Theological Reflection: To Be a Jew is to Be Human

In a world filled with wonder, love, at times pain and loss–and above all mystery–we embrace each other, celebrate together, and encounter what life brings-on each moment of breath. In such a world, each of us is a reflection of the Divine, the presence that allows us to inhabit a world that is in constant need of perfection in the face imperfection, where we are always susceptible to breakage and impermanence. To be a healing presence–by giving to others kindness, compassion empathy and love–is for me one of the essentials of being a Jew and a being human.
My spiritual tradition is Judaism, a tradition rich in its understanding of the human condition, one filled with teachings that enable human beings to be sustained and, even more, to thrive in the midst of uncertainty and pain. Central to my understanding of my tradition is the celebration of life, L’chaim, the celebration of existence itself. Life is a divine gift, and as I have learned, exalted because we are “created in the Divine image.” In this respect each of us is possessed by a uniqueness that reflects the Divine. Each of us, according to one of the teachings of Judaism, is likened to an entire universe, vast, deep and, critically, above all worthy. So much so that our Sages, of blessed memory, taught that the destruction of one human being is tantamount to the destruction of an entire universe.
To further elaborate, while the world is a manifestation of Divine Will, it is nevertheless imperfect and in constant need of perfecting. To perfect the world is the task of human beings who are commanded to make the world a better place, not just for some, but for all. This effort, one of perfecting the world, originates in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, and is called Tikkun Olam, literally, “repairing the world.” In this context, every person has the possibility and the opportunity, through his or her actions, to make the world increasingly whole, while at the same time restoring to the Creator the Divine Sparks—fragments of the Divine Essence–that were scattered throughout the universe at the moment of creation. If you will, the restoration of the Divine Sparks bring about, in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, the healing of the Creator who became estranged from itself when some of those Divine Sparks were lost. Thus human action—human behavior—heals God, and God reciprocally heals the world. Here action is met with response, and repose is met with action. In this scheme both humans and God are partners in healing each other; in contributing to the wholeness and completeness of the other–and ultimately of the world.
At this point, it is worthwhile to briefly summarize a significant theological issue: the state of the world and the human condition. The world according to the Jewish understanding is not perfect: it exists in the material realm, where change is ongoing within the cycle of generation and decay. All things, especially human beings, have a finite existence in which accident, illness, healing are all possible, and where death is certain. In this respect Judaism teaches that the world was deliberately left uncompleted, so that human beings and God would together—in partnership–engage in continuing the act of creation. This ongoing process of completing creation is the essence of Tikkun Olan, the “repair and healing” of the world.
Let me now turn to the question of how I understand myself, an imperfect being, in the context transcendence. I am, like all other human beings, imperfect for reasons I have already elaborated. My imperfection does not however mean that I need to remain where I am at this point of my development. I have the possibility of perfecting myself through education and action in the world–by joining others and engaging in “Tikkun Olam.” My conviction of having “possibilities” emanates from my realization that I am a being created in God’s image– that my existence is in some sense a reflection of the Divine Presence, the source of all potential. I understand that I am part of something greater than myself; and I intuit that I am never alone in our vast universe, even at moments of great despair. And above all, when I wake in the morning, live my life during the day, and finally go to sleep at night, I experience a profound enveloping presence of something that I can’t express in words—the ineffable—which manifests itself as the world I live in both in the material and spiritual realms. I experience what I call the Mystery through my senses, by my intuition and, perhaps even more, by my imagination. I name that Mystery, God, and as I utter the word, I understand that for me the Mystery requires that I personalize it because of my human need to name and give concreteness—substance–to what gives rise to the miracle of my existence.
God, the Mystery is ever-present and manifests itself in the world though me as an individual by informing my actions in this world! In this context, Reconstructionist theology, the theology propounded by Mordecahi M. Kaplan, lends to my understanding of God as the ever-present Divine Force, the energy if you will, that works through human beings. When we are aware and open to it, the Divine Force works through us as individuals and imbues us with a sense of deep purpose, love and caring for ourselves and others, as well as the desire to work with others to elevate the condition of humanity. In this respect I would add that the Divine Force works though our consciousness to create conscience, the faculty that enables us to recognize the Divine Image in each other. The Divine Force, now working through our conscience, evokes within us the desire to collaborate with others as a community to perfect, make the world better by healing and constantly repairing it. It is the Divine Force that impels us to engage in “Tikkun Olam,” the effort to repair the world.
My community, the Jewish people, has made a vocation of allowing the Divine Force to flow through its collective-self for millennia. Cultivating a unique collective conscience, reflected in its vast sacred literature and way of life, the Jewish people has responded to the Divine imperative to live and act with a sense of possibility and hope, recognizing that all human beings are created in God’s image, and that life is sacred—God’s gift. It is this compelling collective mentality that operates in the life of a people who recognize that while there can never be a perfect world, there needs to be a constant effort to perfect the world by healing it, making it better for all human beings.
I return to what I began with as an explanation of how my beliefs inform my being a Jew and a being human. Simply, I want to be a healing presence in a world of imperfection, pain and hurt, a world where each of us as transient being is a reflection of the Divine Image, beyond all worth, imbued with possibility.

Posted in Rabbi Ron

BABIES AT THE MOVIES?

Several weeks ago, my wife Silvia and I finally freed ourselves on a Thursday night to catch THE INTERN, a film with Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro. What made that Thursday particularly appealing, aside from the cast, was the ticket price of six bucks. Yes, six dollars. The usual price at the Hazard Center Theater here in San Diego is only eight dollars. (Where else can you take in a movie, catch some romance for what is a relatively paltry sum?) When we arrived at the theater, we noticed a sign on the ticket window that read, “Baby Night.” Baby night at the movies? Never heard of such a thing! To say the least, Silvia and I were surprised: we wanted to take-in the early showing of the movie, but we were uncertain how enjoyable the experience would be on “baby night.”
Silvia and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, and decided to buy the tickets. We had no inkling of whether or not we would be able to stand the noise, but our desire to see the movie overrode our reservations of sharing the venue with infants. As we entered the theater, where just about all the seats were taken by young couples with babies in tow, we managed to find seats next to a couple with a baby under a year old. The little boy, who I initially thought was a girl, was very cute and managed to capture me with a wonderful smile every time I looked at him. With all my delight basking in the kid’s smiles and cooing, I entertained grave doubts about the viability of Thursday night at the movies–about being able to enjoy the evening when infant noises were likely to punctuate or even pierce the dialogue.
The movie started and so did the on and off crying, but after a while, with some small amount of effort and focus, it fell into the background, so that both Silvia and I enjoyed the unfolding of a very sweet and touching movie. When it was all over, we were deeply moved by our unusual experience with the babies. For Silvia, she explained me, the crying and other noises came to sound like birds in a forest—there as a reminder that nature was everywhere and that she was part of a grand scene, moving and gentle. As for me, I was enveloped by memories of our twins, Alexandra and Gabriela, as infants: I recalled what felt to be at the time interminable moments of sleeplessness, suddenly, all at once, evaporating and giving way to what became the beginning of blessed restful sleep.
One particular night is still very vivid in my memory. It was one of those early morning feedings, at about three or four, when I was barely conscious, falling asleep with one of my infants in my arms. The TV was turned on to keep me awake, but it barley did its job. Then—out of nowhere–a sudden surge of energy charged me into alertness, and I was overcome by the realization that I had to be present at that moment no matter how exhausted, because that moment with my daughter would never be again, ever! I experienced a force of overwhelming love for my precious little human being, the life that Silvia and I brought into the world. To this day that significant moment is locked deeply in my heart.
So it is that my heart goes out to all those parents with their babies at the movies. How much of an opportunity did they have in past months to go out in the evening for a little entertainment? I wondered, as well, how many of the mothers at the movies had an opportunity to be away from their children just for a short time each day, so to break the isolation that I am certain some of them experience. Having counselled many couples, and recalling my own experience as a husband and a father, I am well aware of how couples can become separated emotionally and physically as they tend to the needs of their children. So perhaps after all is said and done, whoever came up with the idea of “babies at the movies” was not only a marketing genius, but a mensch. There are, after all, times when we urgently need to be distracted from our children’s needs, and the movies will perhaps allow us not only that distraction but also the possibility of a little romance sneaking in to remind us that we became a couple because we love each other and we need that love to sustain us.
Many times when I see young children I am overcome by wonderful memories of my girls who are Silvia’s and my blessing. And to these memories I gather recollections of the many children I named and brought into our community, the community of the Jewish people in past years. All this as an expression of how memories give substance to our desire as human beings to be connected to others through rituals, ones that give our lives a sense of continuity with the past and hope for a future filled with many blessings. May those blessings capture you and fill your hearts with hope and much love.

Posted in Rabbi Ron

San Diego Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain

LISTENING WITH AN OPEN HEART

Back in San Diego,CA after nineteen years—it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to pursue what is part of the fabric of my identity—being a rabbi and a listener.

Over the thirty-eight years of being a rabbi, I have had the privilege of being allowed to participate in the lives of people under various circumstances: at time of joy and celebration, and at times of trial and uncertainty, as well as those inevitable moment of loss and grief. In everyone one of those moments, I gained an insight into myself that I am still ruminating on. That insight is one of coming to terms with what I do best, which is being there for others and listening to them with an open heart. This kind of listening is not just hearing what a person is saying, it is as well participating on some level in the emotions of that person and yet remaining alert to the reality that I am there for him or her—not for myself. To be sure, I derive a tremendous satisfaction from being connected to others, otherwise I would not be able to be present and attentive. So it is with an insight that has grown with time and continues to touch me ever deeper as I add on years to my life, that I look forward to listening with an open heart to people who are ill and those who are approaching the end of life.

I still remember my first days as a student chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center while a rabbinic student in New York. I visited a room where a nine or ten year old boy was lying in bed. His parents sitting beside him keeping watch. I don’t recall how long he had been in the hospital, but it was a long time. His parents, bleary-eyed, opened up to me, and all they knew about me at that moment was that I was a Jewish chaplain; they poured out how their lives had come to be consumed by attending to their son who suffered from cancer, with all of the uncertainty that that reality entailed. I listened, I learned: sometimes you just need to be there – present – to be of comfort to people. This is what I have tried to cultivate throughout the years as a rabbi and a human being – a sensitive ear that makes a virtue of listening and being present.

That hospital room was the beginning of chaplaincy for me many years ago. Years later as I was building my new congregation here in San Diego—Congregation Dor Hadash—I became the first Jewish chaplain for the Sharp Hospitals. That opportunity enabled me to crystallize the recognition that I could make a difference and help people who were in physical distress and emotional turmoil. I was not put off by the machines, the tubes and the smell. I walked into the rooms of patients and found them, by and large, receptive to my presence as a rabbi and chaplain. I understood over time that “If there are no atheists in fox holes,” there are even fewer ones in hospital rooms.

Coming back to San Diego, CA holds the possibility of returning to hospital or hospice chaplaincy to listen and comfort, and to practice the art of virtuous listening. After all, I want to be able to claim that my stay in this world made a difference, at least in some small way. Is this not the reason that we live? I hope so!

Posted in Rabbi Ron

Home Again in San Diego

YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN—OR CAN YOU IN SAN DIEGO?

Tom Wolff has immortalized the phrase, “You can’t go home again.” The title of his novel touches what we all know to be true: when we come back home it is not what we left. Coming home is returning to a strange place where we might with some effort reclaim moments of familiarity, but never complete comfort. This is the way things are, and why should they be any different? After all, we don’t return home as the same people when we left—at least hopefully so.

Back to San Diego with my Silvia after nineteen years—a long time! I recognize many familiar faces and even shed tears when I embrace dear people who I haven’t seen for these many years. I officiated at their celebrations and their moments of grief— the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of their children, their weddings, and funerals of parents. Some of those children who I Bar/Bat Mitzvahd (is there such a word—oye vey!) a long time ago approached me and I saw familiar faces, but found it somewhat difficult to comprehend them as adults. The memories of them a life-time ago reside within me with much affection for them and wonderment at how time has formed adults out of kids who used to hug me.

Both Silvia and I have many deeply woven memories of the Jewish community here. This was the place where we met, married and had our twins, Alexandra Yael and Gabriela Lorraine. This was the place where I, without any financial backing and only three friends, dove head first into creating the one and only Reconstructionist congregation in the area, Congregation Dor Hadash. This, in 1983! The congregation is still here and remains a warm, progressive community. It is familiar, but it has in these past nineteen years taken a new path under new leadership. It feels familiar and yet very different from when I left. Things change, thank God, and that’s for the good.

In nineteen years my family and I have made a trek across the United States—from California to New York, from New York to Georgia, from Georgia to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Although I have to clarify that I was in Saint Thomas for a year as the Interim Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation, the second oldest Jewish congregation in the Caribbean, while my girls were in college in South Carolina and Silvia was living outside of Atlanta. While living in those different cities, we punctuated our separation with visits back and forth. The island, I now understand, was an experience in learning about a community of Jews who love their synagogue and are finding ways to make their community strong in the face of a limited number of potential members. Saint Thomas is, after all, an island with a small Jewish population. The people are sweet, loving and care for each other deeply. I was immersed in that sweetness for a year, which softened those many moments of loneliness. I performed weddings and officiated at twenty or so Bar/Bat Mitzvah services; and I had the privilege of helping families whose loved ones left on that solemn last journey we call death. With all this, I made lifetime friends on Saint Thomas, people who are now part of my life—what a beautiful thing to take back home!

Now back home here in San Diego with all the possibilities of this magnificent place. To walk along in Mission Bay with the sun reflecting on the water, breathing in the smell of salt—this is an old memory come alive. To get out and lose myself in the gardens of the Self Realization Center—a precious gift. And perhaps most compelling of all is to come back to San Diego with Silvia to make our home in our Jewish community and the place where we had our beginning. Here I will turn my attention to the part of the Jewish community that we call the unaffiliated. I will offer them my skills as a rabbi who longs to touch the lives of people who desire to celebrate the important passages in their lives—the moments that punctuate the cycle of our lives.

The Jewish community is a wonderful potpourri of Jews and those who live and visit with us. There are Jews who identify themselves as LGBTQ; interracial couples; single parent families; families of various configurations, and I am sure I have left someone out. There are Jews of all kinds and they deserve to know that there is a rabbi in the community who honors and blesses who they are. What can be more magnificent for me than participating in the celebration where a child is bestowed with a Hebrew name? How enriching is it for me to bring families together around a child who is becoming a young Jewish adult—a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It is a sight of loveliness for me to behold bride and groom who make their commitment of togetherness public through the marriage ceremony with my guidance. This and more is what I hope to do as I reach out to unaffiliated Jews.

Coming home to San Diego doesn’t have to mean that it has to be the same home that Silvia and I once left, but rather that our home is warm, filled with love and a place of possibilities.

Posted in Rabbi Ron

When the Gift of Life is Taken

WHEN THE GIFT OF LIFE IS TAKEN
The story I share with you is a story that I wrote in an effort to confront the loss of loved ones. It is especially pertinent to events of the past two weeks where through old age and tragedy six people, some very close to me and other close to my friends, have died. In the face of such loss I affirm my own link to life, even as I seek to comfort family and friends. It is my hope that my little story provides some of you who are in pain with some small measure of comfort as you confront your own loss.
I imagine that before we are born we are disembodied spirits, let’s say, in heaven. One day of eternity, God comes to us and we bask in the radiance of the Eternal’s holiness. Spirit, God says, this is a beautiful day in eternity, and a very special one for you. Today, dear spirit, is the time for you to make a choice between two possibilities: you can remain here with me in heaven or you can be born in the world of flesh and bone—the world of human beings.
So consider this: If you remain here with me, you will continue to be a disembodied sprit, beyond hurt and pain, and beyond any doubts about why you exist. I love you with all my heart; you are my creation and you are holy, beyond any measure and worth. Here in heaven you will see my face and glory in the radiance of my holiness; it will never be hidden from you. I will instruct you in the great mysteries of what I have created and you will glory in them. And remember, here you will not feel no touch or pain.
Should you, however, decide to be born in flesh and blood, you will experience emotion and pain, exultation and sadness. Disappointment will be part of your life as will doubt. There may even be times when you wish you had never been born. Above all, you will come to understand that life is fleeting and you will never know the moment of your death. In this world of accident everything is impermanent, transitory. In the world of humans you will also come to feel and learn happiness, friendship and, above all, love. You will see the sun rise and set. You will be in awe of your feelings as you realize that you are part of a wonderful, beautiful and miraculous Creation. You will come to know the beauty of a blossoming flower. And when you touch the skin of another and your bodies intertwine, you will feel ecstasy as you lose yourself in the other. When a child will be born in the world, you will surely say, “This is God’s miracle.”
As you live in the world you will realize that although your life is temporary, I have granted you three gifts: I will implant within you the seed of your own sense of worthwhileness, and I will implant within you the desire to seek and fulfill your life’s purpose, your destiny. And last of all, I will remind you from time to time that I will be waiting for you when you are ready to return to me.
This is my story and this is how I end it: “since we are in this world, we surely made the choice to be here.” The story doesn’t really speak about heaven or even hell, rather it is a metaphor that has the purpose of shifting the focus from death to life: we can choose a life of healing, one that may be blessed with satisfaction and happiness as we continue on the road of our own life’s journey.

Posted in Rabbi Ron

Time: Beginnings and Endings

As I write these words at the end of 2014, I am filled with a sense that the year has whizzed-by and I have hardly had time to catch my breath. And as I anticipate the new year of 2015, I am impressed with my very human need for beginnings and endings.

Time is, after all, a state of mind for us on the most fundamental level. You know what I mean: it seems to slow down when we are engaged in boring activities or anxiety provoking ones. It seems to speed up when we are on vacation, and invariably we ask ourselves, “Where did the time go? It just seems to have rushed by.” Time is illusive and difficult to define. So let’s imagine for a moment that it is a stream in which we swim. The stream doesn’t stop flowing and, in reality, we can’t continue swimming in it without a pause, without finding a place to rest. We do need to get out of the stream onto shore for at least a short break. And it is the short break that we engage in when we give time a beginning and an end. We can’t be in the stream of time without punctuating it, without stepping out and orienting ourselves within its flow. We need to know where we were, where we are, and where we are going. After all, we measure our lives with beginnings and endings in time. With a new year, we are reorienting ourselves in time, hopefully pausing for a sufficient period to consider where we have been, where we are now, and where we might want to go.

I hope that as you enter the New Year of 2015, you will make many occasions to pause and get out of the stream and imagine that you are capable of slowing down those fleeting moments of time. As you do that, may you fill those moments with friendship, love and good health.

A good and healthy secular new year to us all!

Rabbi Ron Herstik

Posted in Rabbi Ron

The Festival of Lights, Some Two Thousand Years later

The Festival of Lights, Some Two Thousand Years later

 

Over two thousand years have elapsed from the time the Maccabees entered the Jerusalem Temple to purify it from the profanation of the Syrian-Greeks, who erected a statue of the god Zeus within it. The persecution of the Jews by the Syrian-Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, lasted from 175-164 BCE. Once Jewish sovereignty of the Temple was established, Simon– who was now the leader of the Hasmonean family, having succeeded his brother Judah who died in battle–began a campaign to consolidate his leadership as king and high priest of the Jews.  Thus for the first time, political and religious power were merged and both were now vested in the Temple. The Hasmoneans ( the family name of the Maccabees), having gained their rulership with the help of Rome, began a dynasty that years later culminated in a Roman takeover of Judea, when during a family feud between two Hasmonean descendants,  the Romans were invited to  mediate and once in Judea, they  never left. In the course of time, the Jews rebelled against Rome with the consequent destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and finally the complete loss of Jewish sovereignty in the aftermath of the last Jewish rebellion by Bar Kochbah, which lasted from 132-136 CE.   

 

When viewed through the lens of history as I have briefly outlined it, Hanukkah takes on an unusual place in our history, and in terms of its sanctity, it is a minor holiday only. The Maccabean Wars, as they are sometimes called, culminated in a military victory, which is not recorded in the Tanach—the Hebrew Bible.  The story was excluded and the Maccabees are nowhere mentioned in our bible.  What we do know about the Maccabees is recorded in Book of Maccabees I & II, preserved in the Apocrypha that is included in the Christian canon.  The question raised by that the exclusion of the story of the Maccabees from the Hebrew bible is, why?  And perhaps the clue comes to us in the form of a legend of a miracle recorded by the rabbis centuries after the Maccabean victory over the Syrian-Greeks. That is, the legend of the oil that lasted for eight days: when the Maccabees entered the Temple to purify it and make fit for Jewish worship, they needed sacramental olive oil that was preserved with the High Priest’s seal to re-light the eternal lamp; but they only found a cruse of oil sufficient for one day’s lighting, which miraculously lasted eight days until new pure oil could be made.  This is the legend of the Hanukkah miracle: God granted victory to a “few” who were pious, religious Jews, over the “many” who were pagan desecrators of the God’s holy temple. The sign of God’s intervention on behalf of the Maccabees is the oil that lasted for eight days, around which the celebration of the Festival of Lights revolves. It is significant that the legend is told by the rabbis at a time after the Jews have lost two  wars against the Rome, devastating wars that left perhaps more than half-a-million Jews dead. Thus the message of the legend: you cannot fight a war without God’s assent, without being sufficiently pious as were the Maccabees centuries ago: here and now we have suffered devastation—God is not with us! The legend is told as a way of discouraging any further rebellions and as a means of asserting in times to come that the Jews are not in need of generals and fighters and, especially, provocateurs. And as it turns out, it was scholars and pious Jews who preserved the Jewish people for almost two thousand years of history; and only with the rebirth of Israel in the twentieth century was the need for Jewish generals and fighters to come to the fore to preserve us, the Jewish People.

 

So we celebrate the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah which means re-dedication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, a symbol, indeed, not only of the rebirth of our people in our ancient land, but also our resolve to take into our own hands the fight for our freedom from oppression, even as the messiah tarries, the messiah who may not come at all.

 

May we light our candles in joy and celebration, with song and the spinning of Dreidles, telling the story of the Maccabees, the story of re-dedication.

 

Rabbi Ron Herstik

 

Posted in Rabbi Ron

The People on St. Thomas December 2014

The People on St. Thomas
December 2014
If not for some special people, I might not have taken the interim position as the rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. So who are they, the people to whom I am alluding whose presence helped to persuade me to stay on the island for a year? One moment, please, and I will tell you.

Let me begin my story by describing to you the folks who inhabit the island on which I now temporarily reside. They are a veritable palette of colors: black, white, red, yellow and whatever other color God created in his/her image. We have descendants of slaves who are the majority on the island and who serve as politicians, police, and in various bureaucracies; immigrants from India who own and manage many of the jewelry stores that serve the tourists; an assortment of white folks who are retirees, professionals and business people; Muslims who own gasoline stations and other small businesses, especially grocery stores. And while folks are here for many different reasons—some natives remain here for a lack of choice—there is also a breed of people who live on the island because they desire the slow pace of island living. The truth is that it doesn’t matter why you are here—by choice or compulsion—the island provides an environment that forces you to slow down and look at life in “slower” motion. This is the lesson I learned in short order! Within a short time of living here, I quickly learned that blasting my horn in traffic is just not done, even for a good reason such as when a car stopped in front of me in the middle of the road and the driver decided to carry on a conversation with an acquaintance who happened to be passing by. I, and of course others, had to wait for the conversation to end and then, and only then, could we all move on. In the morning when I am driving to my synagogue (down a winding, pot-holed road), a woman sits under the shade of trees, too close to the roadside, selling the daily paper. Although I have never done it, it’s a morning ritual for many drivers who stop their cars, buy their paper while halting all traffic, and then continue on their way. I am not kidding—this is really what goes on. While I can give you other examples of how different, slower, the pace of life is here compared to Atlanta, let me just observe that people on this island are not frenetic—they seem to be calm, moving slowly and unconcerned with rushing. The calmness that pervades life here is also reflected in the tone of voice people use with each other: it’s polite and a greeting is most always reciprocated. People will greet you with hello or how are you; and most times they will respond to me in kind when I initiate a greeting. “May you have a blessed day”, is not uncommon, especially as I have noticed, from elderly women. Even with the persistent poverty and the scant social services, people are seemingly present, calm.

Although what I have just said is retrospective in that I am putting it all together now after living here for about three months, the soul of the island was already discernible and present when Silvia and I first met Steve and Leslie in whose B&B we stayed as guests on our first visit to the island. Steve and Leslie Rockstein, what wonderful people to meet and befriend. Two people whose beauty is apparent the first time you meet them and you tell yourself, “They will be my friends”. Steve is a photographer by profession; very talented and accomplished. His “Photography 1971-2011: Care retrospective” graces one of the tables in my rented condo. The variety of subjects Steve captures with his lens are people and objects that take on life even though they are rendered motionless in the moment: the moment expands into a context that allows me to enter the frame and be part of the event. Steve captures the soul of people and things, and he doesn’t indulge in photographing just “nice” things. He captures the rawness of life in black and white and also color. One of the things that impresses me about Steve is his fearlessness, as some of the situations he photographed potentially put him in harm’s way. This is a tough guy who began his career as a social worker in New York. You wouldn’t want to mess with him: muscular, big, now with a shock of white hair. For whatever toughness, Steve is one of the gentlest people you can find, even as he possess the intensity of an artist. From social worker to editor and designer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, capturing on film those evens that sometime startle us when we open a paper. Steve proudly identifies himself as a hippie, and in his case I see an idealist who is sufficiently courageous to look under the surface, undeterred by convention. Together with Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Melvin L. Claxton, Steve published the volume,” Public Housing/Public Shame”. In 1985 the two men were honored at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. As for the present, Steve dedicates himself to teaching photography, swimming daily at Megans Bay, and jamming with a close friend on Saturday afternoon.

Leslie, Steve’s sweetheart and wife from his youth, is wise, insightful and open to possibilities. A teacher by profession and a onetime owner of a kindergarten, she, I suspect, anchors and grounds Steve. Her kindness is evident in the tone of her voice and her humor. Leslie is Steve’s counterpart of gentleness and compassion. As the chair of our Caring committee, all of Leslie’s soulful qualities become even more evident than usual—especially her concern for people. Still, after thirty years on the island, Leslie has accomplished what seems almost contradictory: she is able to imbibe the more relaxed pace of St. Thomas and yet retain the drive to accomplish things. This is not always easy: to get things done when the air you’re breathing through your nostrils and the pours of your skin lulls you into a somnambulistic state of all is groovy. So let me now conclude by saying that as much as I have learned about Steve, there is still more for me to get to know about Leslie.

Leslie and Steve made a first and significant impression on Silvia and me. They, whether aware of it or not, allowed me to see past the smallness of the island, a place surrounded by water, devoid of a bookstore, and for god’s sake, even a Starbucks.

Posted in Rabbi Ron

It’s An Island! It’s Surrounded By Water!

It happened very fast, unexpectedly so. About eight months ago, I managed to take a seminar for rabbis who were interested in serving in interim positions in congregations, usually for a year. The training, after all, was an additional career skill to have up my sleeve. You never know what’s going to become available. A local Atlanta congregation could open-up for a year and I would be able to do what I enjoyed, close to home and without having to make a long-term commitment.

Rabbi-Ron-Herstik-St-Thomas-3

A couple of months had gone by when Silvia and I were checking my professional rabbinic website for a possible interim position—close by, Atlanta. But nothing looked even remotely promising. One day, after reviewing the website, Silvia told me that an interim position was open “up north”–I don’t even remember where. I recoiled! No way was I going back to snow country. A three year stint in Buffalo, NY was enough for a lifetime. Curious I decided to look at the website closely for other interim opportunities. As it happened, just below the posting for “up north”, an opening was listed, of all places, for Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Later, when Silvia and I were discussing the position, she told me that never before had she seen me react as fast as I did as when I called my professional organization to have my resume sent to the congregation. Within a couple days after it was sent, I received a call from the congregation asking me for a phone interview, which I had on July 10. By August 28, Silvia and I landed in St. Thomas. She helped me settle and after a couple of days she returned to Atlanta with a plan to visit me frequently so that neither one of us would become too lonely. If I believed in the “stars”, I would have to say they were perfectly lined-up for us.
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Let me now go back and describe my initial reaction to St. Thomas when Silvia and I came for my face-to-face interview with the congregation. My first impression of the island was warm and hospitable, all made possible by Steve Rockstein, a member of the congregation who picked us from the airport. Steve is large, powerfully built, handsome with a shock of white hair, whose gentleness oozes through his pours. (He and his wife, Leslie, subsequently become wonderful friends to Silvia and me.) For the few days of the interview, we stayed in a bungalow that the Rocksteins usually rent to tourists. The bungalow overlooks lush verdant hills that fall into beautiful, if not magnificent, Magens Bay. St. Thomas, what a beautiful place: the beaches are gorgeous, the weather doesn’t dip much below eighty for a good part of the year, and best of all, jewelry is discounted and there is no sales tax. The booze flows freely, starting at the airport and it can be had in just about any shop as you walk along and do your shopping.

To be honest, had I not initially met the Rocksteins, I might have turned down the position. You might ask: Is he crazy? It’s an island paradise, great weather and wonderful beaches. What’s his problem? Best to explain my state of mind in the following way. After getting a tour of the island, the realization dawned on me that I was in shock, especially after Silvia said to me, as we were resting in the bungalow, “Ron, you look like a deer caught in headlights.” And I said, almost on the verge of tears, “It’s an island! It’s an island! It’s surrounded by water.” Seeing that my reaction to the island was hardly enthusiastic, Silvia reassured me that if I didn’t like the place, there was no reason to take the position. But here I am nevertheless, living alone for a part of the month on a landmass about 18 miles long and perhaps 4 to 5 miles wide. Here on the island there is no Barnes and Nobles, let alone a bookstore. (The one and only bookstore closed its doors about six or seven months ago.) Not even a Starbucks is to be had here. But I have found the Barefoot Buddha, not quite a Starbucks but not too bad. After my initial shock that the island was little more than a third world country, I met the people of the congregation, and they are the overwhelming reason I am here on the island of St. Thomas. Yes, it’s the people, indeed the people! And if you want to understand what I mean, you are going to have to wait for my next blog—coming soon.
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Posted in Rabbi Ron

Michael Oren and David Rothkopf: In Conversation

Dear friends,

Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Menucha–Shabbat filled with peace and tranquility.

I not only want to send you Shabbat peace but also a link to the Foreign Policy website where I found a very interesting, enlightening and somewhat disturbing email correspondence between David Rothkopf (CEO and Editor of Foreign Policy) and Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US. The back and forth correspondence is revealing in the depth of prejudice that even some very educated Jews, like Rothkopf, have toward Israel. What is even more remarkable to me is that he has only been to Israel once and only for two or three days, and yet he criticizes Israel in a fashion that I consider not only unfair but almost hateful. But you judge for yourselves and let me know what you think.

Here is the link:
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/05/14/a_jewish_state_vs_the_jewish_state_israel_zionism

Be well and, again, Shabbat Shalom,

‘A’ Jewish State vs. ‘The’ Jewish State
www.foreignpolicy.com
A conversation with FP’s David Rothkopf and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren — on Zionism, the loyalty of American Jews, and the promise of the Promised Land.

Posted in Rabbi Ron
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