Tree of Life

Dear Friends,

We are terribly saddened at the murderous attack in Pittsburgh over Shabbat, at the Tree of Life synagogue. Our hearts go out to those most personally connected to this tragedy. In a confounding moment in the history of the world, where visionary moral leadership is scarce to be found, we are struggling to understand what this moment means, and how it calls to us. In sorrow and bewilderment, I turn to the steadfast course of Mr. Rogers, once a resident of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, who gave context to the turbulent times of his day by speaking to children with depth and honesty. This is how we can speak to our children.

The first response to tragedy, is the silent heart of grief, it must precede the what-it-means question. Words will struggle to hold all of the fear and anger and sadness that arise from witnessing violence. But silence and listening are a great container. Everyone should stay in that place as long as they need to.

Next, is to take a posture of prayer. The hour of souls making the journey from the bodies that contained them, back to their source, is a time for prayer. And that is true even when we die naturally. But when death comes by violence, all the more so, we must assume a posture of prayer. What does that mean? We allow our beings to vibrate with the intention for wholeness and the repair of the world. We are yearning for repair in all of the ways that it will be made, by healing souls, minds, and hearts that are suffering, and by creating a world whose hidden structures are just, and respectful of the dignity owed to every living thing. By assuming a posture of prayer, we honor the souls traversing worlds, we respond fully to a call we never hope to hear, and we recommit to the work of healing.

We begin to speak about the nature of hate and fear. Human beings are fantastic, complex, fragile creatures, and we are made by twos -- for every beautiful quality we are capable of, we are capable of its opposite in equal measure. Hate is a fallacy of the mind, that all of us know in some measure. But when hate is nurtured by lack of love and community, and by leadership that promotes division, it can reach horrific ends. The hatred of Jewish people is called anti-semitism, and it is not different in any way from hatred inflicted upon any group, on account of race, religion, or any other created means for distinguishing human beings from one another.

The Jewish people has a long history of facing hatred. But we are living at a moment in which hatred and violence are no longer the norm. The Jewish community in America has benefited greatly from integrating with the white majority that keeps a firm hold on power and privilege. Caught between the privilege we now occupy and our history of oppression, we are particularly suited to be a mighty force for racial, economic and other forms of systemic justice. The kind actions of the Islamic community are testament to the bridge work we are capable of, now and always. We need to be more cognizant of our unique situation, and work more diligently to fight hatred in all forms.

How do we heal the fear passed down to us through generational trauma? The good work of the Jewish people, in America and in Israel, necessitates an astute appreciation for this question. In the kabbalistic map of consciousness and cosmos, fear is one of the ten centers of being. Studying last week, I came upon a teaching from Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who reminds us that fear is simply another guise, a costumed version if you will, of love. Fear is love in disguise. Some forms of fear then are totally appropriate -- as long as we are building the world we envision from a place of love, then all will be well. But when we forget that fear is love, and we let a force of narrowness and segregation act as compass to our work, we will create a world only as wide as our intention.

And so we’ll teach the children of this community that love knows no bounds -- it does not have eyes to see the color of skin, nor ears to hear the language in which you pray. The force of loved is moved by human beings in their simplicity, by acts of care and kindness that transcend the differences that others use to divide the world, and substantiate their power. We’re teaching them to give fully and freely -- to ask the names of all the strangers in their midst. They will be a mighty stream, fearless in love, swimming in Jewish wisdom, working for justice for all.

With love,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

We hold in our hearts as well, the families of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, two African Americans killed this week by another racist white man full of hate, who was also ready to enter a house of worship and kill. In circles of compassion, we are extending our love to contain every human being on earth.

Please join me on Thursday evening in Washington Square Park for an event hosted by the New Sanctuary Coalition. I’ll be at the fountain at 5pm. We’ll also hold Shabbat services this Friday evening, at 630pm at First Presbyterian Church (12 w 12th st.)

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The New ShulComment
The Essence of the Spiritual Project

Dear Friends,

As the story of Genesis turns from the mythologies of creation and the flood, into the origin myth of our ancestors, the first two words encapsulate the essence of the entire spiritual project, that each one of us is living, whether we want to be or not. God says to Abraham and Sarah, “Go, go! And leave behind your homeland, your birthplace and the home of your family. Go to the place I will show you.”

In the playspace of Jewish interpretation, those first words, “Go go!” come to mean “go unto yourself” “into yourself” - just as you make your life’s pilgrimage out in the world, don’t forget the journey within, navigating the cataclysms of your inner life, which is just as significant an adventure.

The comments in the Zohar, the great work of Jewish mysticism, are profound here. They ask, what does this verse mean? And they answer, this is a pilgrimage of self repair. And how do we make said pilgrimage? By leaving behind the stories we tell ourselves, of where we think we came from, and our self-righteous suffering, and where we think we are going. The mystics were profoundly forward thinking, intuiting the capacity of the mind to tell itself stories and create its own realities, hundreds of years before Freud’s psychological revolution.

What stories  do you continue to tell yourself, even when they no longer serve you? (Discuss this with a friend over Shabbat!) I myself, am headed to a session this very moment to unravel some of those stories.

My story is about feeling unsupported. I’m so often in the role of supporting others, sometimes I have a hard time feeling the care of others, and I have a hard time asking for support. But I know the story is unreal, and it’s holding me back. Often, I’m astounded by the beauty of this community, the way in which friends are present to me and to each other, giving of themselves unconditionally. And when we’re in the fluidity of supporting each other, our potential is greatly magnified. I’m ready to let go of this story.

To change an inner story takes tremendous mental clarity, and emotional steadiness. First, be mindful of the story when you hear it rising in your ear. Don’t let it flood you. That deluge will take you to a place you are all too familiar with. We’re after a place “I will show you.”

That’s the secret, you have to be willing to let go of the old narrative before you’ve even set foot in new earth. It will feel like a tiny opening, a vision like the eye of a needle. Let that opening be a doorway to the unexplored depth of your mind and heart. Let its light, no matter how faint, be a call to continue making your way. Go to yourself, the one I’ll show you. Go, go.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Don't Waste a Thing!

Dear Friends,

The United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change published a devastating report this week; read it above. We are strange creatures, human beings, thoroughly capable of magnificent acts of selflessness, devoting our energies to helping and saving the lives of fellow human beings we know nothing about; Chiune Sugihara, for example, saved thousands of Jews in the Holocaust, with the stroke of a pen. Just the same, we are capable of destruction and oppression, by way of silence, complacence, and acts that seem harmless.

My daughter is three years old. The children in our school are six, seven, eight, twelve. Our teenagers; our young teachers. We read the climate report together, and asked how old we’d all be in 2040. The actions that are collectively catapulting our planet toward real apocalypse, have at their core a choice that puts the selfish present before selflessness in service of the generations of the future? We need to ask -- What is the wisdom that can repair our culture of using, enjoying, and protecting the Earth’s resources? And how can we promote a culture of sustainability?

The gem of Jewish ecological wisdom compares human beings to the trees of a field. There is a commandment in Deuteronomy, that in times of war, one cannot destroy the fruit trees that surround a besieged city, for trees are not people that they might flee destruction, and the resources of the planet we were born to, are never to be wasted. The commandment then is, do not waste a thing, ever.

All of the suggested means for healing the planet fall underneath this category: take public transit whenever possible, car-share, drive an electric of hybrid vehicle, fly less, use energy efficient bulbs, un-plug computers and TVs when not in use, eat less or no meat, don’t waste food, use renewable energy, weatherize your home, save water. The list goes on. The reason that not wasting is the most important principle is because we’ve become terribly unconscious about how we use the Earth’s resources. Try this week to keep a mindfulness about any waste you see in your midst, created by your action, and try to minimize it. Then go and teach these ways to others.

For the first three years of a tree’s life one is not supposed to pluck its fruit. In like manner, it is customary for some to refrain from cutting a child’s hair until she is three years old. We are trees of the field, only we have legs for mobility and the wisdom that can accompany a brain, but these evolutionary gifts carry the responsibility that we act as stewards of the Earth. If we are merely here to use and abuse what has been offered to us gratuitously, what a sad story we are. But we need not resign to apocalyptic visions, even those written by scientists. We are capable of wonder, ingenuity, magic, and repair. So go plant a tree -- in the mind of mystics, every tree is the Tree of Life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Spokes of a Wheel

Dear Friends,

Every moment has cosmic potential. The most tired mundane tasks, boxing a home and moving, for example, may contain the seeds of something magnificent yet to come. As the Dead put it, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” What matters is the willingness to see, listen, feel, to be open always, and lean into intuition. Let accidents, coincidences, kismets lead. It happened to me this week.

At the end of a stressful summer, finally, we were taping the last boxes of our home, along with the help of a moving company Zivar had found through a listserv. Zivar has many gifts, among those relevant to this tale, she is excited by and asks after the stories of others, and people tell her everything! I went downstairs to put a box in the truck, and the next thing I know, Zivar has learned that M’s wife is pregnant and due in a month or so, and they could use a rabbi for a brit.

The move was a breeze. Between boxes, sweat, tape and stairs, M also mentioned that his wife wanted to convert, but they’d had less than pleasant experiences with some other rabbis, and weren’t gonna push for it before the birth. That’s when I leaned.

A and I spoke a few days later, and I encouraged her to join us for Yom Kippur. She did, and we met the following week to talk conversion. A told me her whole story -- from eco-trade shows to deserted bunker jam sessions in Puerto Rico, love lost and found, unexpected miracles. I told her I thought “conversion” wasn’t really a great word for it. She said, we’ve been calling it a “re-birth.” I said, “That’s it!”  I asked her why. She said that her mom had explained religions like spokes on a wheel, but none of them had ever felt right to her, until now. And that in this moment, before creating a family with her partner, she can feel the power of giving her child a story, a community, a tradition to belong to.

(Pause -- As we move into The New Shul’s 20th season, a time of expansion and commitment to the uniqueness of our approach, I am actively considering the areas in which The New Shul can contribute to the evolution of Judaism. I think “re-birth” is one such field. Precisely at the fringes of the Jewish community, the places where others are most anxious, and rabbis “disappear” at someone else’s most significant hour -- this is where we can live and teach. We’ll begin sharing the principles and long-standing precedents for our method, that others may learn and grow.)

Yesterday we met at the mikvah -- A, M and his parents. We speak about the Hebrew name her father had given her at birth, and the minor addition we will make to it. She is under a white tallit, clear face round belly. I read her a poem on water, identities, essence. Tears ready her for water. From behind the door we listen to the sounds of water, immersion, the meaning of splash splash splash.

Outside in the rain she glows alongside her beloved, her face radiant clear like a child’s. Reborn, a mother ready for birth. We celebrated the occasion with Billy Crystal at Katz’s. I had a matzo ball soup. She had one too, and a half reuben on rye.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Listening in the Senate Hearing

Dear Friends,

I had taken a spiritual hiatus from the media trail. Sometime over the summer I confessed to a friend that I checked CNN daily, and her face shocked me out of the reality I had acquiesced to, and I welcomed media celibacy. But as the holidays recede, within these days of integration, I watched the senate hearing intently, with an ear tuned in to the way everyone in the room listened. A few moments caught my attention:

Firstly, there were staggering differences between the listening styles of the men and women in that room. Dr. Ford, Senator Feinstein, and Rachel Mitchell, spoke and listened with a gentleness that was in stark contrast to Judge Kavanaugh, and the male senators who spoke in the later hours of the hearing. We are one of the first generations in history to overturn gender-roles that have existed since the days of hunter-gatherers. Think of how different the listening demanded of hunters, is from that of home-makers -- hunters listened for prey, for the kill, homemakers listened to children, to elders, to the concerns of community. Women and men have been trained to listen differently for generations; it’s been written into the fabric of our beings. In these days of fervent reassessment of justice, respect and equality for women, not only will women be given greater pedestals to speak from, it will be demanded of men that they learn how to listen anew.

When asked what she remembers most, Dr. Ford answered, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh — the uproarious laughter between the two.” How miraculous and monstrous, are the capacities of mind and memory, that a sound imprinted on the aural faculty countless years ago can linger eternally, a defiant trigger for trauma that is so difficult to heal, all the more so, in a culture that makes little room for healing.

In the final moments of a lengthy hearing, Senator Kamala Harris concluded the day with a simple question to Judge Kavanaugh, “Did you listen to Dr. Ford’s testimony?” “No,” he said, “I was going to, but I was preparing for my own.” We’re measuring our listening this year, against the demands of the 2nd century sage Hillel, who when debating in court, would argue in favor of his opponent, before arguing his own case. How could Kavanaugh deny what he hadn’t even been willing to listen to? Did he not consider that something she would say might jog his memory? What a terrible model of listening to present to the nation, as he prepares for high office.

Whether or not you believe Ford or Kavanaugh, an essential notion was absent from yesterday’s discussion. Sensitive subjects are most often avoided, because we’re so afraid of the vulnerability they necessitate. But that vulnerability is the site of real listening. No one asked for testimony on the nature of healing.

Do we not believe a person is capable of healing, of change, of repentance and growth? Should the wrongs he may have committed as a teenager prevent his nomination? If we are a community that believes in the possibility of healing then we must say “No.” If Judge Kavanaugh was willing to step forward, to speak and listen from a place of vulnerability and own up to the mistakes of youth, even just a little bit, it would go a long way toward healing the pain of his past sins, in himself and in others, be they large or small, and whether they include Dr. Ford or not. Vulnerability and listening are preconditions of healing. But that was not his choice, he chose denial and anger.

What does our society demand of those who sit on the supreme court? We want righteousness. And that doesn’t mean purity, perfection, unadulterated goodness. Righteousness is a measure of listening to all as equals -- men and women, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, blacks and whites, Jews, Buddhist, Muslims and Christians. Can you listen to every voice and hear within the shared humanity that far outweighs difference? Can you bring compassion, no matter what they bring?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Listening in Disagreement (Israel)

It was Rosh Hashana at The New Shul, the ceremonial beginning to a new year.  Aware of the utter absence of the art of listening in our present political culture, and inspired by the Talmud’s treatment of argumentation in the tales of Hillel and Shammai, two first century sages, who though almost always in opposition, knew, somehow, that each could be right without the other being wrong, we decided to devote this new year to the cultivation of the art of listening.  How might we live like Hillel, we asked ourselves, a teacher who always cited the view of his opponent before he expressed his own?


So at mid-service on Rosh Hashana, mellowed by music, words and silence, I heard Rabbi Zach ask me, “Do you and I have any major disagreements?”   “No.” I answered. “Oh good -- let’s argue about Israel.” “OK.” “You go first,” he suggested.


Thinking we’d stage a mock debate that would illustrate how one might listen receptively to an objectionable opinion voiced passionately by a friend or colleague, I decided to give Zach a run for his money.


“The State of Israel,” I began,  “represents the return of the Jewish people to history and mediates to the world the living meaning of Judaism.” Then zapped by the dark implications of what I’d just said, namely that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank might reveal the real role of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in living Judaism, I swerved and stopped. 


But suddenly, with even greater authority, I asserted, “The Jewish people is the very incarnation of God in the world and it is therefore a religious obligation to work for the survival of the Jews.”  “State policy notwithstanding,” I went on, “if there are no Jews there will be no Judaism, and if no Judaism, no God.”


Stunned by the passion of my performance and its wild coherence, we looked at each other, Zach and I.  “I do love you,” I said, and we embraced. 


My feelings for the State of Israel run deeper than I know.  For it was in Jerusalem in 1969, as a rabbinical student, that I convinced Elana to marry me—no mean task.  Four years later she and I returned to Israel, lived on an educational campus not far from Tel Aviv and taught in an American high school program where, with our students, we lived through the Yom Kippur War.


In 1974 I first heard Rabbi David Hartman teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Captured by his passion and intellect, I stayed with him as student and colleague for the next seven years during which time Elana gave birth to three of our children, ran a day care center, sent me off to serve in the IDF, and lived close to our community of fellow immigrants, friends who’d become family, most of whom still live in Israel. 


Put simply, we love the country and loathe its politics. “Now you know how we feel,” many of our dear Israeli friends said to us after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  The clash between state and people is deep, a foundational agony that has shaped our lives both as Americans and Israelis.


Elana and I have received many gifts because of the State of Israel, none more precious than the friends of our youth who remain among our closest, and also the ability we achieved there to speak, read and write Hebrew.  That there is today a living Jewish vernacular, spoken by millions, at once rooted in the Torah yet there for you to use when you change diapers, buy a book, order a pizza, or have an argument with a friend—has enabled romantics like us, to feel the presence of God in every aspect of ordinary life. No doubt it helps that we are now visitors to Israel, no longer residents, freed from the drone of day-to-day responsibilities that so easily deafen one to the subtleties of language and the mysteries of life.


Still, even at a distance, the weight of responsibility we carry for the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians—those whom we dispossessed that we, after suffering near annihilation, might repossess our ancient homeland—is unbearable and inescapable.  It would be tempting merely to say and believe, “What can you do?  It is the way of the world. Suck it up.”  But that would entail denying that love and generosity are at the heart of what it is to be Jewish.  It would mean living as if friendship and benevolence were to be directed only at fellow Jews, and as if the rules of godless realpolitick apply to Jews as they do to all other players, namely, winner take all.  


We simply refuse to go that way.  Survival is a necessary condition, not a task.  The task of being Jewish is to make gratitude real by living it, to make love real by listening.


But how do we live true to this vision without erasing the opposing view, the one that insists Judaism is a family affair, a religion that requires first and foremost that we attend to the needs of our brothers and sisters, listen to the summons of our martyred ancestors, and join the defense against our common enemies?  Are we Jews here for the sake of the world (“For through you will all the families of the world will find blessing,” God says to Abraham.)?  Or are we here to be a nation apart, loyal to our ritual laws and customs, waiting for God to save the world?


According to the Talmud it took a voice from heaven to show the way to live inside this dilemma.  “Both views are the words of the living God,” the voice said, “But the law goes according to Hillel.”  Hillel once summed it up like this:  “What is hateful to you do not do to your friend.  All the rest is commentary.” 


Would that Hillel’s was the final word.  But one still must ask, “Who is my friend?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  Won’t we always answer these questions differently? 


Elana and I feel graced by the opportunity you’ve given us, fellow New Shulers, to begin and live this new year with you as friends.


With Big Love, Shabbat Shalom, Shannah Tovah!


James (and Elana) Ponet

Rabbi in Residence (and his Rabbi)

The New ShulComment
High Holy Day Assignment (A Listening Scavenger Hunt)

Dear Friends,

The New Year approaches! I hope that even from within the chaotic transition from summer to September you are listening for the silent call beckoning to us out of its mysterious source – Arise arise, wake from your slumber, you are beings of clay and soul, lift your ears to your loftiest aspiration and allow yourself to move through suffering for the sake of all that you are becoming. Such is the call of the season, grow, become, renew, offer prayers, be in silence, listen, for the sake of the world you’ve been gifted. I can’t wait to learn, and play and dance the New Year in with all of you.

Our classroom, with each renewing season, The New Shul’s 20th (more on that later!) and my 9th, has become a body of eager students. I have received far more than one request for early access to the High Holy Day assignment, so here it is. The due date is Sept. 19th, Yom Kippur, where I invite you to share some brief words on your experience with the community. (Past due assignments will be accepted indefinitely). 


High Holy Day Assignment 5779 (A Listening Scavenger Hunt)

1) Ask a friend to tell you of a time when they experienced great pain, loss or suffering –listen.

2) Have a difficult conversation that you’ve hesitated to confront, maybe even an argument, but listen without attachment to outcome.

3) Take a vow of silence. Here are some options: For a day, for an hour a day, a week. Take a digital vow of silence -- no text, email, for a week. Try accomplishing all of your daily tasks in near silence. Whichever vow you take, when you’ve settled into silence, allow your inner knowing to manifest, and take note of the revelations.

See you Sunday night!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment