemployed), auditioned for the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent”. She took the stage to condescending glances and derisive smirks; however, by the time she finished singing, she got a standing ovation. Within hours Susan was a YouTube sensation, with the video of her performance totaling a hundred million hits in just a few days. This unknown Scottish woman was actually an exceptional singer whose talent had been overlooked for decades.

The Susan Boyle story reminds us how often we let talent get wasted. All too often, jobs and opportunities are awarded to people based on appearances, connections and relationships. A Harvard degree is now valued not for it’s superior education, but rather because it allows students to comfortably network with the corporate and political elite. All too often talented outsiders find it difficult to pursue their dreams, and the Susan Boyle’s of the world are often left in the cold.

The question the Jewish community has to ask itself is this: where are the Jewish Susan Boyles? How many Jews have been frozen out of our community because they have neither the connections nor resources to be welcomed in?

The culture of Torah scholarship was once profoundly anti-elitist; indeed, the Mishnah exhorts Rabbis to “raise up many students”. The Talmud is filled with tales of outsiders who become significant Rabbis. Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel and Shamai, were converts. Rabbi Akiva was an ignorant shepherd. Most dramatically, Reish Lakish was a common criminal who got invited into the world of Torah study by the greatest Rabbi of his time, Rabbi Yochanan. The rabbis of the Talmud saw enormous potential in every human being, and insisted on opening the door to “non-traditional students”.

In one passage in the Talmud there is a cautionary tale about the dangers of elitism. The great scholar Hillel was a poor woodchopper who would save his last pennies to pay admission into the study hall. One cold winter day, he simply didn’t have the money to pay the admission fee, and Hillel was turned away by the guard at the door. Hillel decided to listen to the lecture though a window, and in the process nearly froze to death. Luckily, the Rabbis inside spied his image through the window, and saved his life.

This passage has a simple message: if you barricade the doors to the study hall, you’ll leave great Rabbis like Hillel out in the cold. Hillel, a poor, unknown woodchopper, ended up being the leader of the Jewish people.

Today unknown Jews without status or connections are often left out in the cold as well. They remain at the periphery, alienated by a country club atmosphere that pervades the Jewish community. Some are excluded because of money, finding it difficult to pay for day school tuitions and synagogue memberships while struggling to pay mortgages. Others feel excluded by Jewish institutions that are insular and unwelcoming. When an outsider wanders in, they are made to feel like an intruder, as both the layman and professionals show little interest in greeting new faces.

Sadly, our community pays dearly. Years ago, a friend (“Donna”) told me of an experience she had in a synagogue. “Donna” had gotten curious about Judaism, and decided one day to enter her local synagogue. There, she was completely ignored by the congregants, as if she were invisible. “Donna” left the synagogue alienated, and refused to go back to synagogue for years.

It’s important that we take Donna’s experience to heart. “Donna” is an outsider, a Jewish Susan Boyle. And as task force after task force ponders how to fix the problems of Jewish continuity, we need to think about the Jewish Susan Boyles. Oftentimes, these task forces issue exotic and expensive recommendations. In actuality, a critical element in solving the problem of Jewish continuity is free: we simply need to make our institutions more welcoming. We need to say hello to visitors, and include them in our community. We need to invite in the Susan Boyles of our community, and make them feel at home. Who know? Maybe we’ll be welcoming in the next generation’s Hillel.

If we want to find the Jewish Susan Boyles, the answer is simple: they are at the entrance of every Jewish institution, waiting for someone to smile and open the door.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Difference Between Seeking and Seeing - Shavuot 2009

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for the wonderful camera work, and to Lorne Lieberman for inspiring this project.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009




Divine Eyeglasses

Last Saturday, I started to see for the first time. Without realizing it, I had spent the first 45 years of my life blinded to the full extent of human potential.

On Saturday morning, my synagogue held a Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebration. Generally, Jewish boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs at age thirteen, and the girls celebrate their Bat Mitzvahs at age twelve. Technically, at Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, children are no longer children, and are mandated with adult responsibilities. However, in a larger sense, the public celebration of a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is a way of recognizing young men and women as full members of the community.

But this particular Bar and Bat Mitzvah was very different. The participants from this past Saturday were all adults, some well into their 50’s. They were celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs now because they had never had one in their youth. Our six special participants are all intellectually disabled; when they were of Bar Mitzvah age 30-40 years ago, they were pushed to the periphery and their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were overlooked. Because of their intellectual disabilities, they were deprived of the chance to stand in the spotlight and be affirmed as members of the community.

Throughout history, multiple societies have stigmatized, mistreated and even murdered the disabled. In ancient Sparta, babies deemed “deformed” were tossed into a place called “the apothetae”, a chasm near Mount Taygetus. Martin Luther believed children with severe disabilities were actually “changelings”, demonic beings that took on the form of a human child. He advocated legalizing throwing the “changelings” into the river and drowning them. And the Nazis, even before the start of the Holocaust, initiated “Aktion T4”, a program to kill the physically and mentally disabled. This program may have killed as many as 200,000 disabled people.

Sadly, these negative attitudes continued to have a powerful impact until recently. Due to social pressure, people with intellectually disabilities were often hidden away, their very existence treated as a secret. Up to just a few years ago there was little possibility for an intellectually disabled child to have a large, well attended, public Bar Mitzvah. The developmentally disabled were often viewed as blemished and flawed, the sum total of their disabilities. The general public simply couldn’t see the person beyond the disability.

It is that view of the intellectually disabled that changed on Saturday morning. Human vision is clouded by the superficial and the subjective. There is a powerful passage in the Book of Samuel that says that “man sees only with his eyes, but God sees into the heart.”. Humanity’s perspective is shallow, limited by what our eyes can see. But this past Saturday, our congregants were fitted with a pair of divine eyeglasses. During the ceremony we saw exactly what God sees, the beauty of the human soul.

We saw into the hearts of the participants, who were waiting for this Bar- Bat Mitzvah ceremony their entire lives. In front of us were six people whose hearts were full of joy and pride. In their shy demeanor and gentle words, we could see the long road they had taken in search of dignity, and all the struggles they had faced. And most of all, their faces radiated love; you could immediately feel the sense of connection between the participants and everyone in the room.

There was another group in the synagogue whose lives were transformed by this celebration, perhaps even more than the participants themselves: the participant’s families. These families had experienced the sting of exclusion, as their brothers and sisters were isolated without any friends in the neighborhood, and their sons and daughters bounced from one program to the next. These families were waiting all these years for the day that their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters would take their rightful place in the community.

But by far, the people most affected by this celebration were the congregants. The very people whom the community excluded years ago were now taking center stage; and in standing ovation after standing ovation, the community opened their hearts to the six Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants. It was truly a family reunion; we, the community, were welcoming back the men and women we had long forgotten.

On Saturday morning, all of us in the congregation were able to see past superficial disabilities, and appreciate the gifts of love, friendship and community. And for a few short moments, we were all wearing divine eyeglasses.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"A Bar Mitzvah For the Community" - The Miriam Home Bar-Bat Mitzvah

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for sponsoring the video


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What Do You Stand For? - Kiddush Hashem - Parshat Emor

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping!!