The Sense of Wonder

One more blogpost on the Canadian Rockies trip, then maybe a little Malcolm Gladwell. I will never forget the first Dove Bar that I ever ate. It was downtown on Connecticut Avenue when I was working for Hillel. Gail was with me. I couldn’t believe how good that ice cream treat tasted, like nothing I had experienced before. We both remember the moment vividly. A few months later, I had another Dove Bar. Great, but not unbelievable. And the third? Nice, nothing so special. That was more than thirty years ago; I haven’t had more than one or two since.

So it was on my Canadian Rockies ride. The first day I stopped the bike countless times – even though I never stop (as anyone I ride by in Bethesda will attest) – to marvel at the mountains and take dozens of photos. Each successive day, though the landscape remained spectacular, I stopped less frequently and took fewer pictures. The sense of wonder was fading. It bothered me, much more than the Dove Bar experience, because this was God’s handiwork and I was starting to take it for granted.

Why were we created with a sense of wonder that doesn’t have so much staying power? I ponder that often. I think it’s part of a larger category of human reaction = we get used to things. That is both a good and bad quality. Good for example when it comes to terrible news, which we hear so relentlessly nowadays. When there is a horrific terror attack or natural disaster, the kind that used to take away our breath, and now when we hear the news we say to ourselves, “well, fortunately only x number of people died from that,” the quality of “getting used to things” has been activated and we can avoid being paralyzed by the news. I worry that we are becoming too used to bad news and our sensitivity to human suffering is being dulled, but it’s a coping mechanism that makes life less gloomy and more bearable.

But what about the sense of wonder when it comes to nature, or human creativity, or athletic accomplishment (as we just saw in Rio)? How do we succeed in NOT getting used to that? Obviously, I haven’t solved this one for myself. We saw that in the Rockies. All I can suggest are three strategies: 1) try to keep the kid alive in each of us because kids see wonder all over the place, 2) frequent places like parks and art museums where nature and human creativity are on display, and 3) be like Moses.

Moses experienced God because when he saw a bush burning he stopped long enough to see that miraculously it wasn’t burning up. Most of us would have seen it and as long as it didn’t pose a danger we would have kept walking. There is wonder all around us if we stop long enough to see it.

Wishing you at least a few moments of wonder in the coming months. Best, Bill Rudolph

Oh Rockies

More, as promised, on the Rockies bike ride. From your responses, I am indeed the last person to see Banff and Lake Louise and environs, and grateful to have finally had the opportunity. When I am riding, I keep my eyes on the road, hoping to avoid potholes and other obstacles as well as driver irregularities. I don’t look at the scenery very much as a result. So it was awesome on the last day, not even a week ago,  when we basically retraced our route from Jasper back to Banff. It was 182 miles, though we biked more than 250 in the end. I wasn’t driving the van and had hours to observe the mountains and glaciers and snow caps.

The predominant feeling I had was of my littleness. It’s true I am not very tall, but even Manute Bol is little compared to these massive stone mountains. I felt like a spec on the landscape besides being a spec in the world population (most of who seem to be here as I noted.). It is actually a very religious feeling. Think about the great cathedrals. I have been to one of them, St. Patrick’s, with our Confirmation classes, and when you sit in the pews and look up you feel so little. I think that is purposeful, to remind us of the words of the Psalmist, “what is man that Thou (God) are mindful of him?”

So what is the value of feeling little? Isn’t religion supposed to build us up, as in “little lower than the angels,” not make us feel small? I think this feeling keeps us humble, and humility as you may know is one of my favorite values. We ARE but a spec. AND what our spec accomplishes in life is mostly a matter of luck – where we are born and to whom, where we grow up, what career path falls into place, etc. We should spend a lot of time contemplating all of this: not thinking we deserve everything we have or are ultimately important to the human endeavor, having the perspective and gratitude that we should have for what we have. Awesome mountains and great cathedrals are wonderful teachers.

So, should we tear down Beth El and build something more cathedral like? Temple Emanuel in NYC was built precisely to prove that Jews could have cathedrals too. It sleeps 2500 and is quite impressive. It would make good sense to go there occasionally for the feelings it produces, and save our $$ for other ways of building our future. Or just go to the Rockies. Not only to remember our littleness, but to see God’s handiwork in full measure.

Ponder all this, and have a good Shabbat and weekend. Where did the summer go?
Best, Bill Rudolph

Oh, Canada

Shalom. Writing from Jasper Canada, where I am completing my bike ride provided as a retirement gift from Beth El. I got to choose the ride, they/you provided the scholarship which is one of the nicest gifts I have received. There is so much to say – just chapter headings for now.

The Canadian Rockies, so indescribably beautiful, my first time seeing them. The retreating glaciers, not critical to world well being but almost certainly the “canary” in the environmental coal mine. The biking, lots of hills, I didn’t shame you. The 15 riders, including an NFL tight end now an orthopedic surgeon, an exec with the largest can manufacturer in the world (you should see his bike!), an OB-GYN, some teachers and corporate trainers, an equities analyst. The weather, 40 degrees when we start off in the morning; I am wearing three bike jackets most of the day. I understand it’s been otherwise back home. The rains, everyday but one, evenings spent drying things. The tourists, mostly from Asia, so many that I think if you called there nobody would answer. Canada, second largest country in the world from a physical standpoint but with fewer people than California, which means a lot of undeveloped space which Canadians in their RV’s seem intent on exploring. The RV’s are nice till they are passing two feet away going 90 kph.

I look forward to returning to blog production after a nice break, including more on some topics above as well as summer reading commentary. You hear enough about the election, so I will endeavor to spare you my wisdom on that.

Wishing you all a good Shabbat and nice weekend. Best to you from the very nice Jasper Park Lodge.  Bill Rudolph

Films and Creation

Enough of my retirement activity. There is plenty of news in the world, a lot of it not good, but if I waited for a week of good news to not talk about the news we might be waiting a long time. So let’s talk about films. Actually I wanted to boast about Broadway shows, since Gail and I saw but two this past year – one was Hamilton and one was The Humans – and they won the Tony’s for, respectively, best musical and best play of the year. But I do want to talk about my favorite films, which turn out to be almost always of the same genre and from which we may learn some theology.

In the last few weeks, with retirement freezing up some time, Gail and I watched two excellent films On Demand – “East Side Sushi” and “Spare Parts.” Each pictures people with very little likelihood of success in life who figure out how to succeed. Then I watched (for the nth time) “Rudy” with my grandson; it’s about a young man with minimal natural gifts who leaves the steel mill where all his relatives work to try to realize two impossible dreams, not only to be admitted to Notre Dame but to play football for the Irish. “Cool Runnings.” “Mighty Ducks.” “Hoosiers.” All are tear producing dramas about human achievement against all odds.

I am not sure why I love this movie genre but here are some thoughts that actually go in two opposite directions. One possibility is that these movies take us out of the real world for a little while. They enable us to take shelter in the world of fantasy where there is always a happy ending, where good people finish first not last, where nobody is stuck with their limitations, where impossible dreams become possible. But Jews are realists, what choice do we have, so that doesn’t work so well.

The other possibility is more Jewish, along the lines of “im tirtzu ein zo aggadah” – “if you really want it, it doesn’t have to be just a dream.” We were created in such a great way: with so much potential and with the free will that enables us to choose how much of that potential we want to realize and with role models to teach us the range of what is possible. So, when Rudy suits up and leads his team onto the field for the last game of the season we are not shocked because we know there is some Rudy in us too, and when his All American teammates basically refuse to play unless he is allowed suit up we are not shocked because we know that altruistic behavior is part of our DNA and we are most human when we let it come forth. So, for me, not being bound by what can bind us is so very possible, and seeing it on the big screen just reaffirms my sense of wonder at the creation.

Why do you love this kind of film – assuming you do? Write back if you wish. Do take note: I am about to take a few weeks of vacation so don’t sit by your Inbox waiting for the next blog anytime soon. Thanks for reading and for understanding the need for a break. I hope you are getting one too. Shabbat Shalom and best regards, Bill Rudolph

More on Item Six

Shalom.  Last time I reported on item four on my retirement list of things to do, which is tending to my little shul in Warrenton. This time it’s a project alluded to in item six, the creation of the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project. I only alluded to it because it didn’t have a name or much else at the time of that column.

I hang around with Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, who coincidentally grew up in Beth El. We brainstorm about little things, like the Jewish future. He is very creative. If you were looking for a path to help rebuild the American Jewish community, where would you look? We think it’s through strengthening the middle – look how much trouble we are in as we struggle to find common ground here in the United States and look at Great Britain after Brexit. Our Conservative movement is that middle. We thought that if we could engage young people and young families, the grass roots, in dynamic ways, with our “brand” of Judaism, we could do some good and maybe inspire other communities to follow suit.

Our first creation was the Ramah Day Camp, aimed at young families. With help from local Ramah families and leadership from the mother ship, Camp Ramah of New England, we launched a pilot program in the summer of 2014. One week, forty kids, at Ohr Kodesh. Last summer a four week program with 100 kids at a great retreat facility in Germantown. This summer (beginning Monday) a six week program with more than 160 kids registered, on the same site, which we are rapidly outgrowing. This is only the fourth Ramah day camp in the whole country, and like the others it offers a unique combination of camping and Conservative Jewish learning and living to young families in the area. One building block, about which more will be said in future columns.

Creation number two is the millennial engagement project. You may have heard that millennials present many challenges for organized religion (not just ours but that is our focus.) The millennial generation—young professionals between graduating college and starting a family—has thrived on the boundlessness that our technological revolution provides. Untethered to particular spaces and traditional affiliations, millennial Jews are increasingly opting out of things like synagogue membership. But when they have families will they join up with the community in the ways we are used to seeing? There is much concern about that. We know that they do seek substantive Jewish engagement that reminds them of their time spent in youth groups, camps, college Hillels, and other informal Jewish settings. Does that guarantee communal participation down the road? What to do with them now? One idea is to engage them now in non traditional ways and hope to build on that.

As Jacob and I were pondering all this, we met Rami Schwartzer, who directed the day camp last summer and was finishing rabbinic school with a special emphasis on an entrepreneurial rabbinate. He too had been thinking about millennials, is one himself, and wanted to try his hand at engaging them. And he is extraordinarily talented. So…we convinced Rami to follow his ordination by moving to our community and directing the camp as well as launching an effort to reach millennials living in lower Montgomery County. (Two half-time positions for now, with seasonable work load adjustments.) There are extensive millennial outreach efforts in the District – think Sixth & I, and Adas Israel, not much else. We looked at the growth of apartment and condo living in Bethesda Rockville and Silver Spring and saw fertile territory. Once camp is done in early August, Rami will begin to focus much of his time on engagement. His efforts will partly mirror those of Chabad, as he and his wife Adina ( a social worker and great person also) will have a welcoming home where millennials are invited for Shabbat and holiday dinners and study sessions and cultural events. Different from Chabad, Rami will also be “out there” in coffee shops and apartment buildings and public spaces, meeting millennials and building community and leadership cadres from the one to one contacts. This is not a quick fix for Jewish life in America – it’s much more about planting seeds. Rami has the skills and personality to make it work.

I will spare you all the efforts needed to create JMEP – first fundraising that includes twelve conservative shuls, Ramah, the Jewish Federation, United Synagogue and The Rabbinical Assembly as well as a number of philanthropists. We created a Maryland corporation, have a Board and By Laws and an EIN and bank accounts, and have about completed the paperwork to achieve 501(c)(3) status. I personally have been stretched in many new ways to help make this happen, and it’s been both fun and rewarding.

You will hear more as the project gets off the ground, and do feel free to ask me for more information about it or how you can support it. The millennial project, and the camp, represent an important effort to rebuild our movement and give new vitality at the center grass roots of American Jewry. I feel fortunate to do my little share to help make it happen. And there you have item six of how I am spending my (?well earned?) retirement.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

More on Item Four

I don’t know about you, but I need a break from all the news that’s fit to make sleep difficult – the latest being the Orlando massacre and the alligator baby. So let me beg your indulgence and share a little more upbeat reporting, this time about my first year as head rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation. You may recall that my very first It Used to be Wednesday included brief notes about what I am doing in my retirement. Here was item four of seven:

“Monthly visits to Warrenton VA.  In my search for a high holiday pulpit so I would be busy then and out of the hair of the current clergy, I found more than I was looking for. It’s a monthly gig in a small non denominational shul smack in the middle of the cities  you hear on traffic and snow closing reports – Manassas, Culpepper, Gainesville. Those are my people now also. I will share more.”

Here is some more. Last Shabbat/ Shavuot was my last weekend visit until September. I will be returning, G-d willing, having just agreed to a two year contract. Money not discussed, there isn’t much. Friday nights now include a brief Family Friendly service at 6PM, Shabbat dinner (sometimes catered, sometimes potluck, sometimes pizza) at 6:30, then some more prayers and Torah reading/discussion for those who remain. We had about 30 people this time. Saturday night we did FJC’s first Tikkun Leil Shavuot; 10 people studied with me from 8-11PM. Thirty and ten are not a ton of people, but if you extrapolate from Beth El with almost 20 times the number of member units, it’s not bad. And people seemed happy. So, I guess they decided I wasn’t making things worse and should continue.

How I got the job is the most fun part of the deal. I found out about the opening from our people in New York, well after FJC’s search had begun and three candidates had been interviewed. They sent a representative, a nice nephrologist, to watch me conduct services one Shabbat in May. Just so happened that it was the Bar Mitzvah of a great kid whose family is like little rabbis and it was a spectacular service which I managed not to spoil. The nephrologist and I chatted for a while, and a few days later I got the call to come for an interview. They wanted to see my resume also. Well, I hadn’t applied for a job in decades and didn’t have one. What I did have was the wonderful video that Debbie Brodsky made for my retirement tribute, and it was posted online. I told them just to watch it, that was the best I could do. It was enough. I conducted a Friday night service, enjoyed the first of what would be many nights in the local Holiday Inn, and taught the Shabbat morning Torah study and visited with some people. I came back home. Nothing happened, not a single word up or down for several weeks during which time I was in Israel with our congregational mission and pretty sure nothing would come of it. I came back to town ready to start looking again for a High Holiday pulpit. But a few days later I got a call to come back for a second interview, which went smoothly (you did train me well) and I got the job.

This congregation is so different from Beth El, not just in size but in flavor. People live 50 miles from downtown for reasons, so they generally beat to a different drummer. About 90% of the couples are intermarried. There are lots of civil servants who do the I-66 drive daily and won’t leave their homes once they get there (so we have no weekday programming.) Some doctors, a few lawyers. A religious school with 26 kids. Services and Torah study in the 200 year old Episcopal Church. I give them a lot of credit for what they have created – it would be much easier just to drive into Fairfax and let somebody else make a synagogue. And it’s been a great learning experience for me in so many ways – and here I thought I knew almost everything.

Next time I hope to report on one of my other retirement projects, alluded to in item six of the original list, the creation of the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project, Inc. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom and Happy Father’s Day. I for one never understood anything important about life until I became a Dad, and I bet the Mom’s know what I mean also. Best, Bill Rudolph

The American Dream: Israel Sequel

Shalom. Last time I shared a Post piece by Michael Gerson called “Who Stole the American Dream?” I won’t repeat the brilliant analysis of the origins of our stagnant economy and the hopelessness/sense of being cheated that it has created and that shows up in support especially for Trump and Sanders. I posited that we don’t need a revolution, just an evolution to educate and equip our citizens for the current realities of the world market. I concluded by saying that next time I will talk about Israel, which mirrors these challenges and needs its own evolution right now.

I love the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar (as in restaurant), and can often be seen on Woodmont Avenue sipping my chocolate hazelnut milkshake as I prepare for Shabbat, just like it says to do in the Talmud. Never once did it occur to me that my life might be in danger there. On Wednesday many lives were snuffed out by terrorists in a Tel Aviv mall, the carnage beginning at Max Brenner’s. The bios of the deceased add to the gloom.

But I digress, and back to the economics. Israel got its start very much as an agriculture based economy. I was part of it even, moving irrigation pipes for a summer on a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip. Soon the kibbutzim entered into low scale manufacturing as well, as they realized that agriculture would no longer serve as the economic engine of the young country. Then, over time, technology became more and more important. You all know the impact Israeli technology has had, not only in Israel but worldwide. If you don’t, think “Start Up Nation.” It was clear that the skills required for the tech world were far different than for agriculture, and slowly but surely the work force began making the transition to a new kind of economy. It wasn’t easy. Still isn’t. Poverty levels are much too high. Latest figures show that Israel maintains a poverty rate of 20.9 percent – nearly twice the OECD average of 11.3%. And Israel is among the countries with the highest income inequality, surpassed only by Chile, Mexico, the US and Turkey. The poverty is partly because the ultra Orthodox men don’t work and their families are poor, but partly because not everyone made the work transition successfully. America faces a similar problem, and it’s not clear that we are actually facing up to it. Rather, as in the campaign, we are denying it. Is our education system training kids to be successful in this century or the last? Though more technology shows up in the classroom, the orientation to find meaningful work in the world of technology doesn’t seem there yet.

Now, Israel needs a second evolution as the U.S. hopefully starts in earnest on the first one. The second is very different, it’s one of vision. Sure Israel lives in a terrible neighborhood, with security threats just about everywhere you might look and long term prospects no better and there is no real partner for peace. It’s logical then to hunker down and try to keep things from getting worse. But that is not an answer. Israel can’t be passive about its future. Israel needs to put out a vision of where it wants to be, in the region, down the road. What borders it can live with, land swaps it is willing to make, economic arrangements, security measures it thinks are needed and what recognition of its right to exist would look like. It is not enough, it is even dangerous, to hope that somebody else will provide the roadmap.

Be assured this is not original thinking. I see it more and more in the Israeli press, though hardly in government thinking. I hope it gathers momentum, just as I hope this country faces up to its need for an economic evolution.

Best to you for a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach. Bill Rudolph